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.
The interview with Antanas Panavas was conducted in 2009 by Jurgita Mačiulytė.
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…”
Daily life in deportation
Work on the kolkhoz
“I was a student and suddenly, two weeks later, I was already working on a kolkhoz. And they said, ‘You’re going to work here, shifting the straw, etc.’ Since I knew about land work, I thought there was nothing for it, we would do it if we had to, and that’s how we lived. Out there we met some Lithuanians who had been taken there earlier. They had given a particularly good image of Lithuanians, the Russians knew that the people being brought were not enemies, bandits and so on as the authorities had said. The people there said, “We know you people already”. The good thing for us was that they offered us somewhere to stay at the outset, because the local Russians were leaving the kolkhoz for towns, but they were afraid of leaving their houses to just anyone, it was difficult. So they wanted to find reliable people who would look after the houses, and wouldn’t burn the fences or break the windows. They wanted to live somewhere else and said that they were leaving the place for a while. 1951, 1952 and 1953 were hard years, because they paid very little for the work. We were short of bread… bread was essential. Potatoes, people had, they planted them themselves, but getting food was hard. But there was nothing for it, people got used to it. We worked in the fields from very early in the morning. In the spring, we sowed, then there was hay-making, then harvesting until the snow fell.”
Daily life in deportation
“In Krasnoyarsk five of us from the same class met without recognising each other. We had studied in the same class and we saw that there was one in Krasnoyarsk and then another, etc. We had almost all been deported while we were students. We would then get together usually on Sundays, whenever we could. Here I have a photo with some of us. Some had been taken directly to Krasnoyarsk, those who had specialist training, they had formed families. Life continued, nothing to be done; some died, some were born. Sometimes there were very painful funerals when young men died after falling ill… because they had been deported very young, the work was hard physical work and that ruined their health… they died young… there were accidents of all sorts… There were some very educated Lithuanians out there. I’ve spoken about them and written more than once in Lithuania that there was one priest, Professor Gustas. He was a building worker in the camp, but he didn’t do that work long. Since he knew English and French, he became a translator in a factory. He had to translate the instructions on the machines they bought, the descriptions of how the machines worked. He told us that they would give him some work and say, “You’ve got a week to do this”, but he would finish it in two or three days and then had three days free… He would go out into the countryside, so he’d come and see us, 20 km away. At Easter and other times… or an ordinary Sunday. The Germans liked him because he spoke good German, they missed him. A very educated person.”
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.”