What initially was a handful of patriotic zealots ready to do anything for the sake of the homeland, it has grown over the years into a well-stitched annual mission of painstakingly selected participants willing to eternalize the memories of those perishe
What initially was a handful of patriotic zealots ready to do anything for the sake of the homeland, it has grown over the years into a wellstitched annual mission of painstakingly selected participants willing to eternalize the memories of those perished in exile. The Baltic Times sat down to speak about this year’s mission, Mission Siberia 2017 (Misija Sibiras 2017) to Liudas Siuksteris, a member of the mission.
Can you talk a little about this year‘s Mission Siberia 2017, please?
This year, the Mission Siberia 2017 team went to Irkutsk Oblast, a federal subject of Russia, where we visited, cleaned up and restored nine Lithuanian exiles‘ cemeteries. What made our expedition distinctive compared to some of the previous expeditions was travelling from one village to another, trying to find and restore as many cemeteries as possible. We did not spend more than one to two nights at one campsite - as soon as we would finish cleaning up one cemetery, we would move to another one. So, there is no wonder that we managed to travel over 100 kilometers on foot, and around 1,500 kilometers using various vehicles, including trucks, boats, etc.
How was the team selected for the mission?
There were two selection stages. The first stage required submitting a written application - each applicant had to provide information about himself or herself and prove motivation to participate in the expedition. Over 900 people were interested in participating in this year’s mission and submitted their applications. However, only 80 were selected to take part in the second selection stage – a test hike, which took place in Kedainiai region in central Lithuania, and lasted for two days, during which we hiked 50 kilometers. It was a great opportunity to examine our physical capabilities, our ability to work in a team, and gauge each participant’s motivation. Out of 80 people who participated in the test hike, 16 made it to the final team. Gladly, I was one of the folks.
What got you interested in the venture?
Being a young Lithuanian, I care about my country’s history no less than about its future. Mission Siberia provides a chance to seek something really meaningful - cherish the memory of those who were exiled and did not get a chance to return to their homeland. Love for my country and eagerness to do something important for its sake is what motivated me to get on board.
Can you talk of the preparations for the trip? Did you do online research of the region you were setting off to?
Preparation for this kind of an expedition is a timeconsuming activity, requiring specific experience and knowledge. Our expedition’s leader Arnoldas Fokas was the one who researched the region, its certain villages, and the cemeteries’ locations. Information was researched not only online, but also by talking to the people who were exiled. Some of them even managed to show locations of the cemeteries on a map very precisely. A big help was authentic photographs of the cemeteries taken years ago.
Before the trip, we visited Lithuania’s Genocide and Resistance Research Centre in Vilnius and collected written memories of exiled Lithuanians who came back to Lithuania. We also had a chance to visit and talk to people who had lived in the villages that we were to visit. A day before the beginning of the expedition, I personally paid a visit to Professor Vytenis Rimkus who lives in Siauliai, and had been exiled to the Viesolyj village in Siberia. He shared his memories about the village, cemetery, living conditions in exile and, in general, provided some useful particularities. The Viesolyj Cemetery was the last that our team visited and restored.
What did your father warn you about before the journey?
Honestly, I did not receive any particular warnings from my father, but just before I got on the train, he asked me how I was feeling. I remember answering him “strangely calm”. I felt so probably because I had absolutely no doubts about what I was going to do. I felt very strong about my motivation and capability to take part in this mission. And I just could not be more excited.
Was it easy to reach the destination?
Well, there were no obstacles reaching Irkutsk from Vilnius to Moscow we travelled by train, and from Moscow to Irkutsk we flew by plane. Some of the far-flung
villages we reached by different means of transportation, like mostly shuttle buses. More exciting journeys awaited us when we had to use trucks or boats in order to get across rivers. But largely, all went smoothly.
More difficult were hikes from one village to another. In four days, we travelled over 100 kilometers. Taking into account the very hot climate, carrying the heavy backpacks weighing over 20 kg was quite challenging.
And then comes your first encounter with Irkutsk… What was the first impression?
What we saw were dilapidated small villages with a few dwellers and beautiful serene nature.
Who provided you the logistics, accommodation and assistance during the trip?
Transportation, as well as other assistance, was provided by locals and local authorities. Since most of the nights we slept in tents, no accommodation was necessary. We would buy wood from local lumber mills.
How many people of Lithuanian descent did you meet during the trekking? Can you share some of the stories of the encounters?
We met eight people who have Lithuanian roots. One of them was Albina, who was exiled when she was six along with her mother. She grew up in Siberia, finished school and started a family there. Her son Ruslanas remembers how his grandmother would raise him by Lithuanian traditions - with Lithuanian songs, cuisine. They would celebrate all the traditional Lithuanian holidays.
Would you engage with the local folks in talk about politics? Do the locals really support the Russian Government and President Vladimir Putin?
Politics was not the topic that we would discuss with the locals, so it is difficult to comment on the locals’ political views and affinities.
Were there any stressful or potentially dangerous situations throughout the stay? Can you talk of them, please? Were you wary of bears in the forests?
The expedition went well and according to the neatly crafted plan - we did not face any dangerous situations. When we went on a two-day hike once, we had to walk through a forest and we found bear footprints and other signs of their presence in it. We had to continue to unceasingly sing and talk loudly to keep us safe from encountering the beasts. There was also a little bit of a stressful time when, for 20 kilometers, we were hiking without water under the scorching sun, and we had to eat berries to stay hydrated.
How would the locals react after finding out you were from Lithuania?
At first people seemed to be surprised when they found out where we were from and what had brought us there. But then people would express their support and show joy. In the end, locals did understand our mission and acted very positively.
Did you see much poverty? Did you check out the local shops? What about the prices?
The villages that we visited were small and set to disappear over the time.
Did you locate any new exiles’ burial sites?
We did not locate any new burial sites since our expedition was planned day by day, and we visited and restored those cemeteries about which we had information in advance.
Has the trip changed in any way your perception about Russia? How?
I could not say that my perception of Russia has changed in one way or another after the trip. It was not about discovering Russia, but about very clear work to be done there.
What are your other endeavours for paying respect to the fallen Lithuanians in exile?
It is important for us not to forget this painful period of our history. Especially young people must be aware of it. In upcoming years, we are going to visit Lithuanian schools, communities, and organizations where we will present our expedition, and encourage people to remember and talk about the painful exile period.
“When we went on a two-day hike once, we had to walk through a forest and we found bear footprints and other signs of their presence in it. We had to continue to unceasingly sing and talk loudly to keep us safe from encountering the beasts.”
Another cross is to be placed into its slot
Enjoying snacks with a local woman of Lithuanian descent
Another attempt to roll a rain-soaked log
Let the flag witness the nice work!
A moment of sobriety
The mission team set off for another destination
A vigil for those perished
When the rattling can be joyful…
We are the heroes!
The mission required stamina
Another three crosses erected!
Meeting the locals was exciting
Another log to saw!