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Memoir of a Gulag Actress

Tamara Petkevich, Yasha Klots, Ross Ufberg, Joshua Rubenstein

Publication Year: 2010

In an abridged translation that retains the grace and passion of the original, Klots and Ufberg present the stunning memoir of a young woman who became an actress in the Gulag. Tamara Petkevich had a relatively privileged childhood in the beautiful, impoverished Petrograd of the Soviet regime’s early years, but when her father—a fervent believer in the Communist ideal-was arrested, 17-year- old Tamara was branded a “daughter of the enemy of the people.” She kept up a search for her father while struggling to support her mother and two sisters, finish school, and enter university. Shortly before the Russian outbreak of World War II, Petkevich was forced to quit school, and against her better judgment, she married an exiled man whom she had met in the lines at the information bureau of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). Her mother and one sister perished in the Nazi siege of Leningrad, and Petkevich was herself arrested. With cinematic detail, Petkevich relates her attempts to defend herself against absurd charges of having a connection to the Leningrad terrorist center, counter-revolutionary propaganda, and anti-Semitism that resulted in a sentence of seven years’ hard labor in the Gulag. While Petkevich became a professional actress in her own right years after her release from the Gulag, she learned her craft on the stages of the camps scattered across the northern Komi Republic. The existence of prisoner theaters and troupes of political prisoners such as the one Petkevich joined is a little-known fact of Gulag life. Petkevich’s depiction not only provides a unique firsthand account of this world-within-a-world but also testifies to the power of art to literally save lives. As Petkevich moves from one form of hardship to another, she retains her desire to live and her ability to love. More than a firsthand record of atrocities committed in Stalinist Russia, Memoir of a Gulag Actress is an invaluable source of information on the daily life and culture of the Soviet Union at the time. Russian literature about the Gulag remains vastly underrepresented in the United States, and Petkevich’s unforgettable memoir will go a long way toward filling this gap. Supplemented with photographs from the author’s personal archive, Petkevich’s story will be of great interest to general readers while providing an important resource for historians, political scientists, and students of Russian culture and history.

Published by: Northern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-4


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

More than a half century since the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and nearly two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, the memoirs of onetime political prisoners—the survivors of the Gulag—still have the power to shock us. Memoir of a Gulag Actress is no exception. ...

Translators' Note

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pp. xi-xiv

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Chapter 1

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pp. 3-36

The Revolution, the Civil War, everything that shook our society’s foundations, tearing apart people’s deepest convictions—all this happened during the time of my parents’ youth. ...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 37-72

From the day of Father’s arrest I became known as a “Daughter of an Enemy of the People.” It was the first political label fastened to me by Time. At school the teachers no longer called on me to speak but, instead, always seemed to find some pretext or other for me to sit in the back row. ...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 73-100

I was going to Central Asia, to a strange land and a strange town, to a family and above all to a man whom I scarcely knew. I tried to imagine what Erik and Barbara Ionovna would look like now, not as I’d seen them three years before at the Information Bureau of the Bolshoy Dom. ...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 101-153

He walked out to the kitchen, quietly closing the door behind him. Drowsily I heard his soft steps, the tinkle of the metal wand against the sides of the half-empty water tank, the creak of the sideboard door. The sounds were muffled. I snuggled into the thought: “He loves me, he takes care of me.” ...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 154-192

In the morning rations were handed out: five hundred grams of bread and two spoiled herring each. The sun was already shining in the prison yard, but still we had not been lined up. ...

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Chapter 6

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pp. 193-250

No sooner had we been divided into groups and started boarding the train cars than our stamina and resourcefulness were put to the test. Within seconds the car occupants arranged themselves into a visible hierarchy. The top bunk by the little barred window was taken by Natasha Shatalova, a tall, black-eyed Armenian. ...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 251-281

Central Camp was a separate unit of camps. Its chief commandant had the same power as the commandant of an entire division, which was comprised of not one but a number of different zones. Central Camp was the administrative base of the division, which explained its special status. ...

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Chapter 8

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pp. 282-318

The camp was six kilometers from the railroad. The fields and meadows gathered the warmth and tint of the dim sunlight, but the taiga forest allowed no sun into its thicket, letting the light touch only the top of the canopy. The birds were chirping. I tried to take as many gulps of freedom as I could before we arrived at the camp. ...

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Chapter 9

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pp. 319-337

People who had built the camps in the impassable taiga—not just for themselves but also for those who would come to replace them—were preparing to be released. Those who survived imagined freedom as a chance to return to their interrupted former lives. They were busy writing letters to friends and relatives, ...

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Chapter 10

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pp. 338-366

The end of 1947 was marked by a slight weakening of the regime. Despite the particulars of some of the gifted prisoners’ sentences, TEC had less trouble drawing them into the collective, and the directors had more luck petitioning on behalf of professional actors who were arriving on transports. ...

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Chapter 11

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pp. 367-397

I walked about a hundred meters from the zone toward the settlement, put my suitcase onto the frozen ground and sat down on it in bewilderment. I waited for joy to rush forth, but I felt none. Inside the camp I had just left behind Kolya, Aleksandr Osipovich, my friends, seven years of life. ...

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Chapter 12

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pp. 398-438

At the railway clinic in Mikun, where Hella and I worked, half of the employees were recent graduates of Leningrad medical institutes. The train from Leningrad to the Komi Republic took a little more than a day, and the young doctors would willingly come to work here on assignment, which made them eligible for housing warrants back in Leningrad. ...

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Chapter 13

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pp. 439-446

All those years, I was frantically searching for my son, sending countless inquiries to the information bureaus of large cities and small towns. Piles of replies came back saying nothing except “Not registered” or “Does not reside here.” My friends would get in touch with their own acquaintances from the North and ask them if anyone had heard about Bakharev, ...

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In Place of an Epilogue

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pp. 447-471

I don’t know what tormented Barbara Ionovna the most, but her supplication—“ I want to see you! Have mercy on me: don’t let me die without asking you for forgiveness!”—could not leave me indifferent. The past would not be put to rest easily. ...


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pp. 472-478


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pp. 479-482

E-ISBN-13: 9781609090074
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875804286

Page Count: 506
Illustrations: 29 halftones
Publication Year: 2010