Features Mission Siberia Young Lithuanians meet the deportees
Each year Mission Siberia sends 15 young Lithuanians to Siberia and other areas in the former Soviet Union where Lithuanians were deported. They search for traces that Lithuanians left behind and tidy up cemeteries where Lithuanians are buried. But most of all they go to meet Lithuanians — and their children and grandchildren — who decided to stay even after it was possible to return in the 1950s.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2015, pp 30-33
Published on balticworlds.com on november 19, 2015
Thousands of Lithuanians were deported to Gulag camps between 1940 and 1953,1 but for years few Lithuanians knew their stories or how they were treated when they returned to Lithuania. Since 2006, young Lithuanians have been helping change that through the project “Mission Siberia.”
Each year Mission Siberia sends 15 young Lithuanians to Siberia and other areas in the former Soviet Union where Lithuanians were deported.2 They go to find places where Lithuanians have lived. They search for traces that Lithuanians left behind and tidy up cemeteries where Lithuanians are buried. But most of all they go to meet Lithuanians — and their children and grandchildren — who decided to stay even after it was possible to return in the 1950s.
Once back in Lithuania the expedition members make presentations, keeping the memory of the deportations alive and giving other Lithuanians a nuanced view of deportation history. Mission Siberia is a project of the youth organization Jauniems (For the Young). Expeditions are financed by the state, and some private donors.
Zigmas Pakštaitis, a university student, came back from the 2014 expedition with both stories and insights. This year Mission Siberia went to the region of Krasnoyarsk in the middle of Siberia, where many Lithuanians were sent in the 1940s. Today the city of Krasnoyarsk, some 700 kilometers north of the border with Mongolia, has a Lithuanian community of about a thousand members.
Pakštaitis was 16 years old when that year’s Mission Siberia expedition came to his school. And he was fascinated. Ever since then, he had thought about going himself. But the hurdles were high. The year that he applied so did 700 others. But only 15 would have the opportunity to go. “The day that I got the message that I was one of the 15 lucky ones, I just screamed out loud! I was so glad.”
He had read about the horrors that the deportees went through, but it was not until he met some of them before the trip that the experiences sunk in. He and the delegates heard of hardships that were difficult to fathom: extreme cold and heat, hard work and lack of food.
“Meeting them in Vilnius made us better prepared for our journey,” he said. “But after our two weeks in Siberia, the picture of the life of the deportees became more nuanced.”
“In Krasnoyarsk, he said, the expedition met several people who told us that they had returned to Lithuania in the 1950s, only to realize that life back home was very difficult. So they ended up going back to Siberia where Russian employers offered them higher salaries and good housing. I wasn’t aware that some deportees actually returned.”
Researchers have found that Lithuanians were treated even worse than the deportees returning to other Soviet republics. They were seen as bandits and criminals, despite the fact that very few of them had committed any crimes before being sent away. They had problems finding jobs as well as housing and some of them have told researchers that they were treated like someone who had caught leprosy.
“I had not heard of the treatment of the returning deportees; it was new for me when I heard it from the Lithuanians living in Siberia today,” said Pakštaitis.
The fate of the deportees could not be talked about openly until Lithuania was on its way to gain independence in the late 1980s. After that many families went to Siberia to bring home the remains of their loved ones, who posthumously were treated as heroes. Nobody wanted to think of the treatment that the living deportees received on returning home 30 years earlier. Even today the fate of returning deportees is not known among the wider public because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of Lithuania’s modern history where the deportees can only be seen as victims of Soviet terror.
Despite the deportations being such a vital part of modern Lithuanian history, many Lithuanians have rather superficial knowledge of what actually happened. During all his years in school, Zigmas says that he and his classmates were never introduced to an ex-deportee. Thousands of them are still alive, but the interest in hearing their stories is astonishingly low. Why?
Karolis Žemaitis of Jauniems explained the lack of interest, saying that something went wrong between the generations back in the late 1980s when it became possible to talk about the deportations. “Young people at that time were told about the deportations, documentaries were shown, but in some way it never really sunk in. ‘Yes, we understand that you suffered, but don’t rub it in, let us talk about the future instead’,” has been a common reaction among the young.”
Žemaitis, who recently finished his university studies, recognizes this feeling himself. “Additionally, the older generation has had a tendency to blame the young. [They say] that we don’t do enough for our country, that we are lazy and just think of ourselves. That doesn’t make it easier for us to put a great interest into their struggle at that time.”
He hopes that Mission Siberia can be a kind of mediator, a link between the generations. “By describing what we have seen during the trips and telling the stories we have heard, we can make the deportations come alive for young Lithuanians.”
Many former deportees are seldom or never asked about their stories. Sara Radžiūnienė’s family was affected both by the terror of the communists and the Nazis because they were Jewish. When she was 12, she, her three siblings and her parents were taken from their home in Lazdijai (close to the Polish border) and sent to Siberia in June 1941, just weeks before Germany defeated the Soviets and occupied the country. The rest of her big family — aunts, grandparents, cousins — were killed by the Nazis that following autumn.
Lithuania had more than 200,000 Jews before the war, some of whom were rather wealthy and therefore a target for the Soviet authorities. Researchers believe that more than 3,000 were deported — yet another fact not well known in Lithuania, where the black and white view is that Lithuanians were sent to Siberia by the Soviets whereas the Jews were killed by the Nazis.
So in a paradoxical way, Radžiūnienė’s was saved by being deported — but like others in her family she could easily have died during those first hard years in Siberia. “Both my father and one of my brothers died,” she told me when we meet in her lovely wooden house in the little town of Nemenčine outside of Vilnius.
Her father was separated from the family at the last train stop in Lithuania. He was sent to a camp for men where the working conditions were extremely hard. “We don’t exactly know when he died or from what he died. We got a letter from one of his friends at the camp, a letter that included a photo of me and my deceased brother that was found in my father’s pocket.”
She showed me the photo which is so warn down along the edges that it barely fits together. “My brother died from dysentery after having been jailed,” she said. “His only crime was that he crossed a river where his horse went thru the ice and was wounded.”
Radžiūnienė herself lived in dreadful conditions in the camp for the first two years, 1941—1943. Just like many other deportees she had to go to bed hungry night after night. During the war, one out of four deportees in the Gulag camps and settlements died — a higher number than any time before or after.
She was fortunate though in meeting a 16-year old classmate of her brother’s, her future husband in her railway car on the way to Siberia! The boy had come close to missing his family when they were deported. He was not home that early morning when two Russians and two Lithuanians woke up the family and put them on an open lorry. The boy heard of his family being taken away and rushed to the train station where he joined them and Sara Radžiūnienė’s family.
Radžiūnienė herself has very clear memories of that morning that changed her life forever: “They knocked at the door at 4 a.m. We had no idea what they wanted, no warnings had come. They told us to pack maximum 100 kilos for a ‘long journey’. We did not have enough suitcases since many of our belongings already had been confiscated by the Russians. We put sheets on the floor where we piled up our most important belongings. I remember how my mother told me to put on three dresses. Somehow she realized that we needed all the clothes we could bring.”
The clothes helped them to survive the harsh winters.
The clichéd image from the Gulag is of slave workers digging for gold or coal in a Siberian snowstorm. But workers also carried out other jobs, such as building airplanes in the Moscow region and nuclear power plants in Central Russia and developing fishing villages by the Pacific Ocean. As a 14-year old, Radžiūnienė started working as an accountant in a forest company and she never went to school again.
In the camps, it was common for women to have sexual relationships with the wardens; in return they would get higher rations of food. Sara knew several women who did and was not prepared to blame them. “They did it for their families. I could have ended up doing it myself, if it wasn’t for my husband. We loved each other so much, and the wardens seemed to respect us for it.”
After 1944 conditions got better: they could buy seeds and started planting their own vegetables. Sara Radžiūnienė married when she was 17 and the following years were not dominated by misery, although living conditions were tough. When it was possible to return home in 1954, her husband’s family left — but Sara Radžiūnienė and her husband stayed for more than five years. The forestry company where they both worked needed them badly and gave them free tickets to summer resorts by the Black Sea. They were not in a hurry to leave.
Eventually Sara Radžiūnienė went home while her husband kept on working because she wanted to know if it was possible to get a job in occupied Lithuania. She was lucky, had a contact within a ministry and could get a position as an accountant. Her surviving brother though, who traveled home with her, was less successful — and ended up returning to Siberia for a couple of years.
When I mentioned Sara Radžiūnienė’s life story to Pakštaitis, he nodded sympathetically. In Siberia the expedition members had heard similar stories. They met one Lithuanian woman who moved to Siberia to marry a deportee. His mother had told her son that he could not marry a Russian but had to find a wife back home. When it was possible to return to Lithuania eventually he was successful. Pakštaitis said that meeting the woman helped change his view of Siberia: “When we met the woman, her husband had been dead since long. But she had stayed in Siberia. Her life was there, not in Lithuania. Meeting her and other Lithuanians in Krasnoyarsk made me realize how difficult it is to view issues as black and white. I had to alter my old notion of Siberia as a place where all my countrymen suffered all the time. Yes, many suffered, but not all of them — and not all the time.”
He was also struck by the love of Lithuania that several children and grandchildren of deportees showed. One man in his 40s, who spoke no Lithuanian, had a Lithuanian flag on his car and a bracelet with the Lithuanian colors. Pakštaitis recalls, “He was so grateful that we had come. He talked of his love for Lithuanian music and basketball players and took pictures of all of us. It was a very touching encounter.”
For three days the delegates walked along a river and camped at night trying to find remains of villages where Lithuanians had once lived. But they could only find a couple of logs. They did learn about the conditions though. “We got a grasp of how it was living there. The mosquitoes were killing us; it must have been awful when they lived there, since they had fewer opportunities to shield themselves.”
During the search the expedition also had to protect themselves against wild bears as a Polish priest had recently been attacked and injured. So they banged their pots to scare the animals away and took shifts staying awake at night.
One of the girls in the group had a family connection to Krasnoyarsk. “One day [she] went off by herself. Her grandparents had lived for several years in the Krasnoyarsk region and now she wanted to find traces of them. She found the street where they had lived; it was a very gripping moment for her.”
The delegates had time to visit nine graveyards with Lithuanian graves. Some cemeteries were in good shape, while others were overgrown with bushes and trees. In some cases the Russian part of the cemetery was looked after, while the Lithuanian part was a mess. The delegates borrowed or rented tools, bought lumber, and worked for hours to tidy up the area, cutting bushes, mending fences, picking up trash, repairing crosses, and restoring graves.
They also found some empty grave sites in the graveyards. Pakštaitis explained why: “We found several graves with the inscription: “has returned home.” The remains in these graves had been taken back to Lithuania and reburied there. Those who did this out of love of their deceased family members, I totally respect. But I am more skeptical about the people who went to Siberia because it was the thing to do during the struggle for independence, who did it because their neighbors did it. I was sad to see that some people left open holes there, they didn’t show respect to the dead.”
Today, with changes in the political climate in Russia, the Mission Siberia expeditions have become even more important. During their stay in Russia, the delegates were watched all the time by the authorities. In 2006, the year of the first expedition, Russia was still talking about deepening cooperation with EU. Today it is displaying aggressive policies and wants to describe the Soviet period in a more positive way.
For several years now, the most well-preserved Gulag Camp, Perm 36 in the Ural Mountains, has been a museum where visitors have been able to learn about the oppression of the political dissidents jailed there. Now the Kremlin has decided that such information should be banned from the museum.
In this geopolitical climate, it is important that more people get a real knowledge of what happened in Siberia and gather information from independent sources. However, with Russia threatening to attack the Baltic states, it is more difficult to discuss the nuances of that period. The Lithuanian authorities would like to describe all Lithuanians as victims and all Russians as persecutors. But reality was not so simple. Karolis Žemaitis from the Mission Siberia office has an example from his grandparents, who were deported.
“It was local Lithuanians who took them from their homes and brought them to the train station. But it was a Russian guard who rescued my grandfather and his mother there at the station. We Lithuanians are still afraid of admitting our own guilt during the dark parts of our history. But when we do, the Kremlin also uses this in their propaganda. It is very complicated.”
Violeta Davoliūtė, a young historian who researched the deportations had similar reflections about the efforts to preserve the stereotype. She said, “I have been criticized for playing into Soviet propaganda when I write about this period, when I, for example, mention that some returning deportees joined the KGB since they were not welcomed by fellow Lithuanians upon their return.”
She stresses that this image of Lithuanians as heroes and Russians as villains does not help people understand what actually happened.
Lithuanian authorities have another reason for tending to portray the life of the deportees with little nuance. Lithuanians — and others who suffered under communism — often feel that they have not gained the attention they deserve for their sufferings. Compared to coverage of the horrors of Nazism, for example, fewer books are written, fewer museums have been opened, and fewer films have been made. This lack of world attention may contribute to the exaggerated descriptions of the life in the Gulag archipelago.
The Mission Siberia expeditions do, however, try to nuance the picture. After their return from Siberia, each delegate gives around ten speeches in schools throughout Lithuania during the school year. I listened to Pakštaitis speak to students in St. Kristoforas Gymnasium in Vilnius in May. The students did not ask any questions, but I am sure that they were affected by a story that encapsulates so much of the sorrow that the deportations caused: “We met a man who told us about a very young Lithuanian woman who had been dragged from her home barely a week after her wedding. Her dreams were brutally taken away from her and she never saw her husband again. In Krasnoyarsk, she just sat by the river side looking into the water, saying nothing, slowly disappearing into mental illness. Local kids went down to the river to give her food. But her life was already over.” ≈
1 Between 1940 and 1958, 332,000 Lithuanians were deported and imprisoned. People were sent to inhabited lands to build their own settlements. In some of the northern settlements the death rate was higher than in the camps. In the Gulag camps, the work was the main purpose. Those in the Gulag camps also contributed to the war effort. They built roads, railroads, and airports, and produced, for instance, 1.7 million gas masks. Sources: Anne Applebaum, Gulag. A History (Doubleday, 2004) and Maps of Memory, ed. Violeta Davoliūtė and Tomas Balkelis (Vilnius: Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, 2012).
2 Since 2006, ten Mission Siberia expeditions have gone to the following areas (some expeditions have gone to several of them): Irkutsk, Tomsk, Komya, Krasnojarsk, Buryatia, Sverdlovsk, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Khakassia, Tiumen.