Literature Review: With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Sandra Kalniete's Ar balles kurpēm Sibīrijas sniegos, translated into English as With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows by Margita Gailītis.

June 14, 1941 was a night when more than 15,400 men, women, children, infants and elderly of occupied Latvia got arrested, taken from their homes, loaded into cattle cars, and exiled to distant regions of the Soviet Union for being "enemies of the people." Many of them did not survive this journey that lasted for weeks. Many died in Siberia. A second mass deportation was carried out in 1949 during the second Soviet occupation. In a few days from March 25 to 28, more than 42,000 people were deported.[1] In the summary of her novel Ar balles kurpēm Sibīrijas sniegos (2001), author Sandra Kalniete writes that there is no family in Latvia which does not have its own story about Siberia and their relatives who never came back from there.[2] And reading the novel, I felt not only the suffering of the Kalnietis and Dreifelds families and the pain of the whole Latvian nation, but also the tragedy of my own great grandfather who never returned.

The book was originally written in order to be translated into French and to teach the Western world about Stalin’s repressions against Latvia’s people, which I am surprised to find are not very well-known outside of the post-Soviet regions compared with some other genocides of the 20th century. This has become the most translated work in modern Latvian literature, and is available in 15 languages.[3]  In English, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is translated by Margita Gailītis, edited by Valters Nollendorfs, and published by Dalkey Archive Press (2009).

Sandra Kalniete is a Latvian politician, diplomat, an active member of the national awakening movement and the author of four books. The girl on the cover is little Sandra who was born in Siberia, a happy child loved by her parents and adored by her grandmother, dressed by her mother like a little western lady. However, the will and dreams to keep in touch with the homeland and the previous civilized life is tested by the harsh reality of the great poverty, mess, vulgarity and misery of Siberia. The novel “With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows” is an autobiography of her family. It tells the story of her parents who were both victims of the Soviet repressions

My parents met in Siberia and were married on May 25, 1951. I was born in the village of Togur, Tomsk region, Kolpashevo district on December 22, 1952. Every month my parents had to register twice at the commandant’s office – this is how the Soviet security agencies made certain that the deportees had not arbitrarily left their designated places of residence. A month after my birth, my father had to register me for the first time – thus also I was destined not to be free. Father and mother did not wish to give any more slaves to the Soviet regime. I have no brothers or sisters.

We returned to Latvia on May 30, 1957.[4]

After these words, Kalniete looks back to the beginning of the 20th century and with the scrupulous accuracy of a researcher, uses her family documents, photographs, memories and archive materials to try to reconstruct what happened to them during the time of occupations. Despite the suffering and losses her loved ones were forced to face, there is no moment when the author becomes too emotional; she does not criticize or blame anyone, and simply tells the story the way it happened. She lets the reader make their own conclusions by providing enormous amounts of footnotes with extra information based on the historical sources, and an almost ten page long bibliography. Kalniete has included timeline with a side-by-side chronology of events in her family’s history and Latvia’s history starting with the birth of her grandfather on January 6, 1878, and ending with September 26, 1994 when the criminal case of her other grandfather is reviewed and it is decided that he merits rehabilitation. The text is complemented by maps, photographs of her family members and relevant documents. 

The author has been able to combine a moving story of several generations whose lives have been affected by the Second World War with a precise outline of Latvia’s history. The effort that Kalniete put into this family biography impressed me. I found this to be not only a work about Stalin’s repressions and the author’s family, but about humans and humanity in general. It raised a question: how can one remain human in conditions that are completely antihuman? I absolutely recommend English speakers who don’t know much about the mass deportations from Latvia to read this book. I would particularly recommend this book to my husband who as a history teacher has a great interest in the Soviet era.