Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė

tundra_2018_cream_webNonfiction – print. Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas. Peirene Press, 2018. Originally published 1997. 192 pgs. Purchased.

In 1991, a jar filled with scraps of paper was discovered buried in Kaunas, the former capital of Lithuania. The papers document nearly three years in Dalia Grinkevičiūtė after she deported to a Soviet gulag in Siberia in 1941 at the age of fourteen with her mother and older brother. Grinkevičiūtė had buried the papers in 1950, fearing they would be discovered by the KGB, but was unable to locate them when she returned to Lithuania in 1956.

Grinkevičiūtė rewrote her memoirs in the 1970s; a shortened version reached Moscow in 1979 but wasn’t published in Lithuania in 1988. Sadly, Grinkevičiūtė passed away before her memoirs were published in her native country or before the jar – with the version published in this volume by Peirene Press – could be found.

I typically pick up a novella published by Peirene Press only if I have enough time to read it in one sitting. Their pieces are typically so engrossing – and so short – that I resent any interruption that comes along. With Grinkevičiūtė’s memoir, though, I found myself seeking out interruptions, needing a break from the stark and absorbing bleakness of her experiences.

Grinkevičiūtė wrote her memoir in the present tense, taking on the voice of a fourteen-year-old subjected to horrific exploitation.  Throughout the nearly two years documented in this memoir, she tries to hold onto her understanding of civility, condemning those who steal and cheat their fellow prisoners. Then comes the heart wrenching moment when she realizes her hunger has driven her to accept her mother’s rations without thought or concern for her mother’s wellbeing.

She admonishes herself for her actions and attempts to reconcile her code with her reality, with the realization that a body’s need for food outweighs all other considerations. (Except, as Grinkevičiūtė documents, for a mother helplessly watching her children starve.) This debasement of humanity is difficult for Grinkevičiūtė; she clings even tighter to her resolve to win and her view that Lithuanians are more civilized than their Soviet overseers or fellow Finnish and native Siberian prisoners.

 “I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.” (pg. 36)

Both the forward and the afterword to this edition mention how Grinkevičiūtė’s memoir has become an important piece in Lithuanian literature, providing an explanation for what may have happened to those who disappeared during Soviet occupation. I can certainly appreciate its historical significance, particularly since the American history lenses through which I view the world often leave out the Baltic states in the narrative of the Cold War.

Yet, I also felt like I was reading the memoir out of a sense of obligation. I mentioned the moment with Grinkevičiūtė’s mother for two reasons: (1) it speaks to the morality and resolve Grinkevičiūtė carries throughout her time in the gulag and (2) it is the only moment where Grinkevičiūtė’s emotional plight comes through.

I’ve written before about how uncomfortable I feel judging a survivor for placing a barrier between their recollections and their emotions in their memoir, and I’m struggling with the same quandary as I attempt to assess Grinkevičiūtė’s memoir. I felt disconnected with this memoir because of how Grinkevičiūtė focused on events rather than emotions and, therefore, I did not read it with the usual gusto that I find with publications by Peirene Press.

But I also recognize and respect that memoirs by people who suffered horrific abuse should be written in a way that best allows the writer to process their own trauma. And, if nothing else, this memoir provided me with a necessary lesson in Soviet-Lithuanian history.


  1. Pingback: Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg | Ardent Reader

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