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Knygnešys / Booksmuggler


KNYGNEŠYS (pl. knygnešiai), a name given to a book-carrier (knyga = book, nešti – to carry) who smuggled books and newspapers across the border during the years (1864-1904) of the Russian ban on Lithuanian publications. This forty-year period, unique in world history for its character and significance, was marked by a heroic struggle for human rights and liberties. The book-carriers or book-smugglers frequently lost their freedom or their lives. This article reviews their activities in distributing Lithuanian literature, while a separate article (Press Ban) deals with the background, purpose, and consequences of the Russian prohibition on Lithuanian publications printed in Latin characters.
Printed in East Prussia or, less frequently, in the United States, the prohibited publications were smuggled across the heavily guarded Russian-German border into Lithuania. Three cordons of soldiers were provided by the Russian administration to patrol the border areas. In the first line, stationed right along the border, the soldiers were filed so densely that they could see each 'other. Two kilometers away from the border a second line was made up of men posted at greater intervals. The third line, 5-7 km from the border, consisted of gendarmes on horseback who patrolled farms and villages. Informants were recruited to report any activity along the border as well as any suspicious-looking persons. These security measures were directed against contraband in general, including the illegal publications. Captured book-carriers were deported to Siberia for 3-5 years or imprisoned locally for 1-5 years. Anyone crossing the border in violation of orders to stop was immediately shot. Not only were distributors of smuggled books punished, but even those caught with a single copy in their possession. The confiscated literature was destroyed.
The initial stimulus for engaging in this dangerous activity was religious in nature, i.e., the desire to possess and use Lithuanian prayerbooks in the usual Latin alphabet. Catholics rejected prayerbooks printed in Cyrillic characters and regarded use of such literature as a renunciation of their faith. During 1866-82, mostly prayer-books and other religious booklets were brought into the country. Later, with the rise of national consciousness, the desire for education in tone's native language and the wish for national independence merged with the religious motives. Consequently periodicals directed towards this purpose were printed in East Prussia; these included Aušra (The Dawn, 1883-86), Varpas (The Bell, 1889-1905), Apžvalga (The Review, 1890-96), Tėvynės Sargas (Guardian of the Fatherland, 1896-1904). The greatest number of newspapers and books was distributed in the border districts ol southern and western Lithuania.
Motiejus Valancius, Bishop of Samogitia (1850-75), was the first to undertake the printing of Lithuanian publications abroad and their secret distribution, enlisting a great many priests in this activity. In 1870-71 eleven of his collaborators were arrested and tried. This first trial of book-smugglers resulted in exile to Siberia for two laymen (S. Raciukas, S. Kulakauskis) and five priests (Antanas Brundza, Pranas Butkevičius, Kazimieras Eitutis, Motiejus Kaziliauskas and Vincas Norvaiša). Antanas Brundza, who had been betrayed by the Germans, died in Arkhangelsk, near the White Sea. However, these repressive measures imposed by the Russians did not deter the book-smugglers. Jurgis Bielinis, known as "the king of the book-smugglers," who had served as Bishop Valancius' contact with East Prussia, organized a book-distributing center in Gargviai, county of Panevėžys, to supply publications to northern Lithuania and the Lithuanians living in Latvia. Another Important center was organized by Rev. Martynas Sidaravičius in Sudargas, county of Šakiai. His rectory was located at the Russian-German border, across which was Tilžė (Germ. Tilsit) and the printing shop of Otto von Mauderode where most of the Lithuanian books and newspapers were printed. Sidaravičius concerned himself with writing, printing, and distribution of books. He was zealously assisted by Juozas Angrabaitis, Juozas Antanavičius, Antanas Baltrušaitis, Domas Miklius, and Serafinas Kuseliauskas, a landlord who bequeathed 2,000 Russian rubles to this cause. Working independently, Juozas Kancleris transported a great many books and distributed them in southern Lithuania (in Sūduva). In Samogitia the main centers were organized by Rev. M. Jurgutis and the physician Liudas Vaineikis in Kretinga (the Franciscan Monastery) and in Palanga respectively. Vaineikis was arrested in 1900, incarcerated for two years, and with 24 of his associates exiled to Siberia.
The publications, once they had been transported across the border, were distributed by a varied group of people: traveling salesmen who dealt in small items or devotional articles; sacristans and organists; devout women, poor widows, beggars; farmers, students, physicians and their patients. These people were subsequently brought together into book-distributing societies. The society Atgaja (The Recovery) operated in the districts of Joniškis, Gruzdžiai, and Šakyna from 1885 until 1895, when its director Motiejus Slančiauskas was arrested. In Marijampolė and its surroundings the society Sietynas (The Constellation) operated from 1892-97; this society united over a hundred book and newspaper distributors, one of whom was Kazys Grinius, later president of Lithuania. The group was suppressed when forty of its members received court sentences. The harshest sentence (15 years imprisonment) was imposed on a mail carrier of Marijampole, Jurgis Lietuvninkas, and his wife Petronele. Artojų Draugija (The Plowmen's Society), with its headquarters also in Marijampolė, encompassed southern Lithuania; one 'of its members was Pijus Grigaitis, later long-term editor of the daily Naujienos (The News) in Chicago, Illinois. The members not only circulated books, they secretly staged plays and organized clandestine meetings. In 1903 twenty persons were arrested, but proceedings against them were dropped when the prohibition of Lithuanian publications was repealed in 1904.
There are no accurate statistics on the number of Lithuanian publications transported across the border. In 1891-1901 customs officials seized 173,259 books and periodicals. During the last years of the prohibition from 30,000 to 40,000 copies were being smuggled annually into the country, which was double the amount of the previous ten years. For example, in 1891-93 officials withheld 31,718 copies and in 1900-02 the number reached 56,182 copies. This, however, did not mean greater diligence on the part of the border guards; it was due to the fact that more books were printed abroad and more were carried across the border. In Tilžė the book-smugglers were provided with Lithuanian publications by Petras Mikolainis and subsequently by Morta Zauniūtė. In Bitėnai this was done by Martynas Jankus, who also owned a small printing shop.
It is not known how many persons were penalized for this patriotic activity. The Lithuanian bibliographer Vaclovas Biržiška, who researched the period of the press ban, noted that this struggle with the Russians "claimed many victims who found their rest not only in their native soil but also in distant Siberia and elsewhere in Russia. The determination of this fight was so universal that no sacrifice deterred a single soldier of the "Litnuanian book army.' On the contrary new generations, joining the ranks of the fighters, followed the example of those that had left the ranks, continuously broadening the goals of the battle until it was not just a struggle for a national culture but for the future of the country." Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the freedom of the press, the Lithuanian philosopher Stasys Šalkauskis used these words in describing the book-smugglers: "This was a long road of martyrdom on which many persons known and unknown to us today had to pay moral and physical penalties for what is man's inborn holy right, the freedom of cultural self-determination. During that historic martyrology knygnešys, that unpretentious and unknown carrier of the cultural flame, attained the limits of Promethean heroism. To mark this proud page of our history, the Lithuanian nation would only have to erect a monument to Nežinomas Knygnešys (The Unknown Book-Smuggler) who, holding a torch in one hand and carrying a bundle of books in the other, would symbolize to the Lithuanians the same ideals as the Arch of Triumph or the Statue of Liberty."
Bibl.: P. Ruseckas, Knygnesys, Kaunas, 1925-28: A. Slikas, Kaip lietuvis knygnešys kovojo su caro galybe, Kaunas, 1931; K. Grinius, Atsiminimai, I, Tubingen, 1947; V. Bagdanavičius, ed., Kovos metai del savosios spaudos, Chicago, 1957; J. Stukas, Awakening Lithuania, Madison, New Jersey, 1966; V. Birfiska, Pabiros, Brooklyn, 1960; St. Salkauskis, "Spaudos atgavimo minėjimo proga," Židinys, No. 4, 1929 (Kaunas).

Text from the ENCYCLOPEDIA LITUANICA I-VI.  Boston, 1970-1978