We’re used to movies about bands of rough-and-ready, raggle-tag, misfit smugglers. The exploits of a small group of smugglers in Eastern Europe are far better: It really happened.
In Lithuania, March 16 is celebrated as Knygnešio diena, or the Day of the Book Smugglers, to commemorate the birthday of Jurgis Bielinis, a newspaperman who created a secret distribution network to smuggle in banned Lithuanian books.
The Soviet occupation of Lithuania tried to replace all Lithuanian-language works printed in the Latin alphabet with Cyrillic works.
In 1866, Tsar Alexander II issued an oral ban on the printing or importing of printed matter in Lithuania.
Any hope of preserving the Lithuanian language fell to the bravery and ingenuity of individuals who were truly committed to the cause—like Motiejus Valančius, the Bishop of Žemaitija, who organized and financed an effort to print Lithuanian-language books abroad and distribute them within the country.
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 ‘amateur’ book smugglers, S. Raciukas and S. Kulakauskis, and five priests were sent to Siberia.
The smugglers risked their freedom and their lives, carrying books across the heavily guarded German-Russian border.
It was no joke. When caught, the book smugglers were punished by fines, banishment, and exile, including deportation to Siberia.
Some were simply shot in the head while crossing the border or executed on the spot.
The publications, once they had been transported across the border, were distributed by a varied group of ordinary people.
These included traveling salesmen, sacristans and organists, devout women, poor widows, beggars, farmers, students, physicians and their patients.
The harshest sentence (15 years imprisonment) was imposed on a mail carrier, Jurgis Lietuvninkas, and his wife Petronele.
During the final years of the ban, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 books were smuggled in annually.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, book smugglers were honored in Lithuania with museums, monuments, and street names.
A statue dedicated to “The Unknown Book Smuggler” stands in Kaunas.
In 1905, soon after the ban was lifted, a book smuggler, Juozas Masiulis, opened his own bookstore in Panevėžys.
This bookstore is still going, and a chain of bookstores operates in Lithuania under his name.