Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is actually more of a Lithuanian WWII book than a Russian WWII book, but I wanted to read it since I read the description and, since it takes place largely in Russia, I decided to add it to my list. What I didn’t expect was to devour it so quickly.
A Note on History:
Before Soviet Russia came into World War II on the side of the Allies, it had signed a secret non-aggression pact with Germany which essentially gave the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia to Russia as well as part of Poland. The Soviet Union annexed Lithuania on August 3, 1940. In June 1941, any Lithuanian who even looked like they might oppose the new regime were deported to labor, often for dozens of years, in Siberia. About 132,000 Lithuanians were treated to this horror, some to work for a dozen years, even die abroad. Another 200,000 were imprisoned. It wasn’t until Stalin died in 1953 that deportees were released, a few survivors to tell the tale.
Lina Vilkas and her family are woken up in the middle of the night and bundled into trains headed for Siberia. Later, Lina finds out that her dad was marked as an accomplice when he helped their relatives escape Soviet-occupied Lithuania into Germany. While her dad heads to a prison, she, her mother and brother, are taken to northern Russia, and then Siberia…and then the Arctic Circle to labor and possibly die with their fellow deportees in conditions that are not just inhumane, but wicked.
Along the way, Lina meets people, one of which is Andrius, that changes her life. She uses her skills as an artist to send secret messages out into the world, hoping they find their way to her father.
This book is heart-wrenching. It tells about the conditions in which these people live, horrifying conditions that not even a dog should have to endure, and you wonder how anybody made it out alive when so many didn’t.
The characters were so life-like, portraying the contradictions, virtues, and vices of every human being. Our heroine is kind and angry at the same time. But the good inside always outlasts the bad.
Lina is a feisty 16-year-old girl that’s burdened with growing up much too fast. While she labors for dozens of hours to back-breaking work on a handful of bread, she draws at night. Art is her only release and in some ways her salvation.
Her brother, Jonas, is just 10, but he’s not given any latitude. He has to labor like the adults, but his sunny personality wins him unusual friends. He grows up in the white wastelands of the North Pole, surviving the Arctic winter with his sister and other Lithuanians in nothing more hearty than a hut made of driftwood glued together with moss.
Lina’s mother, Elena, sacrifices for her children, holding them to their humanity by her example of compassion and love, even for those mistreating them.
Andrius is the 17-year-old boy Lina meets in a labor camp before she’s deported further north. But that year of connection never leaves, even after years apart.
Nicolai is the enemy, a Russian soldier keeping Lina, her friends, and family in line. He’s also young and tormented by what he has to do. The compassion showed him by Lina and her family spurs him to do something that changes everything.
The story starts in Lithuania, but it occurs mostly in Russia. However, there’s a good portion that takes place in the transport trains because so much then forms the bonds that ties Lina and other deportees together and helps them endure the worst. They stop at the Alfai labor camp for about a year, then some are transported again to Trofimovsk, North Pole where the rest of the book takes place. Except for the epilogue that jumps forward decades to Lithuania. The structure—Lithuania, train, labor camp, train, labor camp, Lithuania—helps show the progression of the characters, how they change and react to their circumstances, how hardship breaks down or bolsters them, how they react ultimately to the injustices done to them.
This book is important. Important for people to know what was done largely in secret. Stalin was an awful person; 20 million people were murdered during his reign of terror. So many times in reading about World War II, I wonder if we really won that war. Because it feels like we sold our soul to the devil when we allied with Stalin and Soviet Russia. They perpetrated more horrors than the Nazis. It was just less well-known because the shroud of the Iron Curtain kept the evil hidden from the world for so many decades. Between Shades of Gray brings this to light through honest, simple language that touches the soul and teaches of so much:
Of Stalin and Hitler:
“We’re dealing with two devils who both want to rule hell.”
Of the struggle for survival:
“We’d been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we’d get a little closer.”
“‘But how can they just decide that we’re animals? They don’t even know us,’ I said.
‘We know us,’ said Mother. ‘They’re wrong. And don’t ever allow them to convince you otherwise. Do you understand?'”
Of the power of love:
“Love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy—love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”
I know that while some people rose to meet the challenge, found love within themselves, others did not and did horrible things to their fellow deportees in order to survive. But just one act of goodness in 12 years of genocide means that good wins. Good thriving in such a hostile environment is a powerful beacon of hope for us, both for the past and the future. This book whispers of that hope.