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Myths About Lithuania, #1: "Russia Banned Lithuanian"

If you're of Lithuanian heritage, this is the #1 myth you've heard -- and continue to see printed and online -- about late 19th century Lithuanian history. It's catchy, it adds to the victimization of Lithuanians by the Russian government, and it unnecessarily tries to further elevate the courageous smugglers of Lithuanian pamphlets and books: the knygnešiaĩ (the ones who carry the books). But it's just not true.

Left image: Lithuanian book smuggler sculpture at Vytautas the Great War Museum, Kaunas, Lithuania.

Right image: Photo of an actual 19th century book smuggler -- Vincas Juszka


The ban -- from 1864 to 1904 -- was on Lithuanian publications using what Russians called "Polonized-Latin script," and was an attempt to both drive a wedge between Poles and Lithuanians, and to drive Lithuanians away from the Roman Catholic Church, and towards the Eastern Orthodox Church. It failed miserably. Here's what the Lithuanian Encyclopedia ("Encyclopedia Lituanica I-VI," Boston, 1970-1978) has to say about the ban, confirmed by numerous fact-based sources:


"The idea of adapting the Cyrillic alphabet to the Lithuanian written language was first proposed by linguist Andrew Ugenski, professor of Kazan' University, in a letter to Bishop Valančius. This idea was further elaborated by...Alexander Hilferding in his 1863 book "Litva i Zhmudz'" (Lithuania and Samogitia). He proposed that Lithuanian replace Polish as the language of instruction in schools and that the Cyrillic alphabet be used in place of the Polonized Latin script then current in written Lithuanian. Hilferding and others...believed that if the Lithuanian peasantry could be drawn away from the Polonized nobility and the Roman Catholic Church, it would naturally gravitate toward Russia as its “natural” base. Cyrillic reform was intended to aid the process of Lithuania's Russification. The Polish-Lithuanian insurrection of 1863 (1863 metų sukilimas) convinced many Russian military men and educators...that Polish cultural and political influence was the main obstacle to successful Russian domination of Lithuania.


"The first Lithuanian book in Cyrillic, "Abecele zemaitiskai-lietuviska" (The Lithuanian Samogitian Primer) was published in the summer of 1864 [and] was intended for use in the new government rural schools narodnye shkoly) which replaced the Catholic parish school system. The "Abecele" was followed by catechisms, gospels and kantickos (popular hymnals). A total of about 54 Cyrillic Lithuanian books, mainly of religious character, were published by the Russian government during the press ban period. Bishop Valančius gave his reluctant imprimatur to the first Cyrillic editions of religious books, but later came out in opposition to the press ban.

Left image: 1864 Lithuanian prayer book in traditional "Polonized-Latin" script (from wikipedia)

Right image: 1866 the same prayer book in Cyrillic, published by the Russian government (wikipedia)


"In the summer of 1864 Vilna guberniya Governor General Muraviev issued an administrative order forbidding the publication of Lithuanian textbooks in the Latin alphabet. The prohibition was formalized into a comprehensive press ban on all Latin Lithuanian publications on Sept. 6, 1865 by C. P. von Kaufman, Muraviev's successor. He also issued a circular to the governors of neighboring guberniyas, asking them to cooperate in the ban on Lithuanian books. The press ban was confirmed by Russia's Minister of the Interior P. A. Valuiev on September 23, 1865, and extended to the whole Russian Empire. The government's harsh attitude towards the Lithuanian press expressed itself in the activity of the Commission for the Examination of Samogitian Lithuanian Books (Komissia dlia rassmotrenia zhmudsko litovskikh knig). This commission, established in August, 1865, was composed of members of the Russian military and civil bureaucracy in Lithuania. The commission concluded that the Lithuanian press, mostly religious at this time, was allegedly subversive, “filled with anti-Russian propaganda … and agitation against the dominant religion of the state Orthodoxy.”


"During the period of the ban, Russian authorities steadily escalated the war on the illegal Lithuanian press. The first two decades were relatively mild in terms of police activity. Russian gendarmes carried out only occasional searches and book raids in the countryside. Persons who were found possessing the illegal literature were usually (though not always) dealt with on an administrative rather than judicial level and turned over to local police and judges. At first, punishments and fines were relatively light. The vast majority of those arrested were ordinary peasants. But during the last two decades of the ban police surveillance and repression intensified considerably. This was due mainly to the proliferation of political and nationalist literature, such as the periodicals Ausra (The Dawn) and Varpas (The Bell).


"Hand in hand with repressing the Latin-Lithuanian press, Russian authorities tried to include Lithuanians, especially the peasantry, to accept the Cyrillic books published by the government. This attempt failed completely. Subsequently Vaclovas Birziska conducted a study as to the fate of the Cyrillic books by examining individual school budgets in Kovno guberniya for the years 1874 to 1880. In the school at Slabada, for example, not one book had been sold out of 187 in stock. The Rumsiskes school, which received 58 Cyrillic books from provincial authorities, had not sold a single one by 1878. In the 14 schools on which data were available, a total of only 154 Cyrillic Lithuanian books were listed as sold during the six year period in question. Birziska suspects that a good number of these were purchased by embarrassed local teachers who feared government displeasure at their failure to promote Cyrillic books. Some peasants who were pressured into buying the government books simply burned them at home. Prince P. D. Sviatopolk-Mirsky, governor general of Vilnius, reported in 1903 that even when distributed free, Lithuanian books in Cyrillic failed to find acceptance among the people."


The Russian Ministry of Education issued a report in May 1898 recommending that the press ban be repealed because it had produced adverse and unforeseen results, including the development of Lithuanian nationalism. During the years of the ban, 3,047 people (829 smugglers, 859 distributors, and 1,359 persons possessing banned books) were arrested in connection with the ban. (Albertas Gerutis in "Lithuania: 700 Years," 1984). From 1865 to 1904 nearly 4,000 book titles were published in the Lithuanian "Polonized-Latin" alphabet. Most were published in Tilsit, a city in East Prussia (Lithuania Minor: Mažoji Lietuva), although some publications reached Lithuania from the United States.


"Polonized-Latin" Lithuanian script lasted until the turn of the century, when a mostly standardized written version of the language was achieved, based on historical and Aukštaitijan (highland) usages; the letters -č- and -š- were taken from the Czech alphabet. And a widely accepted "Lithuanian Grammar," by Jonas Jablonskis, finally appeared in 1901.

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