Yukoners plan epic bike trip to commemorate Stalin's Polish exiles

Yukoners Ewa Dembek and Lee Carruthers are about to set of on a major cycling trip - 8,000 kilometers from Poland to Iran. They're retracing the journey Dembek's mother was forced to take 75 years ago, as a Pole exiled by Stalin - one of the so-called 'sybirak'.

Ewa Dembek and Lee Carruthers will retrace Dembek's mother's journey 75 years earlier

'This was just something I cooked up,' says Dembek. (Ewa Dembek)

It's not something many people are inclined to celebrate — this year's 75th anniversary of Stalin's mass deportation of Poles to Siberia.

But two Yukoners are choosing to commemorate and honour those exiles this summer by retracing their journey, on bikes. Ewa Dembek and Lee Carruthers plan to cycle 8,000 kilometers from Warsaw, Poland to Iran.

One of those Polish exiles was Dembek's mother. 

"This was just something I cooked up," says Dembek. "I absolutely love the complexity of this story."

Dembek's mother was a 10-year old girl living in Poland's eastern borderlands when the Soviets began deporting hundreds of thousands of Poles to labour camps. Dembek's mother ended up in northern Russia. Others found themselves in Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Dembek says her mother was among those exiles who later found freedom when Stalin joined the Allies in the Second World War. Many of the so-called sybirak were released from the labour camps and moved south, crossing the Caspian Sea to reach freedom in Persia (now Iran).
Lee Carruthers will be filming throughout their 8000 kilometer journey, to make a documentary. The pair says the film planning has put their trip 'on steroids'. (Lee Carruthers)

"It's a piece of history that's not known," says Dembek. She says the cycling expedition is her attempt to learn more about her mother's journey, and help keep the memory of those thousands of exiles alive.

"There are certain Polish groups that are doing small little celebrations, if you can call it that," Dembek says.

"But it's not well known, which is why we decided, 'let's go out there and figure it out'."

A long, indirect route

Dembek and Carruthers are now scrambling with last minute preparations before flying to Poland on Tuesday. They've had to arrange and sort all their gear — including a pile of Carruthers' film equipment — and secure passports and visas for the many countries they intend to pass through.

Their route from Poland to Iran — like that of the Sybirak —is not direct. First they'll travel northeast through Belarus and into northern Russia, passing through Moscow along the way. Then they'll turn south and head to Kazakhstan, crossing the Ural mountains.
A portion of the cyclists' 'gear table'. Dembek and Carruthers are scrambling to get everything in order before hopping a place to Poland on Tuesday. (Sybirak Cycle)

Then, says Carruthers, they'll move through "just about all the other '-stan' countries," including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, before making their way into Iran. They hope to take a boat across the Caspian Sea to reach Iran, as the sybirak did decades ago.

"This exodus of people is just trickling through, and they make it to Turkmenistan and hop on a ship — well, several ships, if they could — across the Caspian Sea to Iran," Dembek says. "Iran was their freedom."

A trip 'on steroids'

Dembek and Carruthers have done a bit of fundraising, but it's mostly been a labour of love so far. They're trying to generate interest in their trip among the Polish diaspora in Canada and elsewhere.

They've given themselves six months to complete the trip. Their goal is to then put together a documentary film using Carruthers' footage. Dembek says that's made their preparations a whole lot more complicated.

​"Making a film has just intensified, put this trip on steroids," Dembek says. "Suddenly you're trying to fund a film project as well."

Dembek admits that she hasn't even had time to do much training on her bike. She says she took her first ride of the year last week.

"I told that to Lee and he just shook his head," she laughs.