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The Lithuanian Press Ban, 1864-1904
July 12, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

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 of people 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.
posted by mdonley (18 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Awesome post. At first I was surprised at how similar the fate of Romanians in Bessarabia is to that of the Lithuanians.

Then I remembered that the USSR was pretty much uniformly evil to ethnic minorities.
posted by vkxmai at 12:27 PM on July 12, 2009


Then I remembered that the USSR was pretty much uniformly evil to ethnic minorities.

Well, not initially. Up until the mid-'20s, Latvians and Lithuanians, in particular, were dramatically overrepresented in the Soviet government. (Primarily because the revolutionary movement in the Baltic provinces was especially well-developed and Baltic Communists were exceptionally experienced.) Later, the Latvians were heavily involved in the Stalinist repression apparatus as local and regional NKVD leaders.

In the end I don't think the Soviet approach to the nationalities problem was any worse than the Tsarist approach, or even the contemporary Russian one--at least the Soviets paid lipservice to national autonomy, frequently backing it up by putting in local stooges. (A bit like a shift from French-style colonialism to British-style colonialism). And a few ethnic minorities became successful before the golden door closed.
posted by nasreddin at 12:47 PM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is crazy awesome.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:01 PM on July 12, 2009


Lithuania is an awesome place to visit, and has an incredibly vibrant and fascinating culture. Vilnius is like Prague, but less touristy and with better booze. Fun fact--it was once the largest state in Europe! It also has wonderful vodka, though unlike every other Eastern European country, it's not called "vodka" (it's "degtine").

Really interesting post.
posted by Go Banana at 1:24 PM on July 12, 2009


Fun fact--it was once the largest state in Europe!

<derail> Wasn't every European country the largest state in Europe at some point? </derail>
posted by pravit at 1:42 PM on July 12, 2009


Stellar post. I've been wanting to learn more about my Lithuanian heritage.
posted by HumanComplex at 2:04 PM on July 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Labas, mdonley, and thanks from a Hiberno-Lithuanian for illuminating Lietuva in the Blue.
posted by rdone at 2:20 PM on July 12, 2009


Labai ačiu! I can't wait to show this to my grandparents (one was born under rule of a tsar!).
posted by ikahime at 2:22 PM on July 12, 2009


Thanks. Most of what I know of my Lithuanian heritage involves Kugelis and a few Lithuanian street fairs I went to as a kid in Chicago. I've just recently begun delving into Lithuanian culture and history, and much of what you have here is outside of what I've already stumbled upon.

Although I did once attend a party with a bunch of Worlds Strongman competitors from Lithuania that involved lots of vodka and many pink foods of unidentifiable nature. I'll stick with my Zeppelini and Kugelis when it comes to Lithuanian cuisine.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 3:06 PM on July 12, 2009


Sveiks, Lietuvieshiem!

Well, not initially. Up until the mid-'20s, Latvians and Lithuanians, in particular, were dramatically overrepresented in the Soviet government. (Primarily because the revolutionary movement in the Baltic provinces was especially well-developed and Baltic Communists were exceptionally experienced.) Later, the Latvians were heavily involved in the Stalinist repression apparatus as local and regional NKVD leaders.

My understanding is that it was also because somehow the Baltic forces came through the first world war relatively unscathed, and were therefore able to spearhead the Red Army.

As for the Latvian experience of Stalinist repression, it went both ways - a number of Latvians had held senior positions within the Party & the Red Army, but they were purged in the show trials. I think the perception was that they had been shunted by a handful of prominent Jews, who also commanded a lot of the NKVD nastiness in Latvia - like mass deportations to Siberia for no cause whatsoever - with the result that Latvians felt betrayed by the revolution that we had played a big part in winning in the first place.

Hence, when the Germans showed up in 1941, it was largely a matter of "Fuck those Soviet assholes, we're with you guys!"

As far as I know, the Lithuanian experience would have been very similar.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:58 PM on July 12, 2009


Ačiu mdonley - idomus postas, labai dekinga tau.

My Mom is in Lithuania celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the nation (which occurred last week). I remember resenting going to Lithuanian morning school on Saturdays when I was a young girl, but now I am happy that I can still speak the language and still read the papers in this very complex language.

As for food and libations, degtyne is fine, but krupnikas is better (especially when it's made by my Mom). Whenever I return home for the holidays, I know I will be able to have some cepelinai, a slice or three of kugelis and of course kaldunai with sour cream. Mmmmm, Lithuanian cooking. And pass the ausytes!!
posted by seawallrunner at 6:38 PM on July 12, 2009


Nice post! My initial reaction was that you should have stuck to the book-smuggling and not tried to turn it into one-stop shopping for all Lithuanian-related matters, but I guess there's a dearth of Lithuanian-related posts on MeFi and it's brought the lietuviai out in droves, so heck, the more the merrier.

> Then I remembered that the USSR was pretty much uniformly evil to ethnic minorities.

Yeah, no, that's way too simplistic. I despise the USSR as much as anyone, but they were pretty enlightened about ethnic minorities (as a matter of official policy, leaving aside Stalin's paranoia about "traitors" like the Volga Germans and the Chechens). A number of minority languages have almost certainly survived due to Soviet policy (and are now rapidly dying out thanks to post-Soviet neglect).
posted by languagehat at 7:30 AM on July 13, 2009


Also, you do realize this particular repression was carried on by the tsars, not the USSR, right?
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on July 13, 2009


Incidentally, Lituanus has a nice listing of history articles by period.
posted by languagehat at 9:53 AM on July 13, 2009


quelch is my fun new word for the day.
posted by nj_subgenius at 12:31 PM on July 13, 2009


There is no such word as 'quelch'.

There is 'quell' (to douse or extinguish) and there is 'quash' (to suppress).
posted by Sutekh at 3:35 PM on July 15, 2009


There is now!

got my back there, languagehat? we must quelch this prescriptivism in the bud!
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:32 PM on July 15, 2009


You bet, Ubu! We'll have no grumbering prescriptivism in these purdles, no sirree!
posted by languagehat at 6:03 PM on July 15, 2009


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