An Illustrated History of Baltic Misery — The King of the Book Carriers

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An Illustrated History of Baltic Misery — The King of the Book Carriers

John Bills

You don’t need to read thousands of words to understand that literature and language are vital to any nation that finds its existence under threat. Welsh culture has been ripped apart by the English occupation for over 800 years, but as long as the Welsh language and Welsh prose exists then so will y Gymraeg. What does this have to do with Lithuania? Well, maybe everything. Maybe nothing. Or maybe something.

Definitely something. Following the January Uprising in 1863, the ruling Russians were eager to ramp up their attempts to Russify their subjects. The Lithuanians were among the feistiest under their watch, and the authorities went right to the heart of the matter, although by that I mean they went right to the soul of the matter. Literature is the language of the soul after all, or something equally pithy.

So they attacked the language. They did this by announcing in 1864 that all printed works had to be in the Cyrillic alphabet, a bit of a kick in the nads for the Latin orthography of the Lithuanian language. One year later the bet got a little more serious, as all Lithuanian language use of the Latin alphabet was banned. The Tsar himself got involved in 1866, stating that the printing or importing of Lithuanian language work was prohibited, although he neglected to put this in writing. It was somewhat irrelevant of course, as what the Tsar said went.

The fact that this chapter exists and is so titled ‘The King of the Book Carriers’ may give you a clue as to what happened next. How are people supposed to be proud of their roots if they can’t read in the language that echoes hauntingly in their dreams? Not even a verbal law proclaimed by the head honcho was going to stop the written Lithuanian word getting to the eager Lithuanian people.

It was Motiejus Valančius who got the process well and truly underway. In 1867 the Bishop of Žemaitija began organising and financing the printing of Lithuanian books abroad with the intention of smuggling them into the country from what was then Lithuania Minor (German East Prussia), the majority of which today makes up Kaliningrad.

The Russians weren’t idiots of course, and the Prussians helped them in outing Valančius’ scheme. Five priests and two smugglers were exiled to deepest darkest nowheresville in Russia, but by 1873 Valančius had been joined by a man who would go on to be known as the King of the Book Carriers. Hence the title.

Jurgis Bielinis was born on March 16, 1846, into a peasant family in Purviškiai, a town not far from Biržar, which itself is most famous for brewing some excellent traditional beers. Seriously, go try it, and take a book. Bielinis graduated from a German (obviously) primary school in Riga, but he soon got involved in anti-Russian activities back home. Bielinis worked closely with Valančius after some of the Bishop’s best men were sent to the edge of chumpsville, but our man from Purviškiai soon branched out on his own. 

The centre of his activities was a village called Garšviai, a teeny hamlet some 20km or so from Biržai. By 1890 the Russians were on his case, and they weren’t really the bumbling idiots that history likes to think that imperial forces were. Saying, the Russian security police captured Bielinis at least five times, and our man managed to escape 100% of the time. Reports that the police provided Bielinis with an opening to escape by slipping on a banana peel and boffing heads with each other are difficult to verify.

Consistently being captured inspired Bielinis to make sure he wasn’t captured again, and as such his organisation improved with every arrest. Jurgis went on to found the largest book-smuggling society in the area, delivering newspaper and magazines along with the much-wanted Lithuanian books. He also delivered banned Latvian works to the good Latvians to the north.

Jurgis Bielinis was active in the book-smuggling business for a whopping 31 years, and it is believed that half of the Lithuanian books brought onto Lithuanian land made it there thanks to the work of Bielinis and his society. When one considers that some 30,000-40,000 books were smuggled into Lithuania annually, this is no mean feat. Do the maths – 35,000 divided by 365 comes to some 95/96 books a day.

One-third of all books were seized of course, and this was very rarely good news for the smugglers. The fate of the book carriers was entirely in the hands of those who caught them, and the punishments ranged from a fine to being deported to receiving a complimentary bullet to the skull on the spot. Smuggling books across borders is a dangerous business, and hundreds of men lost their lives in attempting to bring hope to their Lithuanian brethren.

The authorities weren’t able to get Jurgis Bielinis though. The King of the Book Carriers proclaimed that he would not die until the Muscovites were gone from Lithuania, a claim that led some to believe that this dude must be immortal. Bielinis obviously wasn’t, and he died whilst attempting to walk all the way to the Vilnius Conference, the series of meetings that started the ball rolling towards Lithuanian independence.

It was Jurgis Bielinis who was actually one of the first individuals to speak up about Lithuanian independence. The man published his own newspaper along with contributing to many others, buying his own printing press in the process. He talked the talk and most certainly walked the walk. Bielinis penned brochures telling the story of Lithuania, from a proud independent state to an occupied nation and the rest.

14 years before Bielinis died on the road to Vilnius, the de-facto ban on Lithuanian language literature was lifted. The ban had been almost entirely unsuccessful, and there seemed little point in trying to maintain it when the Russians had enough security issues among their own people. One year later a man by the name of Juozas Masiulis opened his own bookstore in Panevežys, and his legacy lives on in Vilnius today.


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