Today marks a celebration of an event that many of you may not have heard of, but we think this is a story that deserves to be told! In Lithuania, 16th March is known as The Day of the Book Smugglers. This date was chosen as it’s the birthday of Jurgis Bielinis, born on this day in 1846, one of the main organisers of an illegal book smuggling ring, known as The King of the Smugglers, but why did Lithuanians need to smuggle books?
Well, after the Polish-Lithuanian insurrection of 1863, the Russian Imperial government doubled down on its efforts to make the Lithuanian population Russian, and alienate the populace from its historic roots and Roman Catholic faith.
In 1863 Tsar Alexander II issued rules for State Junior schools stating that only Russian language education would be allowed, then in 1864 another ruling decreed that Lithuanian language primers would only be printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. A year later, Konstantin Kaufman issued a ban on all Lithuanian use of the Latin alphabet and a year later came in an oral ban on the printing or importing of printed matter in Lithuanian.
This chain of events led to a network of book smugglers. Around 1885, Jurgis Bielinis founded the Garšviai Book Smuggling Society who went on to purchase large quantities of Lithuanian books in East Prussia and smuggled them over the border, distributing them in Luthuania reaching as far as Riga and Jelgava, in present day Latvia. The society avoided detection for more thana a decade with Bieinis evading police capture, live a nomadic lifestyle among his supporters and smuggle in books.
Bielinis avoided capture for 32 years, and while he was arrested five times, he was never tried or sentenced and developed a folk hero reputation for outsmarting the police, still celebrated today.
During the final years of the ban, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 books were smuggled into the country annually, about two-thirds of them getting past authorities. Between 1864 and 1896 more than three and a half million copies of Lithuanian language books were published in East Prussia, plus scientific journals, newspapers and other types of publications.
It would take until 1904 for the ban to be lifted, and a year later one of the smugglers, Juozas Lasiulis opened his own bookstore in Panevėžys. This bookstore is still operational, and a chain of bookstores operates in Lithuania under his name.
This episode in history was widely suppressed during the years when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union
Today the events are marked as Book Smugglers Day, on 16th March each year and the country also remembers with statues, sculptures and a book smugglers wall, recognising the sacrifices of all the smugglers and societies who worked together to maintain Lithuania’s literary and historical language and roots.