Lithuanian book smugglers

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Motiejus Valančius, one of the main supporters of Lithuanian press during the ban
Jurgis Bielinis, one of the most famous book-smugglers

Book smugglers (Lithuanian: knygnešys, or plural knygnešiai) were people who transported Lithuanian language books printed in the Latin alphabet into Lithuanian-speaking areas of the Russian Empire, defying a ban on such materials in force from 1866 to 1904. Opposing imperial Russian authorities' efforts to replace the traditional Latin orthography with Cyrillic, and transporting printed matter from as far away as the United States to do so, the book smugglers became a symbol of Lithuanians' resistance to Russification.


After the Polish-Lithuanian insurrection of 1863, the Russian Imperial government intensified its efforts to Russify the Lithuanian population and alienate it from its historic roots, including the Roman Catholic faith, which had become widespread during the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

During the summer of 1863 Tsar Alexander II, issued Temporary Rules for State Junior Schools of the Northwestern Krai, ruling that only Russian-language education would be allowed there. In 1864, the Governor General of the Vilnius Governorate, Mikhail Muravyov, ordered that Lithuanian language primers were to be printed only in the Cyrillic alphabet. Muravyov's successor, Konstantin Kaufman, in 1865 banned all Lithuanian-language use of the Latin alphabet. In 1866, the Tsar issued an oral ban on the printing or importing of printed matter in Lithuanian. Although formally, the order had no legal force, it was executed de facto until 1904. During this time, there were approximately 55 printings of Lithuanian books in Cyrillic.

Most of the Latin-alphabet Lithuanian-language books and periodicals published at the time were printed in Lithuania Minor and then smuggled into Lithuania. When caught, the book smugglers were punished by fines, banishment, and exile, including deportation to Siberia. Some were simply shot in the head while crossing the border or executed on the spot.

In 1867, Motiejus Valančius, the Bishop of Žemaitija, began to covertly organize and finance this printing abroad and sponsored the distribution of Lithuanian-language books within Lithuania. In 1870, his organization was uncovered with the help of Prussian authorities, and five priests and two book smugglers were exiled to remote areas of Russia. Other book smugglers carried on his work.

List of confiscated Lithuanian books in 1896

During the final years of the ban, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 books were smuggled in annually. About one-third of them were seized by authorities. Lithuanian books reached every settlement in Lithuania, and many legal institutions served as undercover transfer points for the books. A number of secret organizations distributed the books throughout Lithuania, including Sietynas, Atgaja, Teisybė, Prievarta, Aušrinė, Atžala, Lizdas, Akstinas, Spindulys, Svirplys, Žiburėlis, Žvaigždė, and Kūdikis.

The ban's lack of success was recognized by the end of the 19th century, and in 1904, under the official pretext that the minorities within the Russian Empire needed to be pacified after the Russo-Japanese War, the ban on Lithuanian-language publications was lifted.

In 1905, soon after the ban was lifted, one of the book smugglers, Juozas Masiulis, opened his own bookstore in Panevėžys. This bookstore is still operational, and a chain of bookstores operates in Lithuania under his name.[1]

This historical episode was widely suppressed during the years when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, book smugglers were honored in Lithuania with museums, monuments, and street names. A statue dedicated to "The Unknown Book Smuggler" stands in Kaunas.

The book smugglers were an important part of the Lithuanian National Revival. Book smuggler Jurgis Bielinis, who created a secret distribution network for banned Lithuanian books, was born on 16 March 1846, a date commemorated in Lithuania as the Day of the Book Smugglers (Knygnešio diena).

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  1. ^ Čiplytės, Joana Vigos (2005) Juozas Masiulis: knygnešys ir knygininkas Žara, Vilnius, ISBN 9986-34-140-X (in Lithuanian)
  • Ruseckas, Petras (1992–1997) Knygnešys : 1864-1904 (Book-smuggler: 1864-1904) (3 vols.) Valstybinis leidybos centras, Vilnius, ISBN 9986-810-06-X (Volumes 1 & 2, reprint, originally published: Spaudos fondas, Kaunas, 1926–1928) (in Lithuanian);
  • Merkys, Vytautas (1994) Knygnešių laikai: 1864-1904 (The era of the book-smugglers: 1864-1904) Valstybinis leidybos centras, Vilnius, ISBN 9986-09-018-0 (in Lithuanian);
  • Merkys, Vytautas (1994) Draudžiamosios lietuviškos spaudos kelias: 1864-1904: informacinė knyga (The path of the banned Lithuanian press: 1864-1904: An information book) Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidykla, Vilnius, ISBN 5-420-01181-6 (in Lithuanian);
  • Kaluškevičius, Benjaminas and Žemaitytė-Narkevičienė, Ona (1998) Šimtas knygnešių: knygnešių sienelės vardai Lietuvos kultūros fondas, Lietuvos Knygnešio draugija, Vilnius, ISBN 9986-9175-0-6 (in Lithuanian);

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