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Lithuania’s Booksmugglers



After the Insurrection of 1863, the Russian government was greatly concerned about the Polish influence upon the Lithuanians. That influence had been demonstrated by the Lithuanian involvement in the insurrection. The Russians determined that the only way to prevent further problems was to "russify" the Lithuanian people. An important tool in accomplishing this goal was the suppression of the publication of materials in the Latin alphabet, requiring instead the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, which would eventually accustom Lithuanians to the Russian language.
This prohibition of the printing in the Lithuanian language, which had lasted for 40 years (from 1864 to 1904) was known as the Press Prohibition period. However, even though the purpose of this prohibition was to eliminate all forms of ethnic identity in the Lithuanian people, its effect was the opposite. The Press Prohibition gave birth to a national consciousness, which ultimately resulted in a patriotic and political movement for an independent Lithuanian nation.
The rise of the 'Knygnesiai' (Lithuania’s Booksmugglers)
When Lithuanian people could not publish materials in their own language in the Russian controlled area of Lithuania Proper, they began to do this in the German controlled area of Lithuania Minor (East Prussia) and to smuggle them across the border. While the book smuggling movement began in the religious community, where the use of prayer books printed in the Cyrillic alphabet was tantamount to a renunciation of the Christian faith, the great Book Smuggling Period ultimately involved other books, periodicals and newspapers which were patriotic and political in content. Ausra (The Dawn, 183 3-1886), Varpas (The Bell, 1889-1905), Apzvalga (The Review, 1890-96) and Tevynes Sargas (The Guardian of Homeland, 1896-1904) were important periodicals, printed in East Prussia, which merged the religious and political motives. Thus, the resistance to the prohibition raised a national consciousness and determination of purpose, laying the foundation for the independence movement. We can easily understand why this historical event is of utmost importance and a source of great pride to the Lithuanian nation.
Book smugglers themselves, at first motivated by religious conviction and later by national pride and adventure, were the great heroes of this endeavor. The smugglers risked their freedom and their lives, carrying the materials across the heavily guarded German-Russian border. The determination to continue the smuggling went on through the years of the prohibition as new generations joined the struggle.
At first, the Russian government was not very severe in their punishments of smugglers, even allowing legal and public protests and some publications in the Latin alphabet. The Russians attempted to gain acceptance of the Cyrillic among the Lithuanians by various methods, such as the free distribution of books in the Cyrillic. However, as the resistance grew stronger, the punishments grew harsher. Penalties for the crime of book smuggling included fines, imprisonment, exile to Siberia and banishment. The German-Russian border was organized into three lines of soldiers who were stationed across a few kilometres apart from guarded Lithuania. Anyone who did not stop at the border was ordered to be shot. Captured smugglers were sent to Siberia for three to five years and imprisoned locally for one to five years. In spite of this, the amount of materials smuggled into Lithuania increased steadily.
While accurate statistics are not available, estimates of the number of copies of printed materials annually smuggled into Lithuania during the last 10 years of the prohibition range from 30,000 to 40,000- which is double the amount of the previous 10 years. From 1891 to 1901, customs officials seized 173,259 books and periodicals. It is estimated that from 1891 to 1893, 38,000 pieces of Lithuanian literature were confiscated at the Prussian-Lithuanian border. In the two years from 1900 to 1902, the total number reached more than 56,000, which indicated that more materials were being printed abroad, and not that the confiscation methods had improved. Clearly, the task of stopping this traffic in book smuggling was becoming more and more problematic for the Russian government.
In the face of such continuing resistance and growing wide-spread availability of materials in the Lithuanian language, Russian officials gradually realized that their methods had the opposite effect that their policy intended. Thus, in 1897, Russia's Council of Ministers officially discussed the prohibition and concluded that it was a failure, which had resulted only in a new Lithuanian nationalism,  turning the public opinion against the Tsarist regime. Finally, in 1904, as a result of the Russian-Japanese War and the need to reconcile its minority populations, the Russian government cancelled the prohibition of Lithuanian press.
Profiles of the 'Knygnesiai'
While it is not known how many persons actually participated in or were punished for book smuggling, information about many of these heroes is available. Encyclopedia Lituanica includes articles on the following booksmugglers: Juozas Angrabaitis, Antanas Baltrusaitis, Jonas Balvocius, Jonas Berzanskis, Jurgis Bielinis, Pranciskus Butkevicius, Stanislovas Didziulis, Juozas Kaukas, Petras Matulaitis, Petras Mikolainis, Michael Oginski, Morta A. Raisukyte, Juozapas Rugis, Martynas Sidaravicius, Henrikas Sroka, Pranciskus Urbanavidus, Jonas Uzupis, Motiejus Valancius and Antanas Vytartas. It goes without saying that there were numerous other booksmugglers whose names will never be known to the history.
Motiejus Valancius, the Bishop of Samogitia from 1850 until 1875, was the first to undertake the printing of materials abroad and their illegal distribution. He enlisted a number of priests in his endeavor. In 1870-71, eleven of his collaborators were arrested and sentenced at the first trial of book smugglers. As a result, two 'ammateur' booksmugglers, S. Raciukas and S. Kulakauskis, and five priests, Antanas Brundza, Pranas Butkevicius, Kazimieras Eitutis, Motiejus Kaziliauskas and Vincas Norvaisa were sent to Siberia.
Jurgis Bielinis, known as the "king of the booksmugglers", organized a book-distributing centre in Garsviai, a village in Panevezys district for supplying publications to the Northern Lithuania.
Rev. Martynas Sidaravicius organized a centre in Sudargas, a village in Sakiai district. Juozas Angrabaitis, Juozas Antanavicius, Antanas Baltrusaitis, Domas Miklius and Seravinas Kuseliauskas assisted him in writing, printing and distributing.
Juozas Kancleris worked independently in the transportation and distribution of the suppressed publications in the Southern Lithuania.
The main centres in Samogitia were established by Rev. M. Jurgutis in Kretinga and by Liudas Vaineikis in Palanga. Vaineikis was arrested in 1900, jailed for two years and exiled to Siberia with 24 of his associates.


From an article in 'Genealogija' (Volume IV), 1994.Reprinted with permission.
Only extracts from the above-mentioned article had been reprinted