YA author Ruta Sepetys takes us behind the scenes of her new novel, Shades of Gray, which is based on the true story of the Baltic refugees that survived the ethnic cleansing that was carried out on Stalin’s orders. Learn about the genocide that inspired this story, discover why this atrocity is rarely spoken of in the US and find out about the moments that came together for this tale both heartbreaking and hopeful.
“I will tell you what happened to me, but only if you promise not to use my name.”
That is what I heard while conducting research for my novel, Between Shades of Gray.
Fifty years had passed, yet their hands still shook when they spoke of their experience. Fifty years had passed, but the tears and grief were still raw. Secrets are painful and through my research I learned that secrecy can swallow the voice of an entire generation.
The crimes of Hitler and the Nazis are well known, but many people are unaware that Joseph Stalin killed over twenty million people during his reign of terror. Here in the US, Stalin isn’t generally part of curriculum. Yet amongst the older generation in Northern Europe, his words still hang like a cold shadow–“Death is the solution to all problems,” said Stalin. “No man–no problem.”
In 1939, the Soviets occupied the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, just below Finland. Shortly thereafter, the Kremlin drafted lists of people considered anti-Soviet who would be murdered, sent to prison, or deported into slavery in Siberia. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, military, musicians, artists, journalists, and even librarians were all considered anti-Soviet and were added to the growing list of wholesale extermination. And they were all innocent. The first deportations took place on June 14, 1941. But outside of the Baltics, few knew what was happening and Stalin’s rampage remained shrouded in silence.
My father fled from Stalin just prior to the deportations. While writing Between Shades of Gray I thought about our extended family members who were sent to Siberia. I constantly pondered questions such as, “What does it take to bear the unbearable?” and “Would I survive?”
Those who did survive spent ten to fifteen years in Siberia. When they returned home they were forced to live in restricted areas and were under constant surveillance by the KGB. Speaking of their experience meant immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia. As a result, the horrors they endured went dormant, a hideous secret shared by much of the population.
News of the novel’s release has resulted in a flood of emails:
“Stalin’s henchmen stormed into our small hospital. They murdered all the doctors and nurses, leaving the patients to suffer and die. No one knows.”
“The Soviet secret police took my grandmother to headquarters. She was so terrified she jumped out of a third story window to avoid their torture.”
“They tied him up and then set the rope on fire. I’ve never told anyone.”
But in the margins of each disturbing story are small blooms of hope:
“They may have taken my country, but they could never take my spirit.”
“They yanked us out, like tearing flowers from a garden. But we grew back, not as fragile flowers, but as strong trees.”
With each email I receive I think of the heroes we’ve never had a chance to meet. Who were these nameless and faceless people who suffered in silence? We haven’t been able to celebrate their courage or console their regret.
I held a woman’s hand as she cried, describing an abusive guard in Siberia. “How could you bear it?” I asked. She told me that suffering had been a great teacher and had taught her the miracle of hope and revealed a deep love for her country. She said that brought her closer to her own personal truth.
I think of her often. She is a strong tree. This woman was brutally tortured yet found lessons within her suffering. Me? I am a thin weed. I complain about traffic and lament that the coffee maker is too slow and the dishwasher leaves spots.
In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, Lithuania regained their independence, respectfully and with dignity. They chose hope over hate and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light.
History holds secrets, but through books and stories we have a chance to meet hidden heroes and honor those whose sacrifices may have gone unnoticed. They teach us lessons of love, survival, and the miraculous nature of the human spirit. Through writing this book I learned that hope can truly heal a heart. And that should never be kept a secret.
- Ruta Sepetys
You can pick up your own copy of Between Shades of Gray in stores now.