European Memories

of the Gulag


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Antanas  PANAVAS

Antanas Panavas was born in the village of Grybėnai, eastern Lithuania, in 1926. His parents were farmers and his family “was better off than the others”. After secondary school in Vilnius, in 1945 he was suspected of anti-Soviet activities, arrested and, without being sentenced, sent to work in the Vorkuta camp in the Komi Republic. After two years, with no evidence of his guilt, he was released. However, his freedom did not last long: in 1951, shortly after arriving in Vilnius for the fourth year of his architecture course, he heard that his family had been arrested during the last deportation of kulaks. That evening, he voluntarily joined them at the station to be deported with them.

The family was exiled to the Krasnoyarsk region and the young architecture student became a kolkhoz worker. After Stalin’s death in 1953, an understanding kommandant allowed him to go and work in town, in Krasnoyarsk. In a draughtsman’s office where he was working with people of thirteen different nationalities, Antanas gained a training in building construction: “It was a school for the whole of life”. As soon as he returned to Vilnius in 1958 he completed his course and worked as an architect on major projects in Lithuania.

The skills he learnt during deportation influenced a number of his buildings. For example, the church that Antanas built for his previous German fellow deportees that remains as a symbol of friendship between the many nationalities of the Gulag.


Repression in Lithuania

“When the Soviet period began… I was about to leave school after the German period… from our class, nearly everyone left: either for other continents or for Siberia. We were three boys’ classes, roughly 30 in each, but only 5 of us completed the course…”


Siberian nature and relations between nationalities

“We got used to it, but at the beginning Siberia seemed so dismal, grey and inhospitable. Then, in the spring, the same fields became so green and beautiful, and we had also got to know the people. You get used to things… the locals… our Russian neighbours… and there was more than one nationality. You see, the Russians were a minority in the village. The village was large. When a son left for the army, he never came back, but settled in town and did his best to help his mother, brothers, etc. to leave. And all who could moved to the towns. The Volga Germans were the majority in the village. They were very friendly to us and we got to know them well. They were Catholic too. Then… in town… until 1953… There were also the Kalmuks who were friendly. Very friendly. They were decent people, not bad. There were other peoples too, Chuvash, Ukrainians… but most were Lithuanians and Germans. The Lithuanians lived and got on well together.”


Antanas Panavas’s survival strategy and philosophy

“…everywhere, everywhere in life, I say, there are paradoxes… If you find yourself in a difficult situation… it seems they’ve thrown you into an abyss… Afterwards, it depends, whether you try to get out or don’t try. There were situations… getting out by force… it depends…

They say it’s very important for a man to know what he is capable of doing and what he can’t do. Know what you are capable of doing so as to continue doing it, and what you can’t do and had better not start because it’ll come to nothing.

As it was for us in 1951-1953, it seemed we’d turned into kolkhoz workers and nothing else, they would say to us, “We brought you here for ever, you can’t do anything, stay as kolkhoz workers and that’s it, adopt our customs and live”. But the Lithuanians still kept visiting each other for Lent, Easter and Christmas, they dressed the same, sang hymns and remembered their families… Later, it opened up a bit after 1953. If you wanted, you could lift yourself up a little out of that quagmire.

When people saw that you were making an effort to get out of it, they would give you a bit of support. But you had to know… as they used to say then, “Know your limits. Don’t get out too soon, because the guillotine may still get you…” They said there was an invisible guillotine walking around… so that you would know your place and not move too far from it… Those were the rules of life…”


Death of Stalin


“It was before March 1953, Stalin’s death. We could see out there the effect of one man’s death on the whole system. Stalin was dead, that was all. But afterwards, we suddenly felt there were changes at the top, we could read the papers and we had the radio. Suddenly things became easier with the kommandantura. Until then we had to report there every two weeks to sign the book and show we hadn’t escaped.

We older Lithuanian deportees used to joke that we’d already written several books. We had to go and sign in every two weeks and so did every member of the family.”