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Mission: Siberia 15 team members with their newly constructed cross in Tomsk.

Mission: Siberia 15

By VIDA KUPRYS.

Pursuant to the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, 75 years ago, the Soviet Union unilaterally occupied and annexed the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The brutality of the occupation became manifest, when in June of 1941, thousands of Lithuanians, as well as their fellow Balts, were packed into cattle cars and deported to the far reaches of Siberia, many to face certain death. This was but the first wave of numerous later deportations, which continued during and after the end of World War II. Only with the death of Stalin in 1952 did the deportations recede. It is justifiably considered one of the most tragic periods in Lithuania’s history.

Fast forward to 2015, young Lithuanian men and women are competing for the opportunity to go to siberia. Why? their motive: to experience siberia themselves. their hope: to encounter descendants of deportees, or locals who could shed light on the fate of their erstwhile Lithuanian neighbors. their goal: to memorialize those who perished in the wastelands of siberia thousands of miles from their homeland. these intrepid young Lithuanians will do this by braving the wilds seeking to locate densely overgrown cemeteries. they will clear the brush, mark the graves, and erect new crosses in remembrance for their countrymen who suffered and died there. this is “Mission: siberia.”

“Mission: siberia” was founded in 2005 by the Youth organizations assembly of Lithuania. it is funded by the Charitable Foundation “Jauniems” (For the Youth). to date the sponsors of “Mission: siberia” have organized 12 such expeditions, which have cleared over 100 Lithuanian cemeteries in various parts of siberia.

if you view the videos on the “Mission: siberia” website, (http://2014.misijasibiras.lt/video) you will see scenes reminiscent of “survivor” tV shows. Young people trudging through mud, fighting clouds of mosquitos, losing their patience with one another. they trudge through thick brush and bogs in search of long forgotten cemeteries. they are the selected ones. according to ignas Rusilas, director of the charity “Jauniems,” out of 800 college students and young professionals who applied this year, only 16 were selected. the selection criteria was, first, a motivational essay, which whittled the group down to 75. this smaller group then had a trial “in the wilds” to test the their physical and emotional endurance. according to Mr. Rusilas, this second phase consisted of a two day march in the dzūkija forests of Lithuania. “We carefully select the mission’s participants. We assemble a strong team, which ought be able to cope with any unanticipated challenges which they might encounter on the expedition.” that is quite the opposite of 75 years ago when the soviets took anybody: newborns, pregnant women, paralyzed grandparents. and no essays were required.

“Mission:siberia ’15” returned to Lithuania earlier this month, on august 2, after a two-week trip to siberia. this year’s group consisted of a mixed group of men and women including a Latvian and an estonian. they traveled to the tomsk region, specifically to Kolominskie Grivy (Čainskij rajon), narym (Parabelskij rajon), Belyj Jar (Verchneketskij rajon), Kuruzurovo, Kurolino, ust Jamy (Parabelskij rajon), Parabel (Parabelskij rajon). ignas Rusilas commented, “We try to visit places where we can have the greatest impact. this year, tomsk and its remote fringes were selected.” he added that he has more ambitious plans, “We want to arrange for a the monument in tomsk city center, adjacent to the former nKVd facility, and a museum dedicated to Lithuanian exiles and political prisoners who were deported there commemorating

Ignas Rusilas
Ignas Rusilas

Draugas News contacted Donatas Barsys a “Mission: Siberia ’15” participant. A native of Telšiai, Lithuania, he recently received a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences. He is fascinated by 20th century history. This fall he will return to Telšiai to teach history at the local high school. Donatas is also an active scout leader. “I often joke, that in school I learned to read and write, but everything else worthwhile I learned from my father and the scouts,” says Donatas.

 

– In your opinion what is the mission of “Mission: Siberia”?

– It is multifaceted: the preservation of our historic memory, a sense of responsibility to one’s country, promoting citizenship among young people, remembrance of the suffering experienced by the deportees and their heroism. While in Siberia, I experienced a type of cultural exchange. It seems to me that we brought a piece of “Lithuania” there and we brought a fragment of “Lithuania” back from Siberia as well.

– Why do you think you were selected from among the some 800 applicants?

– Since I was eight years old I was an active scout. This provided me an opportunity to be involved in various activities such as hiking and backpacking, woodworking, survival training, and the like. I suspected such experience greatly influenced the decision to select me for the program.

Our group consisted mostly of young people of various backgrounds. There were students and young professionals. It should be noted that there were some who were not experienced in outdoor activities, however, they persevered.

– How did you prepare for this mission?

– We had several meetings during which we were instructed on various aspects of the project. We later met with the President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, and representatives of the Foreign Ministry. We did considerable background research on deportees to the Tomsk region at the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania in Vilnius.

We met a number of former deportees in Vilnius. They shared their recollections and experiences; they spoke about their emotions, living conditions and the labor they were forced to do.

We also did some woodworking of traditional Lithuanian wayside crosses. Craftsmen instructed us on the traditional characteristics of Lithuanian shrines and their symbolism. We were taught how to use various carving tools and had a hands-on project: we crafted two wayside crosses ourselves. These classes helped us to identify Lithuanian crosses that we would later find in Siberia.

– You traveled to Tomsk. How long did the trip take? What was your mode of transportation?

– The trip to Tomsk took some three days. We traveled by train from Vilnius to Moscow, with only a short few-minute stop in Minsk to stretch our legs. The trip was tiring, however, we were in good company

The Mission: Siberia all terrain vehicle came by way of a barge.
The Mission: Siberia all terrain vehicle came by way of a barge.

and our spirits were high. From Moscow we flew by plane to Tomsk. Because we flew out late, and adding in the time-zone changes, we were left without sleep that night. In Tomsk we used the available waterways to access remote locations. We also traveled on an all terrain vehicle which we brought over on a barge. The initial departure by train was symbolic – Lithuanians were deported to Siberia in cattle cars. The trip itself was the cause of a great deal of hardship.

Mission: Siberia campsite
Mission: Siberia campsite

– Was this the first time that “Mission: Siberia” visited this area?

– “Mission: Siberia” visited Tomsk in 2011, however, this time we visited sites that were not visited previously. The Lithuanians were deported here from the very beginning in 1941. In fact, there was evidence that Lithuanians were deported here as far back as 1863 in the aftermath of the failed insurrection against the czarist regime. Mostly, Lithuanian deportees worked in the forests felling trees. We also visited several sites that were established by the efforts of the deportees themselves. Their situation was difficult, even though the climactic conditions were somewhat less extreme than in other parts of Siberia. We visited six sites where Lithuanians had cemeteries and erected memorial crosses in each of them. I’m especially proud the cross I built with my colleague Justas. It was a Lithuanianstyle cross in the Narym cemetery.

Did you meet any remaining family members of the deportees?

Donatas Barsys and Tomas Staniulis constructing a cross.
Donatas Barsys and Tomas Staniulis constructing a cross.

– Only a few. In the village of Parabel, the local museum organized a reception for us with remaining deportees. Among them was one woman, Stanislava, who was deported as a child from Zarasai. Unfortunately, she only knew a few phrases in Lithuanian, but she told us that she keeps in touch with her sister residing in Ukmergė, Lithuania. On the whole the residents of different ethnic backgrounds received us warmly, inquired about our mission and helped us in various ways. Some of the areas we needed to reach were particularly remote and difficult to access. In this case local hunters were our guides. An especially impressive guide was Anatolijus who led us on a 50 km trek by foot to an abandoned village of deportees.

Many hands make for light work. Mission: Siberia team members erect a cross in honor of Lithuanian deportees in the Tomsk region of Russia.
Many hands make for light work. Mission: Siberia team members erect a cross in honor of Lithuanian deportees in the Tomsk region of Russia.

– Did the local residents recall Lithuanian deportees?

– Frequently an elder member of the community would remember Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian names. It was strange to hear Lithuanian names being pronounced with a strong Russian accent. The recollections of the locals about the deportees were positive: they recalled that Lithuanians were pleasant and industrious people. A number of local residents even regretted that so many Lithuanians had returned to Lithuania. We also learned that in Natym, the local tradition of planting flowers around the homestead was introduced by the Lithuanian deportees.

– You are a scout leader who has been in the outdoors before. How extreme were the conditions in Siberia?

– The living conditions did not surprise me. However, there were some difficult moments during the trip, and they were especially challenging for the team members not used to the outdoors. Physically, the most difficult aspect was the lack of quality sleep. Also, our backpacks were exceptionally heavy – we had to carry our tents, clothes, sleeping bags, and also two days of food and water. That was 20- 25 kg. Under such conditions patience begins to run thin. Luckily we were able to avoid any serious conflicts in the course of this trip.

– Where did you sleep and what did you eat?

– We mostly slept in our own tents and prepared food on a campfire. There were individuals in the group who were responsible for obtaining food and preparing the meals.

– What was your reaction upon first encountering Lithuanian cemeteries in Siberia?

– What struck me was that although the grave sites were surrounded by fences, the fences had no gates. It left me with the impression that nobody expected to visit the graves. What a sad thought: these innocent people deported against their will were left buried in what amounted to a prison cell, forever.

– “Mission: Siberia” isn’t just a twoweek adventure trip, but it continues upon your return. What is the next phase of your “mission”?

– A video is being produced about this year’s “Mission: Siberia” project. In the ensuing year, team members are required to organize presentations and exhibits for the general public regarding our experiences in Siberia. We will be speaking to student groups about the deportations, the importance of historical memory, and a sense of duty and citizenship. We will encourage them to apply for next year’s “Mission: Siberia” challenge.

– You will be teaching history in high school back in your hometown of Telšiai. How much do young people know about the deportations?

– Usually they know as much as they learn in history class. However, it should be noted that “Mission: Siberia” has already made an impact on the younger generation. I’ve noticed that the subject matter of the occupation and repressions is one of the more popular subjects in the presentday school curriculum. Students get involved in various aspects of the history of the deportations: they write essays, make films on the subject, they look at it from a historical perspective. However, not enough attention is focused on why the deportations took place. Students dwell on the tragic aspects, while we should be focusing on the heroism. It took great strength of will to endure as an exile in a hostile land. To me this is one of the most ennobling moments of Lithuania’s history.