The Baltic Holidays, Ruta Sepetys & 'Between Shades of Gray' Connection
Tuesday, 2 October 2018
Baltic Holidays are the official operator for the fascinating tour that complements Ruta Sepetys' best-selling book 'Between Shades of Gray'. The book has been made into a film, 'Ashes in the Snow' which was released worldwide in early 2019. Hot on the heels of the LA premiere we met Linas Zabaliunas, Director of Baltic Holidays, as he explains how this fortuitous partnership came about.
Hello Linas, in 'Between Shades of Gray' Ruta says, "without Linas, this book simply would not have been possible" - can you tell us a little about your involvement?
I first met Ruta in 2005 when she was on a business trip to Lithuania with her brother. They had a gap in their schedule and wanted to visit their grandparents' native village. From that first trip, Ruta was hooked. She was fascinated by the Soviet occupation and the difficult history experienced by the people of Lithuania - a history that very few Americans really got to know about or understand. We kept in touch and Ruta returned several times. I arranged different itineraries - one of which included being locked in Karosta Prison in Latvia - and introduced her to people who recounted their experiences of the atrocities; stories that formed a very important part of her research. From a simple tour tracing her personal history, we have built a lasting relationship and it is amazing to think that it has all ended up as this beautiful book.
You must have read it, right?
Yes, of course. I started reading it in Lithuanian and finished in English. I think the English version is better because some of the feelings have been lost in the Lithuanian translation. Ruta's research was so thorough and she has used Russian slang words within the writing - I think they have been softened a little in the Lithuanian translation.
Do you recognise moments from your research trips with Ruta in the book?
Absolutely, you can clearly identify the real facts and people in there and it works beautifully. I remember a discussion we had about names and whether they were appropriate to that time because my wife, Jurga's great-uncle was also called Andrius. He was a freedom fighter in 1945-54 and is sadly still missing.
Is the name of the main character Linas, a reference to you?
You'll have to ask Ruta...
(We did ask Ruta - "The original names of the main characters in the book were Indre and Linas (named after Linas and his sister) but I had to change them because those names weren't popular during the time period.")
Why do you think it has been so well received?
You know, that's an interesting question and something that many people in Lithuania are talking about. Ruta did not pick up a new story - plenty of other people have written about it and as Lithuanians we have been reading these books for years. But these too easily turn into a horror story. Ruta has written through the eyes of an American and as such she has seen history in a different way. By writing for a global audience, readers have really been able to connect. Her skill as a storyteller has resulted in a clear and concise tale, focussing on the characters. She really gets to the heart of it. I'm so proud of this book and of Ruta. It's magical. Great for our country and our people and our story. Ruta and I often talk about how it has all evolved and we say that it is “like throwing a stone in the water and watching as the ripples keep expanding and travelling.” It's amazing that something so tiny at the start can turn into something HUGE.
Summarise in a sentence why I should read 'Between Shades of Gray'?
Wow - that's hard to do in one sentence! I don't have Ruta's storytelling skills. Bear with me... The book highlights an important series of events in recent history which have to be acknowledged. It doesn't give the full history, only a poignant and moving snapshot and starting point to understand how our 50-year history was affected. It shows how the Soviet Occupation brought about a culture of fear. The big regime changed society and the economy frighteningly quickly. Within 18 months Lithuania was left kneeling, head down and bowing down to a bigger power.
Are genealogical tours in Lithuania a regular occurrence in your job?
Family research and heritage trips were a huge thing between 2000-2010 and we had a lot of enquiries. At the time, you had to go to the record office in person, nothing was online. Now, many more people are travelling independently and conducting their initial research themselves. We tend to come in later on. If someone is doing research, expert help is usually needed. I have seen lots of people go in circles once they reach a certain point. They are often very close but sometimes only a living person has the answer and you need local contacts to get that vital information. People often say that because we are a small country we know everyone's names, so we can open every person's door by hand. It is a nice way to look at it and, in Ruta's case, it was true.
One thing I would say is that if you are thinking of doing something like this, don't wait. People are getting older and their stories will die with them.
When guiding people with Lithuanian roots, what are the best stories you've uncovered?
There are so many! One man in particular stands out. I remember we had limited information and time, but the results were life changing. He was visiting his father's birthplace and as we asked around for people who might have known him we discovered a brother living in the village, that he didn't even know existed. We knocked on the door and reunited them. It was an incredibly emotional moment and we were proud and honoured to be part of their journey.
Have you learnt new things about Lithuania, its history and the people that you didn't know about before reading 'Between Shades of Gray' ?
The history of the period of the book I knew, but it has given me a renewed sense of pride in the courage and bravery of those who fought to save our country's identity and our intention of being free. Without them, we wouldn't have our independence. I am so proud of how far we have come as a nation and the place that we are in now. Knowing the history, telling the history and understanding the history is so important. It builds friendships, relationships and a shared understanding of how difficult things can be; how vulnerable places can be at the mercy of bigger powers. It has also given me an incentive to expand my reading and dig further into the past. It is incredibly interesting to see how modern history has been influenced by medieval times and even earlier. Lithuania is right in the buffer zone between east and west, where religions, cultures and superpowers clash. Political unrest and disasters have occurred repeatedly as the power struggle moves backwards and forwards between the two sides.
You have lived in Lithuania all your life. How were your family affected by this time period?
On my mother's side my grandfather (who is now 95) owned his own farm. His father was conscripted into the army in WW1, survived the Tsar's army and was imprisoned by the Germans. As a result, he trained all his children to stay out of political life, to avoid conflict and concentrate on staying alive. I spent a lot of my childhood in the 80s at my grandfather's place growing veg. I remember my grandfather listening to what I thought was crazy radio but was actually US news being drowned out with Bollywood music by the Soviets. We were very lucky, we did not experience the typical life that a Soviet family lived during the regime. In 89/90 my grandfather produced a Lithuanian flag from the previous independence that he had hidden, along with documents that proved his land ownership. He was the first farmer in his own region to reclaim his property back from the Soviets. He bought tractors and machinery and the farm is still running, managed by my cousin's family. We visit every Christmas Eve and celebrate all together.
What do young people in Lithuania think about 'Between Shades of Gray'?
I hope that they are willing to read it because it is intriguing - how can an American write so well about our history? Once they pick it up I have no doubt that the story and brilliant writing will capture their attention.
I hope that people will find connections and relate to it as many of their families and ancestors' will have similar stories. It has the potential to reconnect the younger generation to their parents and grandparents. I hope it will encourage families to talk and share their stories.
I think the fact that millions of people worldwide have read it will spark their interest, and hopefully inspire a pride and renewed interest in their own heritage, history and culture.
How has your involvement with 'Between Shades of Gray' continued with Baltic Holidays?
We have created a Between Shades of Gray tour, exclusive to Baltic Holidays, that takes in some of the locations that inspired the story. This can be a private tour for independent travellers and is popular with fans of the book, often they stay and explore more of Lithuania or the Baltics. We also have a school tour for students and educators from the USA who study the book as part of their curriculum.
Tell us more about the school tours based on 'Between Shades of Gray'?
Several years ago, Ruta asked me to guide some educators from Nashville who were visiting Lithuania. They wanted to arrange a visit for their students and to get paired with a Lithuanian school. Following a chance meeting with my old headmaster, who was setting up a new school - the stars aligned and next year the first students came. The tour brings the students' classroom learning to life. They visit places that inspired Ruta to write the book including places of Soviet legacy and get to meet officials and MPs in the Lithuanian Parliament. In doing so, we introduce them to real people and help them understand the everyday impact of the history described in Ruta's novel. Our aim of this school tours project is to raise awareness of Lithuania's history, the fate of a small country, and to facilitate dialogue and understanding between students and educators across the world about the importance of freedom, democracy and global partnerships. The students also have a wonderful, memorable time in Lithuania too!The history of the period of the book I knew, but it has given me a renewed sense of pride in the courage and bravery of those who fought to save our country's identity and our intention of being free. Without them, we wouldn't have our independence. I am so proud of how far we have come as a nation and the place that we are in now. Knowing the history, telling the history and understanding the history is so important. It builds friendships, relationships and a shared understanding of how difficult things can be; how vulnerable places can be at the mercy of bigger powers. It has also given me an incentive to expand my reading and dig further into the past. It is incredibly interesting to see how modern history has been influenced by medieval times and even earlier. Lithuania is right in the buffer zone between east and west, where religions, cultures and superpowers clash. Political unrest and disasters have occurred repeatedly as the power struggle moves backwards and forwards between the two sides.
The book has also been made into a film, 'Ashes in the Snow'. Will it be shown in Lithuania? How do you think people will react?
There haven't been many good films made about this period so far because it is such a difficult thing to do. We really hope that this one will be good, and I believe that it will be a huge success all over the world. Not long to wait now... the Lithuanian premiere is on October 9th 2018. I'm already prepping my red-carpet outfit!
What do you think the movie 'Ashes in the Snow' will do for Lithuania?
I hope it will help people understand our country's history a little more, and in doing so, strengthen friendships and relationships. On a wider note, I hope it will spread the important message that friendship, peace, identity and art can save the world.
Thank you for speaking with us Linas
Lithuania School Tours
And if you are an educator, college or school wanting to bring your students' learning to life with an educational tour to Lithuania, contact Linas to discuss a school tour to Lithuania.Email Linas re Lithuania School Tours
Between Shades of Gray Tour
To follow in Ruta's footsteps and learn more about the stories behind Between Shades of Gray we warmly invite you to Lithuania on our Between Shades of Gray Private Tour.Between Shades of Gray Private Tour
'Between Shades of Gray' is published by Penguin and available to buy from all good bookshops.
(Blog published: 02 October 2018)