I read Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray with a group of Romanian high school and college students, and so what I say about it is influenced by my being together with them. Every tear that this book produced in me had within it a thought about them, children who, even unbeknownst to them, carry within their bodies the traumas that their previous generations experienced during years of communist regime.
Sepetys witnessed transgenerational trauma when she visited Lithuania, to see the part of her family that remained back in Europe. Her grandfather had left the country when the Soviets invaded it in 1940, following the secret pact between Hitler and Stalin, also known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact or the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. In his The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 (Basic Books, 2014), Roger Moorhouse reminds that the secret understanding between these two tyrants is not part of our collective memory, unless we come from Eastern Europe. We forget, as he says, that these “two regimes, whose later confrontation would be the defining clash of World War II in Europe, stood side by side for twenty-two months, almost a third of the conflict’s entire span” (xxiv). The pact divided Eastern and Central Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Baltic states were given to the Soviets. Ruta’s grandfather had been in the Lithuanian army, and he knew what fate was waiting for him if the Russians caught him, so he fled, together with his family. An American born in Michigan, Sepetys went back to encounter her roots. She asked for photos with her grandparents or with her father. “And suddenly the room became very quiet,” she remembers in her promotion video for the book.
Silence. One always finds it in the background of stories with deportations or with political imprisonment. Part of it is due to pain: survivors avoid bringing upon themselves unbearable suffering. Part of it is also due to the conditioning through which people have gone: it was dangerous to mention those who had left, so you had to erase their memories, as if they had never existed. You don’t talk about those whom the regime labeled “enemies of the state” or “fascists,” the usual accusation that the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, placed on its enemies, having no interest in truth, but only in a labeling that equated condemnation to deportation or death. Among these enemies, there were children barely born, who had no other guilt than coming to life in the “wrong” family.
The silence that Ruta Sepetys experienced during her trip in Lithuania had to do with the departure of her family. Her relatives had to burn all pictures and forget their names, so they could no longer be associated with them and risk prisons or deportations. They had no pictures to share. Between Shades of Gray is thus also a trip on the memory lane to recover the stories of those who Stalin wanted to erase. The silence of her relatives gave birth to the idea of the book.
The book feels real. Even if all of the characters are fictional, except one who appears at the end of the story, they feel very much alive. Lina, the narrator of the story, a teenager who is taken together with her younger brother and her mother to Siberia, will remain in the hearts of all who will have the courage to experience her pain. Perhaps more than anyone else, Elena, Lina’s mother, will stay with you. She’s the one whose light penetrates through the various shades of gray that take hold of people’s souls in Siberia, regardless of whether they are deportees or NKVD soldiers. She is always present in the moment, always embracing others, and always trying to find the eternal person that is hidden beneath the darkness that Siberia builds around people’s souls. What is remarkable in Sepetys’ writing is that she creates characters that are so authentic that you expect to find them if you decided to go to Siberia to look for them. They are as full of life as any person you encounter, and their right to live is shouted from their chests as loudly as Stalin’s attempt to annihilate his real or imaginary enemies from the face of the earth.
Nevertheless, one wonders: how is it possible to live when death surrounds you? Where do you find human dignity when you are called a “fascist pig”?
Perhaps paradoxically, Sepetys’ story finds how meaning is often discovered precisely when you are on the brink of the abyss. First, the book gives birth to anger, similar to the anger you have when you witness injustices that cannot be solved. What justice can we expect for a few days old child who dies in a cattle train to Siberia? Or what kind of justice can his mother have, after she is shot in the head, because a grieving mother is a nuisance even in Siberia? If this question reminds you of Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion, who cannot accept a world without justice, you are correct: the story has awakened the Ivan side of my personality. But I think it can awaken such feelings in anyone of us. We know that there is always this aspect of human life that we cannot change: death. In a world of uncertainty, one thing is certain, that there will be a time when we will no longer be here. Before that time, there are many aspects of human life that we feel we can change and that we have the duty to do so; one such aspect is as universal as death: suffering. We all have experienced suffering and have desired in one moment or another to do something about it, to act in way that would eradicate or, at least, diminish it.
Perhaps we can call this desire to eliminate suffering a desire to beautify the world. Exhausted by the ugliness that surrounds us, by innumerable instances of violence, treason, or boorishness, we want to change our reality and the people belonging to it in the name of the good. This is, however, the feature of all self-proclaimed saviors, be them family members or politicians: they perceive the world must be in a certain way, according to their own criteria of beauty, and they don’t understand your “inability” to live in it. The communists wanted to beautify the world according to their principles, too. If you didn’t fit, you were an enemy of the people, and they sent you to Siberia.
But Sepetys does not write a moralist story, in which there are good and bad people and desires to rid the world of evil. Indeed, faced with this question, whether life has a meaning in the context of so much despair and lack of justice, she brings forward a person, Elena, who is able to remain human and embrace others regardless of her external circumstances and without wanting to change them. She loves people. She doesn’t proclaim herself as “humanitarian,” as communists do.
At the end of her memories from Siberia, Margareta Cemârtan-Spânu, who was deported when she was a child, says, “How many lives did the ‘humanitarian’ Bolshevism destroy! […] You, an innocent man, whether old or a child, had to suffer like this, for twenty years in Siberia? For what? […] If you did not do anything, why punish you? So many young people taken to mines in Siberia! They never returned from there! For what ideal?…” (in Monk Moise’s Do Not Avenge Us: Testimonies about the Suffering of the Romanians Deported from Bessarabia to Siberia Reflection Publishing, 2016, p. 124).
No idea is worth the life of a single human. Regardless of how beautiful it may sound on paper, if it requires the blood on an innocent person, we are obligated by our own humanity to step aside from it. Ruta Sepetys’ book has this virtue, that it does not fall into moralism. Instead, brings forward people, deportees and NKVD soldiers. Are we to judge them?
“But Mother, he’s a monster,” Lina said to Elena, her mother, referring to an NKVD soldier with whom Elena was speaking. She did judge him. But Elena answered: “We don’t know what he is.” It is so simple to fall in judgments when reading such books. It is easy to hate the communists, the NKVD soldiers and officers, and everyone who somehow participated in this terrible crime. But let us remember the voice of this Lady, Elena: “We don’t know. Do you hear me? We don’t know what he is. He’s a boy. He’s just a boy.”
Sepetys’ book is a witness against despair and against the loss of meaning, even if it describes events of the 20th century that can lead one to cynicism and despondency. For what can humans do when nothing around them makes sense? What is that to which they can cling, so that they do not fall into the abyss of nothingness? One thing, perhaps: an embrace.