There was a dangerous and scary job to do in 19th century Lithuania. The first obstacle was a dense line of soldiers banded along the border. Then came a second line spread a little more thin. Lastly, in town, were Russian Empire policemen on horseback riding around and questioning civilians.
What sort of scandalous contraband were daring smugglers risking their lives to carry across the border?
If they were caught, they could be whipped or shipped to Siberia. If they resisted too vigorously, shot on the spot. Unsurprisingly, their books were burned.
The situation was this: After the majority of Lithuania fell under Tsarist Russian control in 1795, the Russians tried to force assimilation on the Lithuanian people. In their Russification project, they demolished Catholic churches and shrines. They closed schools. Russian scholars proposed that the Lithuanian language—which is written with Latin letters—be translated into Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet. Lithuanian children were forced to read the Cyrillic alphabet in school.
Lithuanians rebelled in violent uprisings in 1831 and 1863, but the tiny population—1 million—was no match for Russian military might. As a consequence, the Russians cracked down harder than before.
In 1864, the Russian-appointed Governor-General of Lithuania, Mikhail Muravyov, issued a proclamation prohibiting the use of Lithuanian Latin primers. That was followed two years later by a total ban on all books printed in Lithuania. The press was forbidden. It was illegal to print, import, distribute, or possess any publications in the Latin alphabet.
Though they were oppressed, the Lithuanian intelligentsia was not quashed. They began printing books outside the country—which wasn’t illegal—and smuggling them in, which was dangerous.
Knygnesiai, or book carriers, would conceal their illegal wares in sacks or covered wagons, and deliver the goods at night to safe houses across Lithuania. By the late 19th century, all walks of life participated in book smuggling. Women would dress in peasant clothes and hide books in market baskets of bread, cheese, or eggs. Some dressed up as fat workmen, stuffing newspapers inside their clothing. Doctors hid books in their medical kits, farmers in their crops, organists in their instrument cases.
In 1867, Bishop Motiejus Valančius helped get a printing press set up in neighboring Prussia, and asked his priests to smuggle religious texts back to Lithuania. He made every effort to undermine the Russification project. Later, in a bid to preserve Lithuanian culture, Valančius printed up and distributed journals and almanacs. It is estimated that he was responsible for printing more than 19,000 books.
But his resistance came with a cost. At least 11 of his smugglers were caught; many were banished to Siberia.
Valancius died in 1875, but his book-carrying operations carried on after him thanks to a young friend who was a recent university graduate, a newspaperman, and an ardent nationalist.
Jurgis Bielinis assembled the largest network of book carriers, called the Garsviai knygnešiai society, who pooled their money to buy and distribute books. Bielinis came to be known as the “King of Knygnešiai,” and is said to be responsible for delivering half of Lithuania’s books during the 31 years he operated. The Russian Empire caught and imprisoned Bielinis at least five times.
Some historians estimate the number of books smuggled in to total in the millions before the ban was lifted in 1904. Lithuania declared independence in 1918, though it would take until 1991 for the Soviet Union to recognize the country.
In 1928, a statue was erected in the then-capital of Kaunas to commemorate “The Unknown Book Smuggler.” Today in Lithuania, March 16, the birthday of Jurgis Bielinis, is celebrated as Knygnešio diena—the day of the book smugglers.
In 2004, Jonas Stepšis wrote of his father’s and other Lithuanian countrymen’s heroic book-smuggling efforts in the English-language Lithuanian paper Draugas News. He cites the smuggling as a reason why Lithuania was able to regain independence.
According to Stepšis: “The struggles of the book-carriers have been praised in modern times by Father Julijonas Kasperavicius who said ‘The work of restoring Lithuania’s independence began, not in 1918, but rather at the time of the book-carriers.
With bundles of books and pamphlets on their backs, these warriors were the first to start preparing the ground for independence, the first to propagate the idea that it was imperative to throw off the yoke of Russian oppression.’ ”
(E.L. Hamiltonhas written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City)
World War II devastated families and separated countless lovers. In some cases, the ones who lost their loved ones hurried to avenge them. Mariya Oktyabrskaya was one such person. As news of her husband having died on the Eastern Front reached her, she decided to sell everything she owned and invest in the production of a T-34 tank. Then she went a step further and applied for training to receive her tank driving license. The following step was vengeance like no other.
But let’s get back to the beginning. Mariya Oktyabrskaya was born on the Crimean Peninsula to a poor Ukrainian family which nurtured 10 children. Before the war, she worked in a cannery and was at one point a telephone operator.
She met her husband, the future Red Army officer, in 1925. The two married that same year. Mariya became very interested in her husband’s line of work and joined the Military Wives Council and acquired training as an army nurse. Soon after, she learned how to use weapons and drive, which was very uncommon for women at the time.
When asked about her unusual interest, she reportedly replied: “Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: an officer’s wife is not only a proud woman but also responsible title.”
As the war closed in on the Soviet Union in 1941, she was evacuated to Siberia, where she spent the next two years. It took a long time for the news of her husband’s death to reach her, but as soon as she got the letter, she knew what to do. Oktaybrskaya was so enraged by the death of her beloved husband that she wrote a letter to Stalin directly:
“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings–50,000 rubles–to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the front line as a driver of the said tank.”
Stalin felt he had no choice but to accept. The State Defense Committee advised him that the move could have a positive effect as a morale booster on both the desperate population and the troops. It wasn’t uncommon for citizens to donate money for war production in the Soviet Union, but usually, those making the donations were men.
Nevertheless, in dire times every bit of help is welcome, and so Mariya received five months of training in order to master the skills of operating the T-34.
This too was uncommon―during the Great Patriotic War, as WWII was dubbed in the U.S.S.R., tank crews received shorter training, as they were needed almost immediately on the front. In Stalingrad, tanks would enter combat unpainted.
The five-month training was also part of the propaganda effort―the Soviet government didn’t just want to send Oktyabrskaya to battle. They wanted to make sure that she would be effective.
After training, the 38-year-old Oktobrskaya got transferred to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade in September 1943 and soon participated in the Second Battle of Smolensk. Even though other tank crews looked at her as some publicity stunt, she got the chance to prove them wrong.
During her first battle, Oktobskaya showed some extraordinary maneuvering skills and assisted in neutralizing machine gun nests and artillery positions, while under heavy fire. Her tank, “The Fighting Girlfriend,” pushed through enemy lines, but was badly damaged.
Under intense fire, she rushed out of the turret to repair her tank. Her fellow crewmen provided covering fire while she fixed the tank and jumped back in. Everyone in the unit was amazed, and she was promoted to the rank of Sargent.
A similar situation happened a month later, when “The Fighting Girlfriend” was raining fire around the town of Novoye Selo in the region of Vitebsk. Her track was hit and the tank was immobilized. Sargent Oktobrskaya rushed out and, with the help of another crew-member, managed to put the T-34 back in running condition.
But just two months later, her courageous tactic would prove to be the last. As the tank once again suffered damage after destroying entrenched positions and an enemy self-propelled gun, Oktobrskaya tried to pull the trick once again. She managed to fix the damaged track but was hit in the head by shell fragments and lost consciousness during her return.
Mariya Oktobrskaya was transferred to a military field hospital near Kiev, where she spent two months in a coma before passing away on March 15, 1944.
Her actions did not go unrewarded, nor were they in vain. She was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously, as her bravery inspired thousands of women to join the fight and make their contributions.
There is no international ban on the trade but Chinese officials said the haul was not declared.
Millions of mammoths
The stockpile is part of a booming trade between Russia and China in ivory taken from the skeletons of mammoths found in the Siberian tundra. The effects of global warming in the Arctic has made it easier to collect tusks preserved in ice for thousands of years, researchers say.
More than 100 woolly mammoth tusks were seized at the port of Luobei in Heilongjiang province, in addition to 37 woolly rhino horn parts and more than a tonne of jade. They were hidden in concealed compartments in a truck, according to reports.
The truck driver is alleged to have claimed he was only carrying soybeans, and to have fled the scene when the truck was inspected.
There are estimated to be around 10 million mammoths that “remain incarcerated within the permafrost of the Arctic tundra”, according to Douglas MacMillan, a professor of conservation and applied resource economics at the University of Kent.
Some mammoth experts have suggested that the trade in mammoth ivory should be banned, even though the animals are extinct. They argue that their tusks are often sold as elephant tusks, and thus encourage overall demand for ivory.
It is estimated that more than 50% of the ivory sold into China, which has has the biggest ivory market in the world, is mammoth ivory. Hong Kong is a major destination, and the ivory is used to make jewellery and other objects, including ornamental tusks.
To say that Fabergé eggs are among Easter’s most elegant decorations doesn’t come close to describing their historical and artistic significance. These gem-encrusted items represent so much more than other forms of decorative art.
The story of these pieces, decorative art at its finest, goes back to the 19th century, inextricably linked to Imperial Russia and the Russian royal family. It is a story about power, glory, luxury, prestige, revolution, tragedy, and, above all, exceptional craftsmanship. Here is how it all began.
Easter of 1885 was a day of great significance for the Russian royal family because it marked the twentieth anniversary of Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna’s engagement. A special occasion like that deserved to be marked in a special way and that is exactly what Tsar Alexander III had in mind when he placed an order for an egg from Fabergé as an Easter present for his wife. At first, the gift seemed to be just a simply decorated piece, but it had a hidden surprise. Inside was a golden yolk. And inside the yolk was a plump golden hen. And inside the hen, there was a diamond-set crown and a tiny ruby pendant.
Maria Feodorovna liked the gift so much that the Tsar decided to turn this into a yearly tradition, which was apparently taken quite seriously by the royal family in the following years. The Tsar’s successor, Nicholas II, followed the tradition, presenting eggs to both his mother, Maria Feodorovna, and his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, every year.
Around 50 Easter eggs were made for the imperial family between 1885 and 1917, but only 42 have survived. Each of the eggs is unique in its own way, having an original design and containing a different hidden surprise. One of these Imperial Easter Eggs is the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg, also known as the Madonna Lily Egg.
Presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife for Easter 1899, the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg is among the largest of all Fabergé eggs ever produced.
Workmaster Michael Perkhin, who worked on this particular egg under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé himself, was clearly inspired by the design of French Louis XVI-era clocks, but what makes his creation unique is that he cleverly used the egg as a face of the clock.
In the creation of this egg, Perkhin apparently made a good use of the symbolic language of flowers. He combined roses (symbols of romance, love, beauty, and perfection) and white lilies (symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity and innocence) with burning torches that ultimately emphasize the significance of family love.
Two eggs planned for gifts in Easter 1917 were never delivered because of the Russian Revolution, and the royal family being overthrown. Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children were all killed.
Today, the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg, along with nine more Fabergé eggs, resides in the Kremlin Armoury Museum in Moscow, one of the oldest museums in Russia. Many of the other Imperial Easter Eggs can be seen in different museums across Russia and some are housed in museums in the United States.
Nine of them are owned by Viktor Vekselberg, an oil and gas tycoon who bought the eggs for around $100 million in 2004. His collection can be seen at the Fabergé Museum, located in the Shuvalov Palace in St. Petersburg.
Image copyright ALEKSEY SUHANOVSKYImage caption Marina Titova lays a carnation in memory of her great-great-uncle who died on Mudyug
When British soldiers were sent to Russia after the Russian Revolution their main enemies were the Germans – their opponents in World War One – but they also found themselves fighting and imprisoning Bolsheviks. In the process they opened what Russians regard as…
When British soldiers were sent to Russia after the Russian Revolution their main enemies were the Germans – their opponents in World War One – but they also found themselves fighting and imprisoning Bolsheviks. In the process they opened what Russians regard as the first concentration camp in their country.
The boat sails down the River Dvina past onion-domed churches, lumber yards and logs floating in the water. Finally it reaches the open sea and an hour later a brown smudge appears on the horizon.
Getting closer, I can make out a lighthouse and a few radio towers. As my companions and I jump off the boat and walk along a deserted beach a pack of dogs surrounds us, barking furiously. They are not used to visitors. The only people who live on this remote spot today are border guards and a couple of meteorologists.
Back in the Soviet era, boatloads of day trippers came to the island of Mudyug to visit a museum. It was located among the remains of a prison camp – one very different from the scores of old Gulag outposts scattered across the Russian north and Siberia. For one thing, it was set up as far back as 1918. Even more remarkably, the people in charge were were British and French.
My colleague Natalia Golysheva, who grew up in the regional capital, Arkhangelsk – Archangel as it used to be known in English – says the place had a fearsome reputation. Locals called it Death Island.
“When I was little, people said if you don’t behave, the Whites will come and take you to Mudyug,” she says. “I didn’t understand but when I tried to ask questions – ‘What is Mudyug? Who are the Whites?’ – my grandmother just said shush and turned her face away, meaning the conversation was over.”
The Whites were the anti-Bolshevik forces that emerged after the October Revolution in 1917. They got the name from the cream-coloured uniforms worn by higher ranks in the Tsarist army. Some were reactionary military officers who wanted to bring back the monarchy, others were moderate socialists, reformers, tradesmen, fishermen or peasants.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in the autumn of 1917, Russia was still fighting in World War One, allied with Britain, France and the US against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and their Ottoman allies.
However, Lenin had come to power promising supporters not only bread to eat and a share of the aristocrats’ land, but also peace. When he signed a peace treaty with Germany, Western governments acted rapidly to re-open this eastern front.
Within months, tens of thousands of soldiers from Britain, the United States, France, Canada, Australia and other countries were ordered to Russia in what became known as the Allied Intervention. Some went to the south and far east of Russia and 14,000 troops under British command were sent to Arkhangelsk, near the Arctic Circle. The men were told their mission was to protect military stores and stop Germany from establishing a submarine base.
But the foreign troops also took the side of the Whites in Russia’s nascent Civil War. Some European politicians, such as Winston Churchill, worried about Communism spreading across Europe.
Soon after the Allies docked in Arkhangelsk on 2 August 1918, they began locking people up. “They didn’t know who to trust or the difference between the Reds and Whites – so they decided to incarcerate anyone who seemed suspect,” says Liudmila Novikova, a Moscow-based historian who has become an expert on the post-revolutionary period in the Russian north.
Since the main prison in the town was overcrowded, potential troublemakers were shipped to the island of Mudyug, 70km (45 miles) away. The first batch of inmates had to build their own prison camp in this desolate, windswept place.
We walk along the beach past a rickety watchtower before taking a path through a pine forest. It leads to some wooden barracks with rusty barbed wire on the windows.
The door opens with a creak and we are inside a long dormitory with hundreds of beds, divided by panels of wood. Each seems as narrow as a coffin.
Marina Titova, a young museum guide from Arkhangelsk who has joined us on the trip, sits on one of the beds, lost in thought.
Her great-great-uncle Fyodor Oparin, a roofer, had been at the front fighting the Germans in World War One. He was only briefly reunited with his wife and small daughter before he was arrested and sent to Mudyug, accused of recruiting the men in his village into the Red Army.
With few washing facilities and no change of clothes, inmates soon became infested with lice. Typhus spread like wildfire. Overall, about 1,000 people were imprisoned here and up to 300 died – either as a result of disease, or because they were shot or tortured to death.
When we visit it is a muggy summer afternoon and the air is thick with midges. I dread to think what it would be like here during an Arctic winter when temperatures can reach -30C (-22F). Signs from the now abandoned museum point out the “ice cells”, left open to the elements, where rebellious prisoners were punished and either perished or lost limbs to frostbite.
Pavel Rasskazov, a radical journalist, spent several months on Mudyug. In his Prison Memoirs, which became a well-known and much-studied text in the Soviet era, he documented the appalling conditions and the lack of food.
He describes how, when dried bread was distributed in the morning, “starving, angry men with greedy eyes crawled all over the filthy, damp floor, full of spit, picking up each and every crumb”.
Rasskazov managed to survive this place, unlike Marina’s relative, Fyodor Oparin. According to one account, he tried to escape but was too weak to move fast and was shot as he ran. In another version of events, he was caught and executed the following day, along with 13 other prisoners.
Under some fir trees Marina has found a commemorative plaque to the men killed trying to escape. As she places two red carnations on the crumbling stone, a cloud of mist swirls through the trees and a soft rain falls.
“Perhaps it was just a coincidence,” she says later. “But it seemed like a greeting from the past, and maybe those prisoners who suffered here, who tried to survive, could see that they were being remembered.”
In Soviet times these men were remembered more often. On a small hill by the camp, there is a 25m-high obelisk adorned with a red star and hammer and sickle. Some chunks of granite have fallen off but you can still read the inscription which says it was built “in honour of patriots tortured to death by the Interventionists”.
“This monument could be seen by all the ships sailing past,” says historian Liudmila Novikova. “Foreign sailors who came to Arkhangelsk were often taken to Mudyug to remind them of all the atrocities their fellow countrymen and governments committed here.”
Schoolchildren and factory workers also came on visits.
Near the monument, we find a run-down hall with dusty glass cases, peeling red posters on the walls and photographs of the “martyrs who gave their lives for the Revolution” or died here on the island, which is described in the inscriptions as a concentration camp.
There are pictures of Gen Edmund Ironside, the British commander of all the Allied troops in the region. Novikova says he would have known what was happening on the island even if he never visited.
This is confirmed by an entry in the leather-bound notebooks he kept in Russia, now in the possession of his 93-year-old son.
“Scurvy seems to be beginning among the Russian prisoners on Mudyug Island… and as it is a difficult place to get to, rations have been pinched,” the general writes.
If the British established the camp and some of those in charge were French, many guards seem to have been local men. “We cannot have a scandalous camp,” he writes. “I am responsible that the Russians treat their people well. I am always after them over the state of the prison.”
But Novikova says improving conditions on Mudyug was hardly a priority for Ironside. “For him it was just a necessary security measure, and after all people were fighting and dying every day on all the fronts. So if prisoners in the rear were dying from bad conditions, that was just a drop in the ocean of suffering here.”
The treatment of prisoners on Mudyug horrified one man who would later play a devastating role in northern Russia. A prominent Bolshevik close to Lenin, Mikhail Kedrov, was sent to Arkhangelsk after the October revolution and later became became a fanatical regional head of the Cheka – the secret police.
Alexander Orlov, a fellow Chekist who later defected to Canada, recalls Kedrov as a tall handsome man with ragged black hair. He writes that his eyes were often “gleaming like burning coal… possibly these were the sparks of madness”.
While the Red Terror was not mentioned in the USSR for decades, the crimes of the White forces were endlessly listed in official propaganda. Atrocities were committed on both sides, says historian Liudmila Novikova, but the scale was different.
“The Whites and Allies who supported them were mainly pragmatic. They wanted to kill those who undermined their effort, troops who rebelled or members of the Bolshevik underground – they didn’t care about eliminating their enemies totally. It was quite different on Red side because they were waging a war against the old regime – the bourgeoisie, Tsarist officers and whole classes were perceived as enemies who had to be liquidated,” she says.
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Mikhail Kedrov set up a number of death camps in the North, including the first one of its kind, in Kholmogory, an hour’s drive from Arkhangelsk.
Somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 people were imprisoned and killed at a 17th Century convent. Many were White Army officers and sailors from the Kronstadt naval fortress near Finland who had rebelled against the Bolsheviks. But others had nothing to do with the military. Some were clergy, some were ordinary people who for some reason had been labelled “counter-revolutionaries”.
At Kholmogory, where much of the convent is now held up by scaffolding and wrapped in corrugated iron, I met Elena, a parishioner who sings in the convent choir. She says people in the area sometimes find skulls when they dig pits to store potatoes over the winter.
Elena says the priest and volunteers collected some human remains in sacks and buried them under a marble cross on one side of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. Each year they sing a requiem for those who died.
It’s hard to pinpoint but there is an oppressive atmosphere which clings to this place, like the cold to the refectory walls when Elena invites us inside for a cup of tea.
Locals use the path through the garden as a shortcut across the town but Elena says few know – or care – about Kholmogory’s terrible history.
Does she believe the Allied Intervention was the catalyst for Russia’s devastating civil war, as Lenin and others have often claimed?
“I remember in my childhood hearing stories from my granny,” she says. “I was a Young Pioneer and I told her the Reds were good and the Whites were bad and the Intervention troops were bad. And my granny said ‘What are you talking about? The English came to our village, they brought us white flour, they gave the children sweets.’ And I said: ‘Granny – that is impossible they are our enemies!'”
Elena shakes her head. “They were not our enemies and to say they were responsible for the civil war is wrong. Of course not! We had enough of our own scoundrels without the intervention troops.”
By Lucy Ash BBC News, Arkhangels From the section Magazine