Book Review: Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), is a memoir of the young author’s deportation, along with her mother and seventeen year old brother, from their comfortable home in Kaunas, the then capital of Lithuania, to a Gulag in Siberia. At the time Dalia was fourteen years old but to earn food for her family was required to work sixteen hour days of gruelling manual labour alongside adults. The memoir was written following her escape aged twenty-two, the pages buried in the garden of her Kaunas home before she was arrested and deported again. The papers were discovered quite by chance many years later, after Lithuania had once again attained independence. They were published in 1997, four years after the author’s death. They provide an account of life during Dalia’s terrible journey and her first year in the Gulag. The memoir has an immediacy often lost when writers rely on long held memories. It is a devastating depiction of the dehumanising of a people.

On June 14, 1941 at three o’clock in the morning, following orders from Moscow, mass arrests and deportations began simultaneously in all of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Juozas Grinkevičius, the head of the Lithuanian Bank’s currency commission and a mathematics teacher at the gymnasium, was taken to a concentration camp in the northern Urals where he died from starvation in October 1943. The extermination of his family had also been planned.

This book, his daughter Dalia’s account of her experiences, opens in June 1941 after she has been placed in one of sixty-three covered wagons being pulled by a train leaving Kaunas. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading into an uncertain future.

“Secondary school, childhood, fun, games, theatre, girlfriends – everything is in the past. You’re a grown-up now. You’re fourteen. You have a mother to look after, a father to replace. You have just taken your first step in the battle for life.”

The train journey lasts for weeks. At stops along the way carriages are uncoupled as some of the deportees are bound for collective farms. Dalia’s worth is assessed as one would an animal. She is housed in a barracks and put to work in the fields alongside deported Ukrainians. Their supervisors treat them as criminals.

The next stage of Dahlia’s journey again starts by train but this time they are packed in so tightly they can only stand. Illness and lice now plague them. When finally unloaded they sleep in a stable, or perhaps it is a club hall – five thousand filthy, unwashed people, grateful to be able to stretch out and relax exhausted legs. They are near a river and a rumour circulates that they are to be transported to America. Dalia wants to believe this, it offers hope, but in her heart she cannot.

Housed in wooden sheds and selling their few possessions for food they sing songs from their homeland and gather wood from nearby forests to burn for heat. Soon they are moved onto barges and taken down the Angara River before being unloaded onto a beach. From there lorries transport them the three hundred kilometres to the Lena River. By now leaders have emerged within the group and they are learning of each other’s histories.

After a two week wait, the Lithuanians are once again loaded unto barges. They are being fed but there are still regular deaths. Those who had felt superior in their former lives try to give themselves airs and graces. Dalia understands that any influence they may have had, any ability to offer favours, has been stripped away.

Forests and lesser vegetation are replaced by tundra. Dalia is disembarked where the riverbank is steep and a cold wind blows down from the mouth of the Lena. The people find just a few tents and wooden structures alongside piles of bricks. It is now August 1942 and they have reached their destination – Trofimovsk Island in the Arctic. They must build their own accommodation on this previously uninhabited outpost if they are to survive. They wear only the clothes they brought from Kaunas.

The Soviets have decreed that a fish processing plant will be built and worked by these exiled people. The Lithuanians and then Finnish prisoners are racing against time before the onset of a frozen, blizzard filled winter. In Trofimovsk the sun sets in November and does not rise again until February.

Inadequate brick and timber shelters are built, each housing too many people. Those who can work, including Dalia, are sent each day to walk for miles into the tundra and search for logs carried down from the upper reaches of the Lena river. These must be chopped out of the ice, tied into rope harnesses and dragged to Trofimovsk to be used to heat the apartments and offices of the supervisors. The prisoners do not have the right to take any of this wood. It is the only source of fuel. Dalia sneaks out and steals it, at great risk.

Dalia describes the terrible pain – from illness and wounds caused by the rope harnesses – as she helps drag the logs up the steep and frozen shores of Trofimovsk Island. The workers have no strength or energy. Their feet are wrapped in frozen sacks tied together with ropes. They suffer from exhaustion, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene and starvation. Hundreds die.

The Trofimovsk superiors live in warm houses built from logs. They dress in furs, eat bread, butter, sugar and canned goods sent to the Soviet Union by the allies from America. They regard the Finns and Lithuanians as sub species, observing their: lice ridden, rag covered bodies; the damp and filth of their shelters; the pails overflowing with shit from diarrhea. The dead are piled up and left for the wild animals – around three hundred that first winter. Food is withheld from the living to force them to work until they drop. Any possessions the prisoners have managed to retain are taken by the supervisors for a pittance – gold watches for a bag of flour or tinned food that may then be stolen by the other starving people.

Those who somehow survive that first, terrible winter are offered small respite when a doctor arrives at the Gulag and demands that the supervisors allow the workers to eat the fish and other provisions that were always available – the supervisors would have preferred the barrelled fish to rot. Baths are constructed and clothing disinfected.

As the river starts to thaw the workers are sent to other islands to catch and process fresh fish – the working factory envisaged. Dalia lives in a basic yurt but after the horrors of the winter even the pain caused by dipping damaged hands into frozen water and then salting fish is tolerable because she can now steal enough to eat. Unlike the theft of the wood to burn at Trofimovsk, pilfering of fish is tolerated. The work they are doing is pointless anyway. In a country where payment is made per unit and corruption a way of life, the barrels leak and fresh fish mixed with putrid meaning produce rots and will eventually be dumped in the sea.

Dalia describes the main camp supervisor as a  psychopath. It is hard to understand how such treatment of other human beings could be allowed to occur, although at a lesser level brings to mind the actions of our current government towards refugees and the homeless.

This is a striking and searing depiction of survival in horrific circumstances. A disturbingly evocative yet vital read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

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