Book smugglers

From 1864 to 1904, a vast underground network smuggled illegal books into Russian-controlled Lithuania.

Boleslovas Savsenavičius / Bolesław Sawsienowicz / Public domain

Lithuania became a part of the Russian Empire when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was absorbed in 1768. But it never forgot its roots, and after a failed uprising in 1864 Russia began a campaign to eradicate Polish and Lithuanian traditions and culture: church and political structures were demolished and reconstructed, thousands of people were exiled to Siberia, and all books and writing had to be in the Cyrillic script instead of the Latin alphabet.

That last one – striking at a language and literary tradition – is a common means of cultural suppression. (See, for example, colonial attempts to eradicate native languages.) In Lithuania, they fought back by establishing an underground smuggling network. Books written in Lithuanian and using Latin letters were printed in neighbouring Prussia and then moved over the border by a network of priests and smugglers.

Dozens of secret societies organised these clandestine operations. The Garšviai Book Smuggling Society, for example, ran for more than a decade until it was shut down by the police. Smuggling had high stakes: if you were caught you might be arrested, deported, or executed. But they continued, even distributing underground newspapers like Aušra (“Dawn”) and Varpas (“The Bell”).

The ban was finally lifted in 1904, and the book smugglers became a symbol of Lithuanian identity and independence. A poem published to commemorate the newspaper Varpas became the Lithuanian national anthem; museums and monuments mark their efforts; the birthday of one of the founders of the Garšviai Book Smuggling Society (Jurgis Bielinis) is still celebrated in Lithuania today.

[Thanks to David S. for suggesting this topic.]

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