March 16 is Lithuanian Book Smugglers Day in commemoration of the birth in 1846 of Jurgis Bielinis, founder of the Lithuanian book distribution network.
Smugglers transported Lithuanian language books printed in the Latin alphabet into Lithuanian-speaking areas of the Russian Empire, defying a ban on such material in force from 1864 to 1904. Opposing imperial Russian authorities’ efforts to replace the traditional Latin orthography with Cyrillic, book smugglers became a symbol of Lithuanians’ resistance to Russification.
Dozens of book smuggling organizations transported an estimated 30 to 40 thousand books annually. About a third of the books were seized by the authorities. If caught, book smugglers were punished by fines, banishment, exile to Siberia, or simply shot.
The ban’s spectacular lack of success was finally recognized by the end of the 19th century, and under the official pretext that the minorities within the Russian Empire needed to be pacified, the ban on Lithuanian-language publications was lifted.
In 1905, one of the book smugglers, Juozas Masiulis, opened his own bookstore in Panevėžys. This bookstore is still operational, and a chain of bookstores operates in Lithuania under his name.