Legacy of the book smugglers

  • 2002-05-16
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
Lithuania celebrates Press Freedom Day on May 7 every year, commemorating the day in 1904 when a ban on the use of the Roman alphabet in Lithuanian-language books and printed matter was lifted. It's worth remembering the repressive atmosphere of those times; it throws a little light on why the freedom of the press is so revered.

After the uprising in Poland and Lithuania in 1863 against Russian rule, the tsarist government took drastic measures to replace what was seen as undue Polish influence in Lithuania with Russian influence. Curiously enough, the policy of Russification followed failed efforts by the authorities to promote Lithuanian language and culture as a way of dividing loyalties in the Polish-Lithuanian Republic after its third and final partition.

The figure most associated with the ban on the use of the Roman alphabet in Lithuania was Nikolai Muravyev, governor general of the Vilnus region. To put down the rebellion, he began by hanging insurgents, which earned him the enduring title of "the hangman."

In 1864 he issued an order banning the use of the alphabet. The goal was to break the back of the resistance.

A policy of universal Russification was introduced in schools, public and political life, even in the church. Catholic students were taken to Orthodox churches to celebrate the Russian imperial family's various birthdays and name days, causing fury among the local population.

Parents quickly began forming underground schools across the country under the direction of Catholic bishop Motiejus Valancius, a figure traditionally remembered on Lithuanian Press Day.

Bishop Valancius didn't initially oppose the ban on the use of the Roman alphabet, and neither did a number of Lithuanian intellectuals. But by 1866 he was speaking out loudly on the subject, saying the Russian alphabet wasn't appropriate for Lithuanian.

Valancius exhausted his legal appeals and began an underground press in neighboring East Prussia. In a piece of history Ray Bradbury seems to have lifted whole and placed in his science fiction novel "Fahrenheit 451," Valancius began smuggling books and set up a network of book smugglers to deliver the goods across the country.

Tilsit in East Prussia (in Lithuanian, Tilze, now Sovietsk in Kaliningrad, Russia) and Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, United States, a mining community with a large colony of Lithuanians and Poles, became major publishing centers for the illicit trade in Lithuanian books.

The Lithuanian press ban was also felt by the world's scholarly community, whose philologists had already claimed Lithuanian as the most archaic spoken Indo-European language.

The Lithuanian book smugglers risked their lives, long prison sentences, exile to Siberia, and heavy fines to deliver their goods to the Lithuanian people. The underground network of schools met in farm buildings or remote sites to keep the flame of Lithuanian culture alive during the dark years following the failed uprising.

Muravyev's plans failed. Lithuanians began to form a national and literate sense of identity independent of the large centers of gravity pulling from either side, from Poland and Russia. Lithuanian newspapers and periodicals began to flourish as the new century rolled in.

After 40 years, in 1904, the ban was finally lifted following a legal challenge in a changed Russia.

The book smugglers remain to this day honored by the nation for doing something that doesn't have much of an analog in the modern world. Were they software pirates? Bandits? Robin Hoods? Not exclusively.

They were Lithuanian peasants, proud of their origins and of where they were leading their people, to a better life based on knowledge, self-sacrifice, ingenuity and education.

For that reason they form a heritage from which Lithuanians of all walks of life, from the smuggler of cigarettes across the Lithuanian-Kaliningrad border to the highly-placed academic, can draw from and be proud.