[Discussion] Badass Book Smugglers – A Historical Reality? How Brave Intellectuals Struggled To Keep My Language Alive

Today I’m going to talk about something different, and something you have probably never heard about. I have even postponed the #NewBloggers post for one week, because this is a topic important enough for me and my country that I have to talk about it. And it had to be this particular day! Because today is the national day of the Book Smugglers, and we are going to learn why they were heroes.

…Plus, book carrying rebels! Guys!!! They’re like bookworm super heroes!! You clearly want to learn about this, don’t you?

Alright, so maybe now THAT much. But let’s get back on topic.

The reason I’m posting this today is because today, the 16th of March, is the book carriers’ day. And I struggle to even translate the word – because it only exists in my language. Scratch that – I think THE CONCEPT only exists in my country.

You might be really puzzled now. Book smugglers? Wait, why?

The history of my country is quite bumpy. During the middle ages, we actually had a few moments of stardom, when very briefly we were the largest country in Europe. But it was so long ago, nobody would even believe it now! You haven’t heard about it either, I’m sure. And that’s mostly because it was downhill from there!

The past, oh, I don’t know, 400 years are riddled without various larger countries stepping on our toes and claiming our land for theirs. And THIS is where the book smugglers come in.

See, we have our own language: it’s very old, used by a handfull of people, comparatively, and only one other country (Latvia) shares any roots with it. It’s pretty complicated and archair, and as for any country that has been denied its own heritage at times throughout history, it remains a very important part of our identity. But back when we were under the rule of Imperial Russia (basically the 18th-19th century, give or take – history is REALLY not my strong suit, though), they really wanted us to get rid of it. Peasants with an understanding of their own culture are harder to subdue! Even harder still, if they are literate.

So they banned writing in our language.

And they banned books.

You read that right. THEY BANNED BOOKS.

Because that involves studying the language and keeping it alive.

They might have not banned books in Russian – I don’t really know or care, because that’s not the language our people spoke in. Bottom line, they banned any written form of our spoken language. This happened between 1864 and 1904 (as Wikipedia says, and you can read more about this phenomenon here in general). The goal was to force the nation to forget their culture and just become Russian already. Which is why we get so pissed off all the time when people from other countries think we’re Russian. Which we are not. We are not even Slavic. We’re very proud of our Baltic culture, thank you very much.

Anyway, we had our intellectuals. They were not happy with the situation, so they formed quite a few secret societies for the education of the folk. These published secret newspapers with relevant news and patriotic content (which was punished severely if you were caught), but it wasn’t like you could just go to the market and buy a banned paper.

And that’s where the Book Smugglers come in. The most badass vigilantes of the book world, these brave people faced the danger of capital punishment (or going to a death work camps in a really, really cold land you’ll never come back from) – all for the sake of bringing people news in their language, and more importantly – books for their children to study language from.

Image courtesy of Kultūros Uostas

Cause, oh, I didn’t say. They banned schools too. For kids to learn reading in the banned language, right? So these groups formed underground secret schools for kids. And they needed books to teach them letters. The underground schools are a whole new topic to talk about, and I’m also very proud of the people who did that in order to not let our culture be snubbed out.

So personally, I think this is a pretty cool fact of my country’s history. And one that probably nobody else had. We smuggled books in order not to be robbed of our language and culture. I would say that’s pretty cool, don’t you agree? So next time, when you need a bookish hero, think of the Book Smugglers. If they’re not badass enough for you, I don’t know what is!

Do you have any bookish heroes in your own culture? What about bookish inventors or game changers? Share with me in the comments!

I’m Evelina and I try to blog about books that matter, with a bit of fun there too! Disability and equality will be topics you see a lot, but there’s also a lot of scifi, fantasy and… GIFs. I’m also the proud founder of #ARCsAnonymous.

55 thoughts on “[Discussion] Badass Book Smugglers – A Historical Reality? How Brave Intellectuals Struggled To Keep My Language Alive

  1. Actually, in Ancient China, when there were still kingdoms and emperors, there was a time when all books were burned and scholars were buried. You can find more about it on Wikipedia if you search ‘Burning of books and burying pf scholars’.

    1. Thanks for sharing – oh, I think that burning books has happened on and off many times in history – like during the latest wars, even, or during the Nazi regime. The main point of this post though was to point out that people actually secretly taught others to read anyway, and smuggled books. Don’t know if this happened during the other times when books were burned (I mean, I think books were burned more often, sadly). Thanks for sharing, I will have to look it up and read about it 🙂
      Actually, another person on Goodreads, upon reading this post, shared a Guardian article with me, about how people in the 20th century (or maybe the 21st? Basically, they’re still alive) were saving books from occupied areas of the Middle East, I think (I am hazy of the details). Also by smuggling them. So the phenomenon definitely exists, but I think ours was the only case when it existed for decades. So the longest recorded one, perhaps.

  2. That was very interesting, reading this about your country. It is quite amazing that those fought for their culture.

    The USA has a dark history, of course, and one we rarely admit to ourselves. We did a similar thing during the slavery years. We had anti-literacy laws: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-literacy_laws_in_the_United_States

    There were a few good people who fought back against that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Crittendon_Douglass

    These are the things that aren’t often discussed in polite society or focused on much in schools. But they should be because if we forget them they are bound to happen again.
    Paul Liadis recently posted…Bravery…My Profile

    1. Thank you, Paul, and thank you for reading – I was really glad to share something of my culture.

      Oh yes, I think I know what you mean. Been reading Kindred (on and off.. It’s a hard book to read :/ emotionally.) I think it’s a general problem of the human race… We just like doing ugly things to each other :/

      Thanks for sharing the links with me! Always good to find out more about the people who fought this kind of BS 🙁 the fact that the lady wrote a book makes me want to pick it up.. Although I know it will make me sad. Agh, humanity.

  3. This is a wonderful post, thank you Evelina for the history lesson of your country. I had no idea about this.

  4. ha I actually did not know that this happened, but I cannot say that I am surprised that it had happened. On the other note my birth country is experiencing the same thing. I am from Ukraine and we get super pissed off when we are called Russian. Different country, different language and costumes. Plus, what Russia did and is doing to our people is horrific so it just disrespectful when it happens.
    Lily recently posted…Guest Review: Six Feet Under by Tonya KappesMy Profile

    1. You’re from Ukraine? Oh, I do understand… It’s even more complicated for you, because your languages are much more related (ours is actually completely different and doesn’t share words or grammar. Yours shares a lot of word roots, and even some words, so it’s even harder…) And then the whole history with Crimea. Argh… It’s really sad.

      On an unrelated note, Okean Elzy is one of my favorite bands and that’s the reason I understand quite a bit of Ukrainian!! I was in their concert once. I think Ukrainian is one of the most beautiful languages ever, very poetic and wonderful for singing 🙂

      1. Not sure about the similarities of the part I am from. I was born in Western Ukranian near the borders of poland so our language is heavily influenced by them, it’s different dialect I guess because I for one do not understand the russian language. Oddly enough I pick up on croatian as well, but I believe their language has slavic roots as well.
        Lily recently posted…Guest Review: Six Feet Under by Tonya KappesMy Profile

  5. Thanks for posting this fascinating history. I had never heard of The Book Smugglers or Book Carriers Day. I think that there is great potential for a film based upon them. A quick Google Search indicates that there are a couple of books on the subject.
    Brian Joseph recently posted…Crucible of War by Fred AndersonMy Profile

    1. Oh yeah, that’s actually a good point! It WOULD make a good movie, probably. Thanks for reading 🙂 yeah, it is quite an interesting phenomenon, but also almost completely unknown anywhere else but my country, so I was very happy to share it.

    1. Yeah, it’s related for sure 🙂 I’m sure there were people who were trying to save books in other situations too, like many wars etc, but I think this is the only case I know of when it happened for decades and was actually a phenomenon. Thanks for reading, I am glad I was able to share this fact about my country 🙂

  6. That’s very interesting post. Thank you for sharing your wonderful and kinda difficult history.
    Book smugglers, real heroes. They saved the real heritage of your country.

  7. An amazing history. Books will always find a way to the hands of people who need them and make heroes of us. Closest thing I remember about book smuggling is when my mom went on a “tour” of China when I was a kid. They actually smuggled bibles for the underground churches there. They were almost caught twice.

    1. Wow, that’s admirable! I mean, maybe it’s not on such a large scale, but hey, if it goes against binding people’s freedoms, helps them and builds them up, then it’s definitely a great thing. They were almost caught huh? That’s really brave. I am super impressed 🙂 respect to your folks!

  8. no wonder russians make a good villain in any story…
    this was a really interesting post and i love learning interestig bits about other cultures. i used to work with a latvian woman annd she mentioned some stuff about the russian influence every once in a while

    they took over my native country for a while as well, but never got this far thankfully

    1. Yep. Well, this was still in the era when a lot of people were feudal slaves, basically. So that opens the door up for a lot of crap… I don’t think a lot of people were literate at that time at all, not just in my country. But sad nonetheless!
      Thank you for reading 🙂

  9. This is so cool, Evelina!! And definitely a part of your country’s history worthy of plenty of pride 🙂 You’re right: I had no idea that this had happened, or even the details of Russia’s dominance in the area. (For better or worse, my world history course emphasized non-white cultures, so while we learned a TON about Asia, Africa, and South America, my recall of European history is much shakier than I’d like.) Do you know if there are any English-language books on all of this, or is Wikipedia the best source? I’d love to read more about it sometime 🙂
    JJ @ This Dark Material recently posted…film review: love, simonMy Profile

  10. Nice! Very cool piece of history 🙂 True heroes indeed

    Oh those Russians…

    Hmm well in Finland, we (as many other countries) had a stage of so called romantic nationalism. And this era led to a lot of great stories of a small brave country stuck in between two great empires (Sweden & Russia) + tales of female huntresses + Kalevala + https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tales_of_Ensign_St%C3%A5l (story basically describes Finn-Swede who courageously fools Russians every chance he gets…)

  11. Sadly, that is a very good way of overwhelming a country. You invade it, then you obliterate its history, customs and language, often by killing the educators and those who are custodians of its traditions, then you enslave/resettle the men and boys, while intermarry with the women and within two generations, there is no culteral identity left. It’s been practised repeatedly throughout history and is a tried and tested way of invading and absorbing a country and expunging their culture. How brave and far-sighted of those book smugglers to fight back in that way…

  12. I had no idea about any of this story. What an amazing part of your culture to remember and to celebrate. Sadly for me, being English, my country has spent far more time trying to stamp out other cultures than in needing to preserve our own. Your book smugglers are real heroes!
    Here’s a question for you – can you recommend Lithuanian books/authors for my WorldReads?
    Stephanie Jane recently posted…Mary Shelley: Daughter of Earth and Water by Noel GersonMy Profile

  13. What an amazing story, thank you so much for sharing it. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like when someone is trying to take away your whole identity. Thank goodness for the Book Smugglers!

  14. What a great post Evelina! I had never heard of this thing or even the concept like “Book smugglers”. This is pretty nice to read about. And wow, your country really has muhc history 🙂
    I don’t think that my country has even a history something like this. As far I have studied, the literature was not a main “thing” in ancient India and often women were not allowed to read. I am glad my country has gotten far from that situation 🙂
    Sim @ Flipping Through the Pages recently posted…eARC Review | To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo | Just amazing!!My Profile

  15. I love this! Rebelling gets a bad rap, but it’s one of those things that really depend on the context and personal morals. I enjoy random, seemingly useless facts, because they make for good tidbits in conversations (and generally good conversations). This factoid especially interests me because of the education bit, in that it proves just how important it is! Ugh, my kid cousins are all, “What is the point of an education?” but the more people know, the less likely someone is able to control them.

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