Basketball helped Lithuanians survive Soviet gulag

Wed Aug 24, 2011 1:49pm EDT
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By Nerijus Adomaitis

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Forced labor camps were meant to crush opponents to the regime of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but basketball helped them to survive, an exhibition in former Soviet state Lithuania shows.

Around 150,000 Lithuanians were sent to the camps, known as gulags after their Russian acronym, and another 132,000 were deported to live in far-flung parts of the former Soviet empire by 1953. About 50,000 perished due to lack of food, illness, harsh weather and hard labor.

"In a place where everyone was forced to fight for himself, it was necessary to find something that could unite people and preserve their pride. Basketball became such a thing," said Vilma Juozeviciute, the curator of the exhibition.

The show opened Wednesday at the former headquarters of the feared KGB secret police, which is now a museum, in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

The exhibition has been timed to coincide with Lithuania's hosting of the European basketball championships, which begin at the end of August.

Pictures displayed on a green wooden wall with a basketball board and a barbed-wire fence on top depict political prisoners and deportees playing basketball or proudly showing their team jerseys with Lithuanian names, such as Zalgiris, now a famous club from Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city.

Some pictures captured fans absorbed by the game and cheering their side, and who, it seems, had forgotten for a moment about their hardships.

"To be able to play basketball at the gulag allowed us to feel human again, not only like a slave, and to survive the captivity," Juozas Butrimas, 84, told Reuters at the exhibition.   Continued...

<p>Visitors Zigmas Vitkauskas (L) and Edvardas Brokas observe a picture of the Soviet gulag labour camp basketball team during an exhibition in Vilnius August 24, 2011. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins</p>