Magnetic North and the Lithuanian Day of the Book Smugglers

A country without books is only whispered here at Boydell, unless one wanted to induce utter panic and kick-start a riot akin to a small stampede in a quiet, quaint, Suffolk town. Yet, imagine if Shakespeare, Chaucer or Mallory were prized from our defiant hands and all forms of English, old and new, banned. This notion was an all-too-apparent reality for Lithuania when occupying Tsarist Russia enforced a press ban on Lithuanian-Language books and the Latin alphabet from 1864-1904.

On the 16th of March each year, Lithuania celebrates the Day of the Book Smugglers, to commemorate the ordinary people that went to extraordinary lengths to defend their language. This day marks the birth date of Jurgis Bielinis, the ‘King of Book Smugglers’, who pioneered a secret network that concealed and transported banned books across the border.

It began with religious documents and periodicals but quickly grew to include fiction. From Prussian printing presses, books hidden in skirts, to the double bottom drawers of the clergy; the more benign one looked, the more suited they were to smuggling. However, for these ‘book smugglers’ it was a dangerous feat, the consequences of which were dire – imprisonment, banishment to Siberia were both likely outcomes unless you were instantly shot upon discovery. Sadly punishment was part of the narrative for an estimated three-thousand smugglers, but for forty years they safeguarded their culture and trafficked an incredible five-million books across the border in an inspiring epitome of national resistance.

Ahead of the London Book Fair’s Baltic Focus, this year we were proudly part of the first ever celebration of the book smugglers in London where famed Lithuanian author, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, in conversation with Rosie Goldsmith, captivated us all with the history of Lithuanian Literature and translation. Her copy of Magnetic North was to hand, which she recommended as ‘essential reading’, Rosie Goldsmith adding that ‘it reads like a novel’.

Poet Tomas Venclova, whose life and work is celebrated in Magnetic North, is not unfamiliar to the censorship of writing. Many of his own works were banned and filtered out of Lithuania and his individual pattern of dissidence eventually met with exile and the stripping of his Soviet Citizenship. In 1971 Venclova’s membership to the Lithuanian Writers Union was denied and in 1975 he famously wrote an open letter to the Lithuanian Communist Government condemning Soviet rule. By 1976 he had co-founded the Lithuanian Helsinki Group which actively investigated Soviet crimes.

After the event, a band of newly-formed smugglers made their way through the streets of London and Norwich, armed with Lithuanian literature (including Magnetic North), sneaking books into the hands of key cultural institutions and individuals.

When Magnetic North first passed across the desk of the Marketing Department we had one objective, to transport this fascinating Lithuanian figure, famous in Eastern Europe, to global recognition. The courage of thousands of Lithuanians resisting totalitarianism was reincarnated years later in the individual dissidence of Tomas Venclova, whose enchanting life story was later smuggled across London. Could there be a more poignant way to honour this remarkable poet than by embodying the unique Lithuanian spirit?

Find more on Magnetic North on our website, #followthebooksmugglers journey on Twitter or find us at the London Book Fair where we will be celebrating Magnetic North and the Baltic Market Focus.