With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is an ambitious and uniquely constructed work of literary nonfiction. Published as a part of the Baltic Literature Series by Dalkey Archive Press, this moving and eloquent book tells the story of author Sandra Kalniete’s Latvian family, and the harrowing hardships they endured over the course of fifty years and three occupations—longer than any other European nation experienced in the twentieth century. In telling her family’s story, Kalniete also tells the story of Latvia’s twentieth-century history, illuminating an often-neglected, largely ignored, nation’s struggles with the twin plagues infecting Europe in the twentieth century: communism and fascism. At first glance a family memoir, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is so much more than a personal memoir. It is a literary and historical tour de force whose searing indictment of Nazi Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s policies of terror and oppression teaches readers that while these policies may have broken human bodies, it could not break the bonds of family.
Sandra Kalniete was born in 1952 to Latvian parents who had been permanently exiled to Siberia. In 1957 she and her family were finally allowed to return to their home country, four long years after Stalin’s death in 1953. Kalniete’s bold prose and artistic narrative style convey the impression that she makes her living by her pen, and not her politics. In the 1980s and ‘90s Kalniete served as the Latvian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, France, and even to UNESCO. She became Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2002, and has since served as the first Latvian Commissioner of the European Union. Latvia’s present and future may reside in Kalniete’s professional life, but in her personal life, it is her country’s past which she takes to task, exploring the deepest recesses of her and her family’s memory in search of historical truths.
In my childhood, the past was only mentioned in connection with household incidents and family events, but almost never in its political or historic significance. I grew up under the influence of Soviet propaganda, knowing almost nothing about the real history of Latvia. The latter was totally buried in silence.
Seamlessly constructing a nation’s history out of a family story is a delicate narrative prospect, but Kalniete carries it off like a duck on a pond; we know the effort being carried out beneath the water’s surface, but all we see on the surface is a seemingly-effortless calm. Kalniete leads readers Dante-like through the memory of the unmitigated horrors and tragedies that befell her family with bold language that propels the reader through the labyrinth of memory. This was no easy task for Kalniete; Latvian historians are still not permitted access to USSR archival collections that could provide complete insight into the documents pertaining to the planning and execution of Latvia’s occupation by Soviet forces in June 1940. Not coincidentally, the date of occupation was purposely chosen as the same date of the German takeover of France—June 17, 1940. “What did the fate of the small Baltic States matter in comparison to this drama, which staggered Europe and the world? Thus we were left alone with our despair.” Limited archival access aside, Kalniete reaches into the deepest recesses of her memory, and asks her family to do the same, in order to narratively construct and accurately portray events which befell Latvia and its people in the mid-twentieth century. “’Constructing memory’ could very well be the subtitle of this book,” says Valters Nollendorfs in his foreword. Kalniete is forthright with her emotional reactions to what she learns, resulting in an emotionally moving passages that elicit a visceral reaction.
When I talked to my mother about the Bilina and Petropavlovka period during the preparatory phase for this book, I did not allow myself to feel. My objective was not to interrupt the thread of recollections and to question dispassionately in order to learn as much as possible how starvation emaciates a human body and alters the spirit. When I later listened to the taped conversations, their calm flow seemed unbearable to me, so abnormal was their content. The sad story told in my mother’s everyday voice singed me with sudden waves of pain. My body shook and I had to hang onto my desk to contain my uncontrollable sobs. I could not listen to my practical voice, repeating a question about how a rat tastes or wondering how my mother had not died from eating a horse cadaver.
Kalniete’s use of clipped, fast-paced language powerfully conveys the sense of fear and confusion that reigned during the early days of Soviet occupation. The urgency, the unknown that permeated Latvian families is imparted in passages such as these:
The uncertainty that ruled in society in those June days was staggering. The most unlikely rumors were circulating. Almost nothing of what was happening with the political elite was known, since the press and the radio were totally under the control of the occupiers . . . with each new day, the feeling of humiliation grew stronger. The sharp pain could not be silenced.
Kalniete’s sparing use of overly descriptive language and eloquently constructed metaphors creates a stark world which enhances the narrative success of With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows. By utilizing linguistic simplicity, Kalniete allows emotions and emotional reactions to resonate within the reader. Far from being “cold,” you feel as though you are standing behind Kalniete’s shoulder in instances such as this:
When I have recovered from my contact with the barbarity of the prison camp death machine, I once again turn to the first page of the case file and start to read systematically and carefully. I don’t allow myself to feel emotional. However, on the fourth page a new emotional shock is in store for me. On the prisoner’s form, besides his signature, is my grandfather’s fingerprint. I dissolve into tears. I put my hand on my grandfather’s fingerprint and allow myself the illusion that our hands touch . . .”
There are times throughout the book when events are so boldly and graphically described it is almost painful to endure, such as when Kalniete describes, in painful detail, her grandfather’s death. “From that moment onward, with a distanced indifference, he watched as from his mouth, bit by bit, his lungs were spit out—in porous, pale and bloody lumps . . . Thus, drowning in blood, my grandfather Alekdandrs Kalnietis’ life ended.” Beautifully written and astonishingly simple in the emotion it conveys, passages such as this permeate With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows. Following thematic, rather than a linear chronological organization, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows reads more like a novel than a true memoir or piece of history, although it is both. Such a narrative organization contributes to the book’s ultimate success.
Following Latvian deportees’ “gradual descent into hell” is an expressively harrowing experience that impressed itself upon the reader’s psyche long after the past page has been turned. Elegant in its simplicity of language and bold in its emotional vulnerability, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is ultimately a beautifully told story of a family and country’s resilience, survival, and revival.
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