The Fascinating History of Lithuania’s Day of the Book Smugglers

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When it comes to career paths for lovable antiheroes, smuggling seems to have established itself as the vocation of choice. From Star Wars' Han Solo to Firefly’s Mal Reynolds to Guardians of the Galaxy's Star-Lord, smugglers who eschew the law in favor of their own sense of moral right and wrong have captured the imagination of sci-fi fans for decades. Yet here on Earth, the exploits of a small group of smugglers in Eastern Europe are far more incredible than anything a space pirate has ever done for one simple reason: 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 in order to smuggle banned Lithuanian books into the country. The ban was a result of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, which brought with it militaristic efforts to enforce Russification—including a mandate to replace all Lithuanian-language works printed in the Latin alphabet with Cyrillic works.

In 1866, after years of taking increasingly powerful measures to implement Russian-only education, Tsar Alexander II issued an oral ban on the printing or importing of printed matter in Lithuania. The ban meant that any hope of preserving the Lithuanian language fell to the bravery and ingenuity of individuals who were truly committed to the cause—people 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. When his system was exposed, five priests and two book smugglers were exiled to Siberia.

By the end of the 19th century, the ban's failings had become obvious. The policy was lifted in 1904 and completely abolished following the disastrous defeat of the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, under the official pretext that the Russian Empire needed to pacify its national minorities. During the ban’s final years, it is estimated that more than 30,000 books were being smuggled into the country annually through a number of secret organizations and legal institutions.

After Lithuania gained independence following the Russian Revolution, they built a statue in the then-capital city of Kaunas dedicated to “The Unknown Book Smuggler.” But it wasn’t until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union that Lithuania was truly able to honor those people who had successfully managed to preserve the language and get written material to every single settlement in the country. This era also caused a word to enter the Lithuanian lexicon that cannot be directly translated into English: knygnešiai. Roughly, it means “book smugglers.” But it carries with it a connotation of national pride that a small language was able to survive the occupation of an empire, which is something that defies translation.