A few weeks ago here on Baltic Avenue I posted an essay (“The House that Rūta Built”) about Antanas Gricevičius (1877-1949), the candy company he started a century ago, and the chocolate museum that serves as a continuing tribute to the man and his family. The Soviet occupation of 1939 robbed Mr. Gricevičius of his business, which was subsequently nationalized, and of his wife and young son, who were deported to Siberia.
I made an effort at the museum to find out what charges were filed against Mrs. Gricevičius and her son, but I had no luck. One suspects that they were among the millions who were guilty mainly of harboring bourgeois aspirations in a proletarian paradise. Ruta Sepetys, in her book, Between Shades of Gray (New York: Philomel Books, 2011), writes that the Kremlin “drafted lists of people considered anti-Soviet who would be murdered, sent to prison, or deported into slavery in Siberia. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, military servicemen, writers, business owners, musicians, artists, and even librarians were all considered anti-Soviet and were added to the growing list slated for wholesale extermination” (p. 339).
If you ever have wondered what it meant to be swept up in a dragnet and deposited in Siberia, Between Shades of Gray is for you. It’s a novel, but the book is based on careful research. It’s the harrowing tale of a mother and her two children conveyed thousands of miles from Kaunas, Lithuania, to a desolate port on the shores of the Laptev Sea, not far from the North Pole. It’s a story featuring cattle cars, NKVD bullies, forced confessions, scurvy, head lice, slave labor, maggoty porridge, the ravages of permafrost-bite, bullets in the back of the head, and resiliency and courage in the face of terror and indignity—in short, the best and worst of the human condition.
No doubt you have read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and you imagine that it constitutes the last word on this morbid subject. But Ms. Sepetys, who was born in Michigan and currently resides in Tennessee, has produced a magisterial work of her own, a novel written with a teenaged audience in mind, and one that will resonate with older readers as well—“a brilliant story of love and survival,” according to Laurie Halse Anderson in her book jacket blurb.
The plot revolves around 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, who reveres her remarkable mother, Elena, and the father, Kostas, from whom they have been separated by the authorities. Lina is an impressive young woman. She watches out for her little brother, Jonas; steals files and firewood from the NKVD every time she has a chance; and expresses her emotions through drawings inspired by the paintings of Edvard Munch. I confess that I found it difficult not to see Lina in my mind’s eye as the subject of a Munch painting called “Puberty” (see image above).
In the course of their expedition to the ends of the earth, Lina and Jonas befriend a spirited young man called Andrius Arvydas and his mother, who subsequently agrees to be a sex worker in the cabin of the work camp’s commandant. The great virtue of this book is that the author simply refuses to pass judgment on Mrs. Arvydas or any of the other characters, all of whom are imperfect in one way or another. Her ambivalence extends to the most selfish and churlish of the deportees, the ones who sign confessions in return for enhanced rations, and even one of the guards, Nikolai Kretzsky. Elena Vilkas makes an appeal to Kretzsky’s better nature—who knew that he had one!—and the NKVD brute winds up saving lives in the camp, including that of young Jonas. As for Lina and Andrius, their relationship is a testament to the proposition that love is powerful enough to humanize even the most unpromising circumstances and make them almost bearable.
So, yes, Between Shades of Gray helps us to understand what happened to people—ordinary people who lived ordinary lives—whose middle-class values marked them for arrest and resettlement in the wastelands of Siberia. This novel represents, as someone once said about second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience, which is why I highly recommend it as an inspiring read.