A Rare Bird in the World: Talking with Birute Putrius

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I met Lithuanian-American author Birute Putrius at the 2018 Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies conference at Stanford where she was participating in a roundtable discussion called “War Trauma and the Experience of the Second Generation.” Putrius was born in a displaced person’s camp in post-World War II Germany where her parents had fled to escape the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Her first book, Lost Birds, is a novel written in stories about what it means to be a young immigrant in America.

Her second novel, The Last Book Smuggler, steps back nearly one hundred years to recount the efforts of an old book smuggler trying to keep his language alive despite the efforts of the Russian Empire to destroy it.

Here, Putrius talks about the dangers of book smuggling in the Russian Empire, the effect oppression can have on patriotism, and why it’s important to keep endangered languages alive.

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The Rumpus: The Last Book Smuggler is inspired by your grandfather’s experience. How much of his story is in this book?

Birute Putrius: My father was quite old when he had me; he was fifty, so by the time I was old enough to hear these stories, he was probably eighty. Every time I would go home, he would regale me with all of these stories about Lithuania. And his own story, my father’s story, is so interesting. He told me about a time when he was very little, and his father had taken him on a trip to pick up some things in East Prussia. My father’s family lived only three or four kilometers from the East Prussian border. They used to routinely go across the border to buy things they couldn’t get in Lithuania. Sometimes they would smuggle cigars or a little brandy because it was something you could sell to make money. Everybody was very poor. One of the things they also did was smuggle books. But that’s the only part of it I heard from my father.

I started looking up information about the book smugglers, but there’s very little information to be had, on this side of the Atlantic anyway. I’m sure if I went and did a tremendous amount of research in Lithuania I could have found a lot more detail. But little by little, I started picking up histories and reading Lithuanian history, especially about Jurgis Bielinis, who’s called the “King of the Book Smugglers.” He was the one who organized so much of it. But I didn’t want to write about him because he’s a very well-known figure. I wanted to write about an ordinary farmer because most of the smugglers were ordinary farmers, dirt poor people who did this out of a sense of outrage. They were so angry about Russification. When Mikhail Muravyov, the Russian [and Governor General of the Vilnius Governorate] came, the tsar had told him to make a Lithuania with nothing Lithuanian in it. That’s a direct quote from the tsar. They closed all the Lithuanian schools and forbid the Lithuanian language unless it was printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. Of course, no farmer, no Lithuanian, unless he had been schooled in St. Petersburg, knew much Russian. They could speak it, but they couldn’t read the Cyrillic alphabet. So, it was the anger at the idea of Russification and turning Lithuania into a province of Russia. Lithuania was already called the Northwest Province. It had already been erased from the maps of the world. Then to be further erased by the fact that the language was erased. One generation could withstand that, but if all the books were in Russian and all the schools were in Russian, then within in three generations the whole country would be Russian.

An army of exiled patriots, who were threatened with jail or Siberia, went to East Prussia to escape persecution, and many of them opened up presses. And the people smuggled the books for their own use. There was a network of distributors in each of the districts. The man I wrote about was a book smuggler for many years until he got too old to do the actual smuggling and then he became a distributor for his district. They kept arresting these people when they found them. There were three lines of border police that tried to stop them. The tsar was furious that this was happening. Muravyov was known as the hangman because he hung so many of the book smugglers during his reign of terror. They put them in jail, they beat them, they shot them at the border, they sent oodles of them to Siberia. Nothing stopped them. The minute one got arrested three more showed up to take their place.

Rumpus: How extensive was the network of smugglers? Were there tens or hundreds or thousands of smugglers?

Putrius: It was an underground organization, and nobody really knew the full extent of it until later, but apparently it was in every parish and district in Lithuania. Could I say how many thousands there were? I don’t know. That was a number I was never able to find. Whatever I found of interest that I didn’t put in the book, I put in the afterword. Had I gone to Lithuania and spent a good half-year studying I probably could have found it, but I really didn’t want that kind of a book.

The smuggling started in 1863 with the January Uprising. Lithuania had something like nine uprisings under the tsar, and this was the biggest of them. Other nations probably suffered just as severely, Poland for example, but in Lithuania, the arm of the tsar came down hard. He was determined to turn Lithuania into a province of Russia. This poor little book smuggler, Viktoras, was smuggling his books, but by the time the novel opens, he’s been doing it for years. He’s tired, and he’s discouraged, and he doesn’t see as many young people joining the smugglers. He’s looking for someone to take his place, but his son-in-law isn’t interested, and neither is his grandson. He’s a little discouraged by that, but he’s not going to force them because it’s a dangerous enterprise. That’s where Jonas steps in, for the love of Ada and her admiration for her grandfather. He takes the place of the old book smuggler. The story is not only about Viktoras, who is my favorite character in that book, but it’s also a love story, a story of young love and a story of old love. I didn’t want this just to be a smuggling thriller, I wanted it to be a love story.

Rumpus: By many accounts, before the third partition of Europe and the January Uprising of 1863, Lithuanian nationalism wasn’t really a thing. They were peasants and they had their culture. After 1863 and the beginning of the book smuggling, that’s when Lithuanian nationalism started to take hold as a much larger movement.

Putrius: Well, of course, it was the threat that caused that. That’s exactly right. And the other thing is the literacy rate, which was very low for Lithuanian peasants at that point. And nobody thinks of peasants that books are so important for them, that they’re going to smuggle books. It seems odd, something you wouldn’t expect in history. But the literacy rate rises tremendously during that time period because it becomes a matter of honor. If they’re going to destroy this language, we’re going to learn to read it. So in the winters, parents would come along with the kids to their secret schools. They learned to read and write in the basements of churches, all of the large manors had a secret school somewhere, every village had one in a barn somewhere. They were everywhere those secret schools. They opened up at the same time the book smuggling started, and these poor farmers changed the whole face of that country. Those poor farmers that later learned to read and their children learned to read are the same ones that went for Lithuanian independence. It was a precursor to independence.

Rumpus: Do you think that the independence movement would have been successful without the book smuggling?

Putrius: Maybe it would have, it’s hard to say, but I think it helped it by raising these patriotic feelings. It certainly increased the Lithuanians’ patriotism. It raised their love of country, their love of language, their love of everything that they thought was not Russian but specifically Lithuanian.

Rumpus: This book explores several other themes besides book smuggling, notably, the dynamic between various classes and ethnic groups in Lithuania at the turn of the century. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Putrius: Most of the nobility at the time was very Polonized. During the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, Lithuania started as the ascendant partner with the Grand Duchy and Vytautas the Great, but over time the Polish gained more influence. By the time my novel opens, Polish is the primary language. Of course, Poles loves to speak French, and the upper classes considered themselves Francophiles, but most everything was done in Polish. For example, in the church, all the priests would be speaking Polish, and they said when you go to confession, go to confession in Polish because God doesn’t understand Lithuanian. The priests were a higher class and the more upper class you were, the more Polish you spoke. Actually, our language may have disappeared earlier due to Polonization, never mind Russification, because everyone aspired to be Polish like the upper classes.

But the peasants were woefully stubborn and refused to do this. I’ve read over and over in accounts of Lithuanian history that if it wasn’t for the stubbornness of the peasants, especially on the part of the Žemaičiai (Samogitians), that we might have lost our language. But they refused to learn Polish, to speak Polish, to go to confession in Polish. And the parish priests were just ordinary peasants themselves, so they went along with that. Anyway, there was nothing they could do because they were so stubborn. The Žemaičiai refused Christianity long after the rest of Lithuania became Christian. They fought another hundred years and were the last people, in the 1400s, to become Christian. So, their stubbornness has served them well. And the Polonization was severe.

The upper classes started to come into a whole different mindset around 1863. There was a growing patriotic feeling that they wanted their country’s freedom. Not only did they open book presses, but they also started organizations and began talking about to get their independence. Many of those people who were part of the uprising in 1863 fled because they didn’t want to go to Siberia. Some of them ended up in Berlin, some in Switzerland, but they kept in touch with each other, and they kept the idea of independence alive. Many of the articles in the newspaper would be about bringing back the history that was lost, bringing back the ideas that we’re one people and we need our freedom. This all came out through the underground press. There would have been no national movement had it not been for that press. It really raised the consciousness of the people tremendously. You can tell by the names of the journals, Varpas (The Bell), for example. Their names called for an awakening. The other thing was that there was a lot of information for farmers in there, too. It was almost like an almanac. When to plant, what to plant. The journal had a double purpose. To help the farmers become better farmers and to raise the national consciousness.

Rumpus: One of the most interesting characters in the book is Kotryna, Ada’s aunt, who returns after working for a Jewish family in Smolensk for several years, along with a domovoi—a Russian imp. To me, she’s a symbol of the rise of Lithuanian nationalism, the Lithuanian obsession with superstition, and a sort of love/hate relationship between mostly rural Lithuanians and middle/upper urban Russian and Jewish classes. How did you intend Kotryna in the story?

Putrius: I just wanted her as a foil for Ada, a different kind of woman. But Kotryna was my great aunt, and she did work in Russia for a Jewish family. My father is a great storyteller, and the story of his aunt coming back is one of the stories he tells. When she came back, she brought a domovoi with her. It’s a Russian house spirit. The Russians have a spirit for just about everything. My father talked about how it completely went berserk in the house and caused all kinds of havoc, which I just thought was hilarious. But I loved Kotryna, too. I wanted to make her a bit of a sassy character. She’s been away from the farm and become a little more gentrified than the rest of the family, so she has a different way of seeing things than Ada, but I also wanted her to drag that superstition home. My father told me the story forty years ago. I remember writing it down somewhere because I thought it was so interesting and funny, and he told it funnily, half tongue in cheek and half laughing at all the things they believed in. My father was an ordinary farmer. But he was also a viršaitis (manager) and a seniunas (elder), so he had political duties, and he was a huge reader his whole life. My family always had their noses in a book.

Rumpus: I love how the domovoi adds a little bit of the fantastic and the supernatural into the story, but do you recall how it manifested itself in real life?

Putrius: Pretty much what he told me is in the book. It did crazy things in the house that upset everybody. It would curdle your milk, and shut the door when there was no wind, and it lived in my grandmother’s pantry.

Rumpus: Some reviews have suggested that you inserted yourself in the book as the main character Ada. Is that accurate?

Putrius: I wouldn’t say so. I didn’t fashion her after anyone. I just wrote her the way I think I would have reacted in those circumstances. I adored my father, so I used my relationship with my father, and he was much older than I was, so he was like my grandfather. I put my relationship with my father in that relationship between Ada and her grandfather, but I didn’t live in that time period, and I didn’t have a love like Jonas. None of those other things are factually true to my life, other than the stories my father told about growing up in Lithuania. He had a lot of stories, and he wrote himself. He belonged to a group called the Pavasarininkai, which came out of book smuggling times. The name means the “spring youth.” It was a Catholic youth organization. Like a fresh spring, they were the hope of the country. They were young and active and interested in cultural things. My father was writing for their journal, and he had a pen name that he used, Pedskelis; it was a humorous term for fooling around. He wrote a long journal of all of his memories. I have a part of that journal.

Rumpus: Is your motivation for writing to share the Lithuanian experience with the general public or more of a cathartic exercise to understand your own culture and heritage?

Putrius: I think it’s both. But I was writing more for an American audience. Even Lost Birds is only Lithuanian in the beginning and the end, and the middle is the story of my generation. The 1968 Democratic National Convention is there, protesting the Vietnam War is there, drugs are there, LSD is there. It’s really the story of my era within the Lithuanian culture and outside of it as well because the character moves away from being Lithuanian. I certainly didn’t write it for Lithuanians, although they have embraced it. I got a call from the guy who I went to the prom with, and he sent me his copy of the book, so I could autograph it. Alma Littera has translated it into Lithuanian. It’s coming out in August in Lithuania.

Rumpus: Has The Last Book Smuggler been translated?

Putrius: Sigitas Parunskas is translating it. He’s a very famous poet.

Rumpus: Today, Lithuanian is only spoken by some three million people globally. Why is it important to keep the language and the culture alive?

Putrius: When you count how many Native American languages have been lost, how many native languages have been lost in South America, I think it’s so important for each of these people to have their own voice. Baltic people are not the same as Slavic people. They are a completely different branch on the language tree. They aren’t Slavic or Germanic or Romantic, they are Baltic. There are only two languages on that branch, Latvian and Lithuanian. There used to be a third language, Old Prussian, which was spoken in East Prussia before it became Germanic. That language is already gone to us. Scholars are trying to recreate it, but they only have a few dozen or a few hundred words, I don’t know. But when you hear those words, they sound very Lithuanian. If they’re gone, they’re gone.

It’s like having a rare bird in the world. You only have three of them, and once it’s gone, you’ll never see the likes of it again. I feel that way about language passionately. That’s part of the reason I called my first book Lost Birds; I felt those were endangered birds, in both their home country and in their new land. I thought the story needs to be told because they’re endangered still.


Jennifer Virškus is a writer and photographer based in San Francisco where she earned her MFA at California College of the Arts. She has covered a wide variety of topics, from urban design to ski racing, consults with small businesses on how to develop and manage a successful content marketing strategy, and is currently seeking an agent for her first novel. Find her on social media @jennvirskus or her website https://jenn.virskus.com/. More from this author →