As a documentary photographer, I work on long-term projects on historical issues. Since 2016, I have been working on the trilogy ‘Siberian Exiles’, a project about the deportations from the Baltic States to Siberia under the Soviet regime.
This is the first part of ‘Siberian Exiles Part 1 Lithuania’, which focuses on the deportations from Lithuania to Siberia.
On 23 August, 1939, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed a treaty of non-aggression, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which decided the fate of the Baltic states. The pact had secret clauses through which the two dictators divided up Eastern Europe among themselves. Poland was split into a German part and a Soviet part, Lithuania fell under German control, and Latvia, Estonia and Finland were left to the Soviet Union. On 28 September the pact was amended, with Lithuania falling under Soviet control.
The ‘Devil’s pact’ was broken by Hitler on 22 June, 1941, when Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. Stalin was entirely unprepared for this and the Soviets were soon expelled from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states occupied by the Nazis. In 1944, the Red Army chased the Germans from Eastern Europe and annexed the Baltic states to the USSR as Soviet republics; this annexation lasted until 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The twentieth century history of the Baltic states is marked by these occupations, and their civilian populations were repeatedly the victims.
To break the resistance against the Soviet occupation, Stalin had 600,000 civilians deported from the Baltic states to Siberia between 1940 and his death in 1953. That was a huge blow to the three countries as together they had no more than seven million inhabitants during that period. All ‘anti-Soviet elements’ and ‘the intelligentsia’ had to disappear and in Lithuania alone 150,000 men were convicted and sent to hard labour camps (Gulags). In addition, during two mass deportations a total of 132,000 people, without any kind of conviction, were sent to remote areas to do forced labour. Seventy percent of them were women and children and 30,000 of them did not survive.
This, the first part of my trilogy entitled Siberian Exiles, focuses on the experiences of six Lithuanian survivors: Irena, Nijolė, Jonas M, Vilius, Jonas P and Vaidutis, who were deported as children to the Laptev Sea above the polar circle. During the first major mass deportation in 1941, their families were sent to the Altai region in the south of Siberia to cut down trees and work as farm labourers. In 1942, they were moved, along with three thousand other Lithuanians, to the delta of the Lena River, which flows into the Laptev Sea. In this arctic region, winter reigns for ten months a year and the temperature can drop to fifty degrees below zero.
The Lithuanian deportees had the task of setting up a fishing industry above the polar circle. That was an absurd assignment: people were dumped without housing, protective clothing, food or technical equipment. During snowstorms, they had to build their own huts with their bare hands. Small children often had the task of keeping the fire burning and collecting driftwood, while the older children were put to work in children’s brigades. The exiles suffered from constant hunger and many illnesses such as scurvy. For many it became a death sentence.
The Lithuanians shared their destiny with deportees from Finland and from Churaptsha, a village in Yakutia, East Siberia. All lived under equally miserable conditions and many perished. Towards the end of the 1950s, the Lithuanians were finally allowed to return home, provided they could pay for the return journey themselves. However, even after returning to Lithuania, their lives were far from easy. As former exiles, they were discriminated against and held back in their opportunities.
In 1989, Irena, Jonas M, Vilius, Vaidutis and a number of other exiles returned to the Laptev Sea in search of the graves of their relatives who had perished there. They wanted to recover their loved ones from the permafrost and take them home because they had a deep desire to bury them in Lithuanian soil. It was an act of resistance and a sign that their identity had not been broken by the Soviet system.
This book is a journey through history and has become a story about oppression, abuse of power and crimes against humanity. It is also a story about a people who refused to be broken and to give up their identity and culture. It is about the human will to survive and human resilience.
The drawings of Gintautas Martynaitis, a survivor of the deportations, the mostly unpublished archive images and the photos from the expedition of 1989 offer glimpses into the past, while I have endeavoured to capture the present. I have listened to the eyewitness accounts of these events and visited the places where they took place. I have traveled through the Altai and Yakutia in search of traces of this remarkable chapter in history and I have recorded what encountered: the landscape of these remote areas, the villages, the culture, and the indigenous people with their still vivid memories of the time under Stalin.
Dutch graphic designer Sybren Kuiper, with whom I previously made the prize-winning book Wolfskinder A Post-War Story designed the book. The result is a monumental design of 818 pages material divided over 5 separate books in a slipcase.
This project and book was made possible by a contribution from Fonds Anna Cornelis and the Mondrian Fonds.
About the Book
- Photography: Claudia Heinermann
- Text: Claudia Heinermann
- Design: SYB Sybren Kuiper
- Edit Text: Laura Starink
- English Translation: Claire Jordan
- Lithuanian Translation: Antanas Gailius
- Preface: Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis
- Size: 5 books in a slipcase, each book 24cm x 17cm
- Totalling about: 818 pages, 225 full color photos, 167 black and white photos, 31 drawings, 6 maps
- The book will be published in English with a separate Lithuanian translation
- ISBN/EAN: 978-90-814089-4-3
- Edition: 1000
- Price: 85,- Euro (excl. shipping)
In 2021 the result of the complete project will be shown in the ‘Nederlands Fotomuseum’ in Rotterdam after which the exhibition will travel to Vilnius (LT), Latvia and Estonia.
While I was working on my previous book ‘Wolfskinder A Post-War Story’ in Lithuania, people often mentioned the deportations to Siberia. I knew about the labour camps (Gulag) but I was not aware that during mass deportations whole families were sent to remote areas without any kind of conviction. The more I learned about this topic the more I was indignant by the many hidden stories about families who were torn apart that I decided to start this project. Especially the deportations to the arctic hit me the most. What evil brain sends women and children to the arctic to build up a fish industry? Where winter reigns ten months a year, where the temperature drops to fifty degrees below zero, without protective clothing and housing and only a piece of bread a day? It was obvious that many deportees would die, especially young children, but under Stalin a human life had no value. It didn’t matter how many people would die under horrific circumstances as long as they realized his ideas and served the system.
The deportation of innocent civilians to Siberia is a collective trauma in the Baltic states. Almost every family can tell about it from their own experience. As a documentary photographer it is my aim to contribute to keeping these historic memories alive.
If you have any questions about the book or project you can always contact me.
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