Home Book Reviews Between Shades of Gray review: Ruta Sepetys’ tale of the Siberian gulag

Between Shades of Gray review: Ruta Sepetys’ tale of the Siberian gulag

by John Maguire
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Between Shades of Gray review cover
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I start this Between Shades of Gray review by noting that Ruta Sepetys’ book has the inquisitive strapline brandished on the front cover, “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?” But please do not be put off by this somewhat cliché, tugging at the heart-strings sentiment. The tale focuses on Lina, a young intelligent Lithuanian girl who has a passion for drawing and art, heavily in awe of the painter Edvard Munch and his ideas,

From my rotting body flowers shall grow, and I am in them and that is eternity, isn’t that beautiful?

One night in 1941, Soviet guards usurp Lina and her family out of the family homestead. The clan are separated from Lina’s father, an academic, and hurled into a dilapidated cattle cart shamelessly labelled thieves and prostitutes. So begins their savage journey northward bound, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the desolate land of Siberia. Between Shades of Gray highlights the cruel psychological, mental and physical torture that forced labour brings. The barbaric pain that the people suffer emanates off the very pages. The verisimilitude is indubitable.

Lina’s escape is through her creativity and the story illustrates the redemptive power of art, the way it can turn negative experience into positive. The very impact it can have on the human soul. Beauty in amongst horrific chaotic conditions of wrongness. It reiterates the words of Albert Camus,

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

By using first hand family accounts and the memories scarred in the minds of the survivors from Stalin’s atrocities, Sepetys makes real an epoch in history that one would definitely like to think was unreal. Lina’s imagination allows her to vent her spleen,

I painted a rug being lifted and a huge Soviet broom sweeping us under it.

It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than 20 million people during his reign of terror and Lina’s story is one of many unspoken. In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Shortly after the Kremlin came up with lists of people, lawyers, teachers, doctors, military servicemen, writers, musicians, artists and librarians  all accused of being anti-Soviet. These people would be sent to prison, exterminated or deported into slavery in Siberia.

The Baltic States lost more than a third of their population during this season of annihilation. Those who survived ten to 15 years in Siberia returned in the mid-fifties to find their homes pillaged and occupied by Soviets. The returned people were classified as criminals and put under surveillance by the KGB (formerly the NKVD). To discuss the past atrocities would result in immediate incarceration. The horror stories were kept silent. In this modern life, there are many current continual pressures, but I would suggest consuming Between Shades of Gray, a provoking piece of literature that will refresh you on how lucky some of us are in this world.


If this Between Shades of Gray review has sparked your interest and you are in the UK, you can purchase a copy from an independent bookshop near you via this affiliate link. This site may earn a small commission if you do.

There are more stories of life under Soviet rule in Vasily Grossman’s collection of short stories, The Road, which is reviewed here.


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