Over spring break I read Between Shades of Gray (published March 2011), a young adult historical fiction novel by Ruta Sepetys. The story follows a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941 who is taken from her home with her mother and younger brother by the NKVD (Soviet secret police). They are put on a crowded, dirty train car for weeks only to end up in a work camp in the coldest part of Siberia.
I read on the back of the book that the author, Ruta Sepetys, did extensive research because this is based on her family’s own history of the deportation of minorities. After some googling I found the book’s website linked with an interview of her explaining the history and her research process for this novel.
When she was visiting her cousins in Lithuania she asked to see photos of her grandfather, but they informed her that they had to burn all of them because he was a high-ranking officer in the Lithuanian military and would have been executed by Stalin, so they couldn’t let anyone know they were related to him. After digging and learning more about her history she realized she needed to tell this story that so many people don’t know about.
I was not familiar with the deportation of minorities other than knowing about the Holocaust so I found all of this pretty surprising, but “ethnic cleansing” was actually not new during WW2. During WW1 the Ottoman Empire did a very similar thing with the Armenian population and engaged in genocidal massacres, and Russia removed Germans and Jews as well (von Geldern). “Within months of the Nazi invasion in 1941, at least 400,000 citizens of German descent living along the Volga were transported eastwards to Central Asia and Siberia” (von Geldern).
The Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia, & Estonia) are on the western side of Russia. In 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact leaving the Baltics to Stalin. In 1940 the Baltics were annexed into the Soviet Union and disappeared from maps. Stalin then started drafting lists of people thought to be anti-Soviet like: military, doctors, lawyers, business owners, teachers, librarians, priests, and even children. Though they committed no crimes they were arrested, separated by men & women and children. They were stuffed into cattle cars, men sent to prisons and women sent to Siberia.
In order to tell this story Ruta Sepetys visited Lithuania several times interviewing survivors, historians, family members, and members of parliament. She also spent time inside train cars and soviet prisons. She said she specifically chose to write about the people sent to the Artic because they had some of the worst living conditions.
Several situations from the novel were taken directly from survivors’ experiences. One survivor, Irena, spoke to Sepetys for hours. One situation used in the novel was when young Irena walked over to the train car holding her father and other men. Her father gave her his wedding ring and told her that her mother would need to sell it for food. Sepetys also mentions that in her interviews with survivors some say that NKVD had secretly helped them, which occurs in the novel as well.
Looking over a decree by Stalin about deported minorities I noticed things mentioned in the novel as well like “settlers will be allowed to take with them personal items, clothing, household objects, dishes and utensils, and up to 500 kilograms of food per family.” In the novel the main character, Lina, is able to pack a suitcase with clothing and some personal items even as the NKVD is yelling at them to leave. The decree also mentions that property and building will be taken over. Before they leave their home Lina’s mother starts breaking all her beautiful plates because she doesn’t want the NKVD to use it.
Sepetys says that her goal for writing the novel was that it will end up in schools and libraries and that this part of history, which many don’t know about, won’t be lost.
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