My Father Was a Smuggler

by John Millar (Jonas Stepšys), 1924–2015

from Lithuanian Heritage, 2004, Jan–Feb

The two swimmers carefully pushed their water-proof wrapped bundles onto the sloping riverbank and slipped silently out of the water. Shaking themselves like dogs to rid their bodies of as much water as possible, they hurriedly donned the clothes that were secured to the top of the bundles. For some time before darkness fell, they had lain hidden on the opposite riverbank, timing the frequency of any border guard patrols and choosing a landing area on the other side. Although the river was not particularly wide at this point, the current was reasonably strong and, rather than fight it, they planned to allow the current to aid them in a diagonal crossing. Dressed, they hoisted the packs by the rope harness, adjusted them on their backs, and set off for the pre-arranged rendezvous with their colleagues. They had some ten kilometres to cover during the short hours of summer darkness, avoiding any military patrols en route.

The year was 1899, the country was Lithuania. The river was the Šešupė and, at that point, the border between East Prussia and Lithuania before it merged with the Nemunas, Lithuania’s largest river, which then became the border. The two swimmers were my father, Vincentas (Vincas) Stepsis [the proper Lithuanian form is Stepšys —ed.], and my uncle Juozas, both of whom were smugglers—in the literal sense of the word—as the bundles they carried, according to the occupying Imperial Russian authorities, contained illegal material. However, the contraband they carried across the frontier of the two countries was not to evade revenue payable on taxable commodities, nor were they doing so for personal gain or profit. They were risking their lives, incarceration, or banishment to the frozen wastes of Siberia for nothing more than Lithuanian language literature—books, journals, newspapers—which would be secretly disseminated to their fellow countrymen. This hazardous task was voluntarily undertaken without any thought of gain or glory.

But why was it necessary to bring their own language literature into the country covertly, and at the risk of life and limb? Why would ordinary country folk—peasants—at best only semi-literate, undertake such risky, dangerous missions for the sake of printed paper? Why, indeed, had this to be done clandestinely, and why was apprehension by the Russian authorities so severely punished? To comprehend the why and wherefore thousands of people like Vincas and Juozas Stepsis gladly did this task, despite the consequent hazards, it is necessary to understand something of the troubled history of the ancient land of Lithuania. By virtue of a sixteenth-century treaty with Poland, a ‘Commonwealth of Two Nations’ had lasted more than two hundred years until the Third Partition of the Commonwealth in 1795 resulted in Lithuania being seized by Imperial Russia. During the nineteenth century, as with most occupied and subjugated countries, there were uprisings and insurrections against the occupying authority. After the 1863 insurrection was quashed, Tsar Alexander the Second imposed the most stringent of measures on Lithuania and its people. He installed a Governor General, one Mikhail Nikolaevich Muravyov, with instructions to produce a Lithuania “with nothing Lithuanian in it”. Muravyov began his implementation of the Tsar’s orders by proclaiming a complete ban on the Lithuanian press, and the usage of the Latin alphabet and the Lithuanian language—only the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language were to be used and taught. In essence, everything Lithuanian—language, culture, religion—was proscribed, and so severe were the penalties for contravention that, during his time as Governor-General (till March 1865), Muravyov became known as the “Hangman of Lithuania”.

The period from 1864 to 1904, after which the ban was lifted, made the native Lithuanian press non-existent, resulting in an unrelenting struggle to restore it. In all of European history, Lithuania is the prime instance of an occupying authority denying a former independent nation its language and press, and a people’s forty-year battle against a foreign language and culture being forced upon them. It is no wonder that the time of the prohibition became known in Lithuania as the Forty Years of Darkness.

An underground movement across the border in East Prussia began printing the forbidden literature in their native tongue. This was originally inspired by the clergy, particularly Bishop Motiejus Valančius, whose rallying call was “Visada ir visur būti Lietuvių” (“Always and everywhere be Lithuanian”). He exhorted everyone to discard the Russian books and keep teaching the old Lithuanian language, even if in secret. In answer to his call, men who were themselves unable to read or write, ferried the packages of books across the border and distributed the contents. And, so, the knygnešiai (book-smugglers) came into being. The womenfolk taught the children at their knee during the performance of their daily domestic chores. Both Tsar Alexander and Muravyov completely underestimated the nationalism, resilience, and stubbornness of the Lithuanian people. The more repressive the measures they inflicted, the greater grew the resistance.

On that night, in 1899, my father and my uncle Juozas delivered their bundles to the distribution centre in the village of Pilviškiai before dawn, and spent the daylight hours resting and sleeping at the house of a friend and fellow ‘smuggler’. As darkness fell that evening, they made preparations to return to the Sakalupio area—having said their farewells, they set off. About two kilometres or so from their hideaway, a figure loomed up in front of them in the gloom, and the voice of the local policeman said: “Ah! Vincai, Juozai, I would not go home tonight.” Not another word was said or needed. The brothers understood—the military were waiting for them. Turning their footsteps toward the Šešupė river, they swam across to the East Prussian bank intending to lie low with their book-smuggling colleagues until the authorities gave up the search for them.

Four weeks later, word reached the brothers that they were still being vigorously sought after, and the hue and cry had not diminished as they had hoped. After some soul-searching, they decided it would be disastrous to return to Lithuania for some foreseeable time, with incarceration or Siberia as the only future facing them. Their only choice was to bid farewell to their native land, their usefulness as covert book-carriers gone, and head west—to the land of opportunity and freedom, the United States of America. Working their way across Prussia and Germany to the port of Hamburg, they found they had insufficient funds for the fare to America. Almost exactly twelve months from their encounter with the friendly policeman, the boat they were on docked at the Port of Leith, Scotland.

Vincas Stepsis was born on the 9th of July 1870, his brother Juozas two years later, at Sakalupio Dvaras (Sakalupis Estate), near the town of Kudirkos Naumiestis [then called Vladislovov —ed.], Lithuania, about two kilometres from the banks of the Šešupė river, to Tadas Stepsis [Stepšys —ed.] and his wife Petronėlė Barzdaitytė Stepsienė [Stepšienė —ed.]. His father, Tadas (my grandfather), died when Vincas was 4 years old and my grandmother Petronėlė died shortly before Vincas reached his tenth birthday. Orphaned in childhood, the two boys worked from that early age on the Sakalupio estate [Sakalupis —ed.] where their father had been coachman to the dvarininkas (landowner). On reaching 21, Vincas was conscripted in the Imperial Russian Army for military service on 12th November 1891, and posted to the 6th Battery, 3rd Brigade Grenadiers Artillery on 10th December 1891, far away from his homeland, in the Ukraine. Two-and-a-half years later, he was lying in a bed of a military hospital in Rostov with a fractured skull where a horse had kicked him about an inch above his right eye. While hovering between life and death, a court of inquiry, held at his bedside, ruled that he was no longer fit for any military duties and should be released from any further service. His discharge booklet, entitled Certificate of Completion of Military Service, No. 286, says:

The bearer of this is a cannoneer, Vikenty Tadeusovich Stepshis … after examination on 5th February 1894, the Commission held in a military hospital recognised his incapacity to continue military service and gave him his discharge. Stepshis is incapable to continue either combatant or non-combatant service and so discharged from the military service forever. Capable of private labour. Not requiring care. At the time of his arrival at his place of residence, Stepshis is obliged to report at the local police station with this Certificate to re-register in his local community.

On returning home, after making a complete recovery from his dreadful injury (which the Russian Commission had thought highly unlikely), Vincas found that his brother had not complied with his call-up to the Russian Army, but had joined the local ‘underground’ as a covert book-carrier. Within a week, Vincas and Juozas were a two-man unit in the team of smugglers. As border-dwellers from birth, they were familiar with the whole area, and knew all the nooks and crannies from their boyhood adventures. For the next five years, the brothers carried out their book-carrying exploits, miraculously avoiding apprehension by the occupying authorities—until the night in 1899 when they were, fortunately, warned, allowing them to evade certain capture.

Although I was born in Scotland, my first language was Lithuanian, taught by my mother—who, unlike my father, was literate—and I spent my impressionable childhood years listening to, and begging for, tales of the ‘old country’: its history, its occupation and subjugation, and the struggles to retain the language and literature; not just told by my father but by his friends, like Juozas Kasulaitis, a fellow knygnečys, when they all gathered socially in our house. A boy’s eagerness for blood-and-thunder stories prompted me to ask if they ever ran into trouble, were they ever shot at by Russian soldiers when crossing the border? The short answer was: “No, we were lucky.” There were occasions, as a child, when the tales I heard seemed so fantastic to me living in Scotland that I thought they were fictional stories, like fairytales told to satisfy a youngster’s demand for a bedtime story. Not until I visited Lithuania for the first time in 1993, when I was welcomed as the son of a knygnešys, did I fully realise just how understated my father’s stories really were.

I still have a memento of my father’s book-carrying days: my mother’s prayer book, titled Szaltinis (The Wellspring)—it has been confirmed by the Lithuanian National Archives as one of the ‘illegal’ publications, probably published between 1894 and 1899. The struggles of the book-carriers have been praised in modern times by Father Julijonas Kasperavičius, who said: “The work of restoring Lithuania’s independence began, not in 1918, but rather at the time of the book-carriers. With bundles of books and pamphlets on their backs, these warriors were the first to start preparing the ground for independence, the first to propagate the idea that it was imperative to throw off the yoke of Russian oppression.” In any other country, a smuggler as an ancestor would probably be cause for embarrassment but, as the son of a Lithuanian ‘smuggler’ of the nineteenth century, I have no sense of shame or embarrassment. The very opposite, for I have a heart-stirring pride that my immediate ancestor was one of the warriors described by Father Kasperavičius and had been a hero—however minor—of his country and his, and his many colleagues’ exploits are part of the folklore of his native land.

In 2004, John Millar (Jonas Stepsis/Stepšys) lived in Fairlie, Scotland, and had been a regular contributor to Lithuanian Heritage. He was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Lithuania to research the history of the ‘book-carriers’.