Book review – Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas. Peirene Press, London, UK: 2018 (ISBN 978-1-908670-44-1)


For Central and Eastern Europe, the rise of the totalitarian dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin dominated the twentieth century. Both were intent on ‘crushing for ever the free spirit of the individual… systems of terror and death from which there was to be no way out’ (Afterword, Tomas Venclova, p201). During World War Two, through the ravages of Nazism and Stalinism, Lithuania lost a third of the population it had in 1940.

Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s testimony of her time in the Stalinist gulag at Trofimovsk in Siberia is one of the few pieces of survival literature that remains from that period. Not only did testimony have to evade Soviet censorship, which continued to erase the truth after the fall of the USSR, but those people who survived often did not dare to speak out, or, as Venclova puts it, ‘felt that their suffering was inexpressible in / words, that it was at the limit of human language’ (p201/203)

Dalia’s story – how and when it was written, how it was concealed, the circumstances in which it was lost and then rediscovered – is fascinating in itself.

But first: Who was Dalia Grinkevičiūtė?

  • 1927 Dalia Grinkevičiūtė is born in Kaunas, former capital of Lithuania.
  • 1941 Dalia (age 14), her mother and brother are deported from Lithuania to a Siberian labour camp.
  • Six years of the ‘factory of death (600 grams of bread, frigid weather, scurvy, typhus, lice and a polar winter)’ (p71) at Trofimovsk.
  • Aged 21, Dalia escapes, granted permission to study at college in Yakutsk.
  • Dalia’s mother is caught stowing away with her on the steamer to Yakutsk; Dalia is sent to Khangalas coal mine.
  • 1949 mother and daughter are reunited and flee illegally home to Lithuania; forced to live in hiding.
  • Age 22, Dalia begins to write down her memories of exile aged 14-15, on loose sheets of paper, and in the present tense.

Through the horror of the gulags, where hard labour, starvation, insanitary barracks, infestation and disease are compounded by polar winters and freezing arctic blizzards, Dalia’s strength of character shines like a beacon of hope.

As the Lithuanian deportees cross Russia, and the tribulations have only just begun, Dalia recalls the melancholy of lighting bonfires in the forest and singing old songs, ‘the immense forest filled with the anguished Lithuanian melodies’. Already she is noting that ‘I’d get a bad feeling, as though I was seeing the shadow of death hovering above some heads’ (p25).

Very early on, she seizes upon the idea that she is going to survive against all odds. Later, while those around her spend winters lying in agony on their pallets, crippled by frostbite, she forces herself to get up and go outside every day: ‘I was convinced of my survival’ (p.26).

At Trofimovsk, outside the barracks they have built with their own hands out of bricks and wood, a hill of corpses grows steadily higher as time passes. By a certain point, the infirmary, a neighbouring barracks, has effectively become a morgue. Dalia overhears ‘the nurse’s hair-raising shrieks, as she kneels to pray… and her hysterical wailing’ (p63). Conditions have become so terrible as to be almost inexpressible.

However, Dalia’s moments of horror are countered by memories and observations of profound beauty and humanity. There is the distress when she and her brother Juozas realise that their mother has been secretly dividing her own rations between the two of them and going without herself: ‘frozen and brutalized by the mountains of logs to which we were hitched every day, we would grab our share without asking “Mama, have you eaten?”’ (p68). There is the young man, Albertas, whom Dalia has been close to. The night he is sent as a prisoner to Stolby labour camp in the ‘vortex of the storm’ (p95), a journey which he and his comrades undoubtedly will not survive, she dreams of him:

‘He is picking flowers in a meadow filled with magnificent blooms. Suddenly, his face appears in front of me… The wind ruffles his blond hair. “It is finished,” he says, then shudders and closes his eyes. I sit up and scream’ (p95).

Dalia’s survival is a feat of endurance; however, it is her grace and mercy towards others that throws into relief her stubborn will and force of character. She observes her fellow-sufferers with a sharp but non-judgemental perspicacity: the extremes of subterfuge and deceit, the hallucinations about food; the desperate methods of devouring food and acquiring fuel for the stove in the dead of winter. People stealing from one another, eating raw flour and rotting fish; the overseers talking about tinned fruit and other delicacies while doling out minute rations to the queues of emaciated prisoners.

‘Kazlauskas will even steal the sledge dogs’ rations, after they’ve been unhitched and are being fed. But stealing food from a starving dog that’s pulled sledges all day is no easy matter. Kazlauskas’s face is often bloody after an encounter with the dogs’ (p60).

One springtime as the snows begin to melt and to flood the barracks, Dalia recalls her thirteenth birthday. After her girlfriends had left she stood with her father looking out onto the garden full of blossom. ‘”Life, Dalia, isn’t all fun and games,”’ he said to her, ‘”Life is a battle. Prepare for it.”’ His eyes filled with tears. ‘I remember thinking, no, life is beautiful, not hard, and it will always be like a splendid dream’ (p154).

By the time Dalia was reunited with her mother in Yakutsk after her time at the Khangalas coal mine, her mother was terminally ill. She died in 1950, and Dalia, still in hiding in Lithuania, dug a secret grave for her in the concrete floor of the cellar of her parent’s house. She also buried her sheets of written memoir in a glass jar in the garden. In late May 1950 she was arrested and sent back to Siberia. Six years later she once again returned to Lithuania. Unable to find her glass jar of papers, she began to write them again in a shortened form in 1974, having been working as a doctor in the intervening years.

The original version was discovered by chance, four years after Dalia’s death in 1991 aged 60, when a peony plant was being moved in the garden. Both versions were published in 1997 as Lietuviai prie Laptevų jūros (Lithuanians by the Laptev Sea). Shadows on the Tundra is based on the earlier 1949-50 memoirs, which are said to give a more direct, detailed and emotional sense of Dalia’s experiences than her later writing.

Dalia’s story is a stunning, unforgettable and remarkable piece of international survival literature that has been beautifully translated into English for the first time by Delija Valiukenas and presented by Peirene Press as part of their Home in Exile Series. It belongs on the bookshelves alongside the works of Primo Levi, Anne Frank and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Today the 1949-50 manuscript is housed in the National Museum in Vilnius and the text is, understandably, compulsory reading for Lithuanian schoolchildren.


4 thoughts on “Book review – Shadows on the Tundra

Add yours

  1. it is really sad and harrowing book and thanks to you i discovered another fascinating book.
    Peirene books produces every year fascinating translated books each year and when you are ready you should discover KOLYMA STORIES by Varlam Shalamov newly translated by nyrb

    Liked by 1 person

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