Friday night, athletes from around the world marched into Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia in the middle of an elaborate ceremony to signify the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The performance aspect of the opening ceremony highlighted Russia’s history, from imperialism to the revolution, as president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin watched. He watched as his Russian countrymen walked into the stadium, but he also watched as the athletes of former Soviet countries walked behind their own flag. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan are the fourteen countries that emerged as independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they represent part of Russia’s history that was not broadcasted during the opening ceremonies—oppression, imprisonment, and genocide.
Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray offers a glimpse into a part of Russian history that the Olympic opening ceremony skipped over. It tells the story of Lina Vilkas, the daughter of a Lithuanian professor. Her unique artistic talent is just beginning to create amazing opportunities for her, but her world comes crashing down when Soviet officers invade her home, deporting Lina, her younger brother, and her mother. The story follows Lina and her family as they are taken to Siberia with other Lithuanians during one of Joseph Stalin’s many genocides. Lina uses her art to leave behind clues to help her father find them as she befriends other prisoners as they unite to survive the cruelty of the Russian gulag. Through this fictional account, Sepetys reveals the often overlooked cruelty and outright evil of the Russian gulag system and Stalin’s mass genocides of Eastern European countries and even his own Russians.
Almost everyone is familiar with the horrors of the concentration camps of Germany during World War II, whether it is through books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire or learning about WWII in high school. But less people know about the horrors of Stalin’s reign. Historians estimate that Stalin killed between 20 and 40 million people during his time in power. Obviously, a country seeking to assert itself as a modern nation to the rest of the world would not highlight this aspect of its history during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, but this part of Russia’s history is too often overlooked. Sepetys novel is important because it uses powerful story telling to remind the world that this tragedy happened, and we cannot forget the victims who survived, nor can we forget those who did not live to tell their story.
Between Shades of Gray is a well-written and powerful story. Sepetys’s careful research, in which she interviewed survivors from Stalin’s gulags, adds a deep truth to her fiction, making it that much more moving. Her characters are normal people one can imagine meeting in real life at school or in the supermarket. Her story is a powerful tale of the resilience of the human spirit and the persistence of hope. And above all, Ruta Sepetys’ story is a reminder—a reminder that millions of people suffered and died under Russian governance. As these Olympic Games unfold in the upcoming days, Putin will try to prove to the world that Russia is a modern nation, but if Russia’s history has taught the world anything, it’s that oppression can always hide under a peaceful façade. As rumors of human rights violations already permeate ‘Putin’s Games’, I pause to wonder if Russia’s oppression ended with Stalin’s death or if the glamour of the Olympic Games only hides the continued suffering of the people living under Russia’s government. Either way, Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray is an important reminder of the capacity in human nature for great evil and great hope.