From 1864 to 1904, the Russian Empire tried to quelch the nationalism of Lithuanians by ordering all Lithuanian texts to be printed with Cyrillic characters instead of in the Latin-derived Lithuanian or Polish alphabets. But they didn't count on the Knygnešiai - the Booksmugglers
Working in Lithuanian-speaking areas of East Prussia, now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and parts of the Polish voivodeship of Warmia and Masuria, and with texts printed locally and sometimes from as far away as the United States, many thousands
over the decades worked to transmit books, leaflets, journals, and other written works over the heavily guarded border, risking imprisonment and exile to Siberia; over three thousand people were caught. A harrowing recollection of what it was like to dodge the military patrols can be found here
. The movement also was assisted by a network of clandestine "village" lessons in the language outside the school system, organized through local churches and civic organizations.
The Lithuanian National Movement, active before independence, used the language to resist Russification
and, later, promote the cause for an independent state. When Lithuania became independent again in the early 1990s, the back of the 5-lita banknote featured an image
of a sculpture of a woman teaching a child to read Lithuanian in defiance of the press ban.
The anti-Lithuanian language effort had been part of Tsar Alexander II's Russification campaign across all of the lands Russia had absorbed through the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
. After the Uprising of 1863
, St. Petersburg attempted to create a divide between the Polonized Catholic nobility, the szlachta
, and the Lithuanian-speaking rural populations in order to allow Russian language and culture to supplant the Catholic, Latin heritage left behind by the Commonwealth.
Today, Lithuanian is spoken by between four and five million people, has made a cameo appearance on CSI: New York
, and, like everyone these days, has a podcast
. Lithuanian has also been the focus of much attention in linguistics circles for its links to Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the theoretical progenitor to all the Indo-European languages. Some early texts in Lithuanian can be found at the University of Texas at Austin's Linguistics Research Center here
. Check out some Indo-European roots yourself with this
Google Books preview of the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
And this year, Vilnius hosts the European Capital of Culture
title together with Linz, Austria. It's a quick hop from most of Europe and an amazing destination for anyone into the culture and history of the region.