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Lithuanians Smuggled Books In The 19th-Century to Save Their Language Wikimedia Commons/ Szymiel Bucher/ Public Domain
Szymiel Bucher / Public domain

In an effort to keep the Lithuanian language alive, dangerous measures were taken in the late 1860s.  Kyngnesiai, also known as Lithuanian book carriers undertook the task of moving books printed in Latin into parts of the Russian Empire. In doing so, the book smugglers directly ignored a ban in an effort to replace the Latin alphabet with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Russification Project

After the majority of Lithuania fell to the Tsarist Russian ruler, it didn’t take long for the “Russification Project” to begin. Lithuanian churches were closed and in Lithuanian schools, the students were forced to read books in Cyrillic as the Russian government was making intense efforts to change the Lithuanian population. The small population fought to keep the Lithuanian culture alive and began to smuggle the books. The act of smuggling books was not taken lightly. Obstacles such as soldiers at the border and Russian authorities on the other side of the border on horseback ensuring no one was had Lithuanian language books. The consequences of having Lithuanian books ranged from physical violence like whippings or being exiled to Siberia. Other times, book carriers were shot. The books, in turn, were burned.

In 1864, Mikhail Muravyov, Russian Governor-General of Lithuania prohibited the use of Lithuanian printers. Two years later there was a press ban on all books printed in Lithuania in the Latin alphabet. It was illegal to print, distribute, or obtain anything printed in the Latin alphabet. In a desperate retaliation, books were sent outside of the country and smuggled back in. Books were smuggled in wagons and sacks and delivered under the cover of night to Lithuanian homes. Women hid books in baskets of groceries, others stuffed newspapers inside clothing. Farmers, doctors, and others all hid books amongst their work materials.

Bishop Motiejus Valanci

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Bishop Motiejus Valanci set up in a printing press in Prussia In 1867. He helped smuggle religious books into Lithuania. Bishop Valancius smuggled over 19,000 almanacs, journals, and books. His operation was not without consequence. Some of the members of his book smuggling team were caught and sent to Siberia. When Motiejus Valancius died, the book smuggling mission was carried on by a young Jurgis Bielinis. He carried on the mission and became one of the most famous book smugglers. He created the Garsviai Knygnesiai society, the largest network of book smugglers. Jurgis Bielinis became known as the King of Knygnesiai in his 31 years of operation. He was also caught and imprisoned a handful of times.

Jurgis Bielinis’s dedication to protecting the Lithuanian language, culture, and books is celebrated long after his time as King of Knygnesiai ended. In 1928, a statue was raised in the capital of Kaunas to recognize Jurgis Bielinis as “The Unknown Book Smuggler”. Today, his birthday, March 16, is celebrated as “Knygnesio Diena”, the day of book smugglers.

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