The 19th-Century Lithuanians Who Smuggled Books to Save Their Language

This fascinating “book-smuggler” story was included in the posts sent by email from “Atlas Obscura” this week. Discover a clever means these Lithuanians devised to preserve their language against Russian attempts to dominate them and control their lives and religion.

Two editions of the same prayer book. The book to the left is Cyrillic and was printed by Russia. The book to the right is Latin Lithuanian and was illegal under the ban

Here is part of the story as it relates to the language issue and how these “book smugglers” saved the true Lithuanian language:

Language had long been a point of contention in Tsarist Lithuania. In the middle of the 19th century, in order to assimilate the peasant class, the Russian scholar Alexander Hilferding proposed that the Lithuanian language, which uses a Latin alphabet, be converted to a Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

The Lithuanian press ban was therefore an attempt to eradicate the Lithuanian language and promote loyalty to the Russian cause. Lithuanian children were also required to attend Russian state schools, where they would learn the Cyrillic alphabet through books printed by the Russian government.

According to historians, Russia thought little of the ban when they first initiated it. They didn’t see Lithuanians as belonging to a unique nationality, and they assumed that resistance, if anything, would be minimal.

They were wrong.

Almost immediately, individuals sprung up to spread Lithuanian writing. Since they couldn’t publish books in their homeland, many Lithuanians began printing them abroad and smuggling them back into their own country.

Thus appeared the first of the knygnešiai—or book-carriers—who, in a desperate bid to save their language, transported books across the border and illegally disseminated them throughout Lithuania.

Initially, the knygnešiai worked alone. They carried books in sacks or covered wagons, delivering them to stations set up throughout Lithuania. They performed most of their operations at night, when the fewest guards were stationed along the border. Winter months—especially during blizzards—were popular crossing times.

Lithuanians went to great lengths to conceal their illegal books. TheForty Years of Darkness by Juozas Vaišnora reports of female smugglers who dressed as beggars and hid books in sacks of cheese, eggs, or bread. Some even strapped tool belts to their waists and pretended to be craftsmen, disguising newspapers under their thick clothes.

Find the full story at the link below, along with several related images and maps.

Source: The 19th-Century Lithuanians Who Smuggled Books to Save Their Language – Atlas Obscura

Published in: on July 22, 2017 at 7:14 AM  Leave a Comment  

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