Commemorating the Past, Guiding the Future: an Interview with Simonas Jazavita

In an interview, Lithuanian historian dr. Simonas Jazavita, currently working at the Kaunas City Museum and Oleksii Havryliuk delve into the harrowing mass deportations experienced by Lithuania in 1941 and their unsettling connection to the modern forcible deportations of Ukrainians by Russia. This poignant discussion raises several critical questions regarding the documentation, interpretation, and commemoration of such traumatic events. By exploring the role of photography, the effectiveness of various mediums, the responsibilities of researchers, and the challenges posed by the digital age, the Simonas Jazavita sheds light on the complexities surrounding the documentation and remembrance of mass deportations.


Oleksii Havryliuk: How can significant human disasters, such as mass deportations, be effectively documented? Specifically, I’m interested in understanding the role of photography in capturing such events. Is it possible to capture the entirety of a mass deportation through a single photograph, or does the big picture is made of a collection of individual photos?


Simonas Jazavita: I think, one of the most important factors in order to document such atrocities are testimonies by bystanders. When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of people started to speak bravely about the atrocities committed by that state almost half a century ago in Stalin’s time. Of course, time distance naturally changed some of these testimonies. In that situation it still was very useful, because such traumatic memories, unfortunately, stick very deep to the memory of bystanders and especially victims. But paradoxically that is fortunately for researchers as we then can add testimonies to our researches. Like testimonies of people who were able to flee outside the Iron curtain at the time, or wrote some diaries, unpublished documents and were able to hide it somewhere. When we are talking about photography, historically it was very hard to document atrocities with photos, because cameras were not very widespread — only few people held them. Of course, because of aforementioned reasons, if such photos exist they are really important evidence. These days, technology is available for almost everyone, so it is much easier to produce such photos. So the main problem is such a large amount of this evidence – not all are credible, not all are from the “right angle”, etc. That means researchers must interpret which ones could be used as testimonies. Despite that, every person who disposes of such photos has very significant evidence, so should not be shy, thinking like: “my photos most likely are not essential, maybe someone else has similar photos from a better angle, with better quality, etc.” There is no place for such modesty because every evidence could be of major importance. As You mentioned, I think the big collection of photos about a particular event is more significant, even though even one photo could be extremely useful as well.


Forcible deportation of Lithuanians to Siberia, 1941

Forcible deportation of Lithuanians to Siberia, 1941


Oleksii Havryliuk: Which medium proved to be the most effective in documenting the deportations of Lithuanians, and what factors contributed to its effectiveness?


Simonas Jazavita:  If we are talking about the biggest deportations from Lithuania to the depth of the Soviet Union, mostly Siberia, in 1941, 1948, 1949 and 1951 most of the testimonies are firstly from diaries, memoirs, sometimes letters (even most of them were self-censored for obvious reasons), and photos are secondary. After the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of archives opened, but not everything is known till these days. These documents help to recreate the true view of the mass deportations. Of course, we should critically compare documents by the Soviet repression structures with victims’ memoirs, because Soviets used to lie about almost everything. So in these documents, NKVD/MVD officers even bragged that they constantly gave children fresh milk, while in reality deportees remember most of them were real cruel, and sometimes deportees travelled days in freight trains without water and had to urinate while everyone watched, which was humiliation.


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    Oleksii Havryliuk: How should one approach the reading and interpretation of deportation documents? Is there a specific responsibility placed upon those who engage with and analyze these documents?


    Simonas Jazavita:  Because of aforementioned reasons, anyone who reads any documents from that era must proceed with caution. All information must be critically reconsidered and to be properly contextualised. Such painful and difficult topics must be processed by experienced researchers, and I believe, universities should create specialised courses for students about traumatic history and how to work with it.


    Oleksii Havryliuk: That’s a valid suggestion, indeed. Though, even when those documents are properly contextualised and read, there remain some dangers, as I can see. In the digital age, how can we ensure that the testimonies of deportation victims are not reduced to mere “content” and how to avoid trivializing the magnitude of these catastrophes on the internet and social media platforms?


    Simonas Jazavita: Trivialisation of catastrophe is a huge challenge for our days. Social networks are similar to an ocean of information, so people could get used to horror, to traumatic experiences of other people and stop to care, as if it is just a random cruelty somewhere “far away”. It’s like natural armour of consciousness, the brain is trying to protect itself from too many bad emotions. However, such a pessimistic view is only one side of the coin. Social networks still give us an opportunity to immediately reach people who live hundreds or thousands of kilometres far away. They give us the ability to immediately help, sometimes just spreading information, sometimes sending money or other help. A lot of examples here come from Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine. Here in Lithuania, these events are very well known through social networks. You can act instantly, and of course, sometimes You act, sometimes You can’t because it’s an information ocean, as I mentioned. Despite this amount of information, donation actions are still very popular. Even though it’s not 1-st or 5-th, or 10-th time You see someone in need of help, You actually can see it thousands of times every day. So this is a coin with two sides, but in general, our digital age is a plus. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in June 1940, newspapers were common in all the world, but all newspapers cared about was the Wehrmacht invading Paris — the cultural capital of Europe. And then the Iron curtain was lowered, there were just small amounts of real information about what was happening in the Soviet-occupied countries. Deportations in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, or Ukraine and Moldova — this is what happened, but the “free world” almost never heard about them. Now it’s much harder to completely hide information, so Russia is trying to somehow trivialize it, bring up some even absurd sounding conspiracy theories about things. But there is a hope, because fewer and fewer people believe in those lies and propaganda.


    Forcible deportation of Lithuanians to Siberia, 1941


    Oleksii Havryliuk: Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and the forcible deportation of Ukrainians by Russia, do you believe it is appropriate to establish commemorative days for the modern deportations of Ukrainians, similar to those observed in the Baltic States? For example, eyewitness accounts suggest that the most significant deportations occurred in Mariupol in late March and early April, and in Kherson and Kharkiv in September–October 2022. Or is it too early to establish commemoration days at this stage of the ongoing war?


    Simonas Jazavita: I think it’s important to establish commemoration dates as soon as possible. Of course, when history is very recent, to a lot of people it is not history yet. In order to make some commemoration effective we need to generate some momentum, so for the first few years, we need just work on building that tradition, to spread knowledge about the event inside the country. In that case, it is essential to collect as much information as possible and spread it to general citizens by mainstream media and the internet. Of course, it is essential as well to spread the knowledge about such commemoration in other countries. People who lived outside the Iron Curtain seem to know less about brutal Soviet reality, and they tend to think that nowadays information about Russian atrocities in Ukraine are sometimes exaggerated a little bit. So countries with similar destiny, like Lithuania, can help a lot with such initiatives because it is one of the main of our missions in the historical memory battlefield as well. A lot of countries between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic seas share similar sentiments and could help each other that way. For example, “The Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism” is now officially commemorated in Europe Union and some other countries, and it was the product of direct cooperation and initiative of Central Eastern Europe countries starting from the Prague declaration in 2009. So we have good examples of how to commemorate such tragic and sad events.