Home Human Rights Lithuanian Book Smugglers: Giving it all for Saving a Language

Lithuanian Book Smugglers: Giving it all for Saving a Language

It’s well-known that the first step to achieving power over a nation and its people is through gaining control of the narrative. This has been clearly illustrated throughout history. When the Polish-Lithuanian Insurrection of 1863 happened, the Russian Imperial government sought to dominate the Lithuanian population.

They began by abolishing their rights to freedom of belief. Their target was the Roman Catholic Church. The Russian regime’s ultimate goal was to uproot and alienate the Lithuanian people from their traditions. In 1864, the Governor-General of Lithuania, Mikhail Muravyov, prohibited the use of Latin Lithuanian language textbooks. Two years later, the Lithuanian press was banned.

Russia changes the Lithuanian language

Alexander Hilferding, a Russian scholar, suggested that the Lithuanian language, which uses a Latin alphabet, be converted to Russian Cyrillic. The Lithuanian press ban was an attempt to eradicate the language and promote loyalty to the Russian cause.

Almost immediately, individuals sprang up to spread Lithuanian writing. Since they couldn’t publish books, many people began printing them abroad and smuggling them back into their country.

Thus appeared the first of the knygnešiai (book-carriers) who, in a bid to save their language, risked their lives to transport books across the border. The risks were high, and crossing the Lithuanian border was arduous not to mention, extremely dangerous. Three cordons of Russian security forces positioned along the border forced the knygnešiai to be extremely watchful.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)
Book-carriers, in a bid to save their language, risked their lives to transport books across the border. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

When it was dark, smugglers pushed across the Šešupė River, which is a 185-mile-long river that flows through Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. They had to run 10 miles to a distribution center in the Lithuanian village of Pilviškiai. Initially, knygnešiai worked independently. They would carry books in sacks or covered wagons, delivering them to stations set up throughout Lithuania. The winter months, especially during snowstorms, were considered good for crossing over.

Heroes of the day

In the book The Forty Years of Darkness, by Juozas Vaišnorahe, he recounts how Lithuanians would hide books. Female smugglers used to dress as beggars and cover books in sacks of cheese, eggs, or bread. Captured book-carriers were banished to Siberia for 3 to 5 years or imprisoned locally for 1 to 5 years. Anyone crossing the border in violation of orders was shot on sight.

That’s when Bishop Motiejus Valančius, a historian and author of religious and secular works, organized the first large-scale attempt to smuggle books across the Lithuanian border. He was responsible for the printing of over 19,000 books in East Prussia. Following the lead of Valančius, individual knygnešiai soon became large smuggling societies.

They also called themselves cheery names like The Morning Star, Stimulus, Rebirth, The Sprout, The Truth, Compulsion, and The Ray of Light. They began importing books from as far away as the United States. Lithuanian-Americans assisted them in printing. These organizations distributed textbooks, yearbooks, science books, fiction, folklore, religious sermons, and other publications.

The Communists

This historical story immediately brings to mind the current situation in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is clearly following the example of the old Russian regime. This time, however, it’s on an unprecedented scale as its aim is to gain absolute world control. With military might, it takes away people’s basic right to freedom of belief. It forces its own narrative on the people by changing the language and textbooks to fit its ideology. Thus, it achieves the goal of mass control through brainwashing.

According to The Christian Press, the CCP is busy supervising a 5-year plan to make Christianity more compatible with socialism in which there will be a “rewrite” of the Bible. This is the suppression of the universal human right to have faith in God. Millions of people who follow the meditative practice called Falun Gong are being brutally persecuted to this day in China. The main reading text of the Falun Gong is a book called Zhuan Falun (which was incidentally a best seller in the early ’90s in China.) It was publicly burned, and afterward, banned and the followers persecuted.

The book smugglers of Lithuania were just like people of conscience in China today.  Just like them, they have never given up. They risk their lives every day to safeguard their freedom.  Hopefully, there will be light at the end of the tunnel as more people are supporting the right to human freedoms.

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  • Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.

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