Visiting the Soviet-era cemeteries in Siberia and Central Asia

  • 2011-07-27
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - On July 27, 24 young Lithuanians returned to Vilnius from their mission in the Siberian region of Tomsk and Tajikistan. Sixteen of them were in the Tomsk region and eight in Tajikistan. On their way back, they met at a railway station in Moscow. During 20 days, those young Lithuanians visited the graves of Lithuanian deportees. The mass deportations of the Lithuanian population to remote areas of the USSR were started by Stalin after the USSR occupied the three Baltic countries in 1940. The occupation was the result of the secret realpolitik deal between the two allies, Stalin and the most famous son of Austria, Adolf Hitler (the latter planned similar mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia, according to the Nazi plan Ost). Almost everybody in Lithuania has some relatives who were victims of those mass deportations. No wonder that one of the expedition’s members to Tajikistan, 28-year old IT specialist Eigminas Dagys, found the grave of his great-great-grandmother there.

It was the ninth and 10th expedition of the so-called “Mission Siberia” (though Tajikistan, technically speaking, is not a part of geographic Siberia). Such expeditions of young Lithuanians started in 2006. The missions are organized by the NGO Lithuanian Youth Council. The expeditions are very popular and those willing to join need to write a good motivation letter and to pass a big competition, which is mostly related to physical capabilities.

Members of both expeditions experienced unforgettable impressions. The expedition members to Tomsk region traveled 100 kilometers on foot through the region. They slept in tents at night. Twenty-three year-old Aurelija Trimonyte said that they were a little bit afraid of bears there. “Our expedition’s chief pointed to anthills, which were ruined by bears, at the place where we camped for a night,” she said. “Those wooden crosses will not last for a long time,” 25-year-old Algirdas Sabaliauskas, another participant of the expedition to the Tomsk region, said about the cemeteries of Lithuanian deportees. Young Lithuanians made some kind of symbolic fences around cemeteries of Lithuanians to discourage local lumbermen from ruining the cemeteries.

Members of the expedition to Tajikistan traveled using private taxis and slept in houses. They got the impression that about half of the population of the Afghanistan-bordering country work as taxi drivers, while the other half sells watermelons. The locals were very friendly, as they are not used to seeing foreigners in their country. The heat was oppressive. It was plus 34 degrees Celsius already at seven in the morning. It is no surprise that the Lithuanians, especially children, who were deported by Stalin to work in the cotton fields of Tajikistan, died in large numbers, though, of course, their destination was the easier one compared to that of Lithuanian families who, wearing summer clothes, were deported to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Lithuanian deportees in Tajikistan ate turtles from local lakes to fight hunger. The expedition members shouted to those turtles, “Sorry for the Lithuanians who ate you!”

Mostly German-origin Lithuanians were deported by the Soviets to Tajikistan. The Soviets understood the word “Germans” very broadly and this is why the following people were among those deportees to the Afghan border: Lithuanians who had surnames which sounded somewhat German, as well as teachers of the German language and those who attended a Lutheran church.
The members of the expedition placed a memorial plaque with the inscription “To Lithuanians” in one of the numerous Lithuanian cemeteries in Tajikistan. The plaque was blessed by a local Catholic priest who arrived in Tajikistan from Argentina. The Muslim cemetery culture is different from the Western one – the locals do not care about cemetery monuments and cows pasture in the Lithuanian cemeteries there. The expedition members said that after several years, there will not be many signs that those Lithuanian cemeteries ever existed.