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Memoir of a Gulag Actress

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Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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 under-represented 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.           

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

 “Much of the literary power of Memoir of a Gulag Actress lies in Petkevich’s vivid recall of the people in her life: her first husband, Erik, and their lives together in Frunze where she joined a family that failed to accept her; Aleksandr Osipovich Gavronsky, a renowned theater director, who leads the prisoner troupe and adopts her as if she were his daughter; her lover, Nikolai Danilovich—’tall, slim, handsome, elegant and professional’—an actor whose devotion sustains her; and her sister, Vera, whom she locates upon her release. Their individual destinies, in the camps or ‘at liberty,’ reflect the full pathos of Stalin’s miserable kingdom.”—from the foreword by Joshua Rubenstein, Fellow of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA

"It is a great achievement that the translators have successfully produced an accurate and satisfying prose rendition of this Gulag memoir. . .  This is a valuable addition to the primary source literature on the USSR in the twentieth century. Petkevich writes movingly about her life from childhood, through marriage, to arrest and internment in the Great Patriotic War, to eventual release. The book is thus about the fate of a member of the elite in a period when the Revolution devoured its own as well as its out-and-out enemies. . . . Ultimately this memoir will be read not only for what it tells us about the Soviet Union . . . but as a fascinating human story of individuals who were unjustly persecuted.”—European History Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780875804286
  • Publisher: Northern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2010
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 495
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Yasha Klots is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University.

Ross Ufberg is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University.

Joshua Rubenstein is Fellow of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 6, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    must read, personal power over evil

    Astonishing. Painful. And incredibly difficult to put down...

    I am not sure what I was expecting when I started this book. The idea that any form of entertainment was possible in the Gulag prison camps seemed bizarre. Yet her part in a theatre troupe is not the most amazing part of the book-the book as a whole is a fascinating exploration into personal character in the face of paralyzing evil.


    First off, we learn that Tamara was regularly beaten by her somewhat mysterious father-she faced extreme punishment in the home for the slightest perceived error. However, her father was captured and imprisoned, taken away from the family, and leaving her mother and three sisters without assistance. The mystery of her father's 'crime' became meaningless as just finding sustenance for one day became a challenge. She feels deeply concerned about providing for her family, given her mother's emotional instability and the changing political climate. Eventually, she decides to marry a man who has been exiled to a distant city because he was a doctor, part of the intelligentsia that the Soviet's so despised. Her move to him there, in the hopes that she could send money home to her family in Leningrad, was possibly the worst mistake she could make.

    The Soviet paranoia couldn't understand why someone would willfully choose exile, so she was under suspicion immediately. Not only was she unable to help her family (her mother and a sister died during the Siege of Leningrad), but her so-called friends and acquaintances turned her in and made up charges against her (likely to receive basic necessities for themselves or some sort of leeway in their own troubles). Imprisoned and sentenced, she ends up in the Gulag, serving hard labor by harvesting and processing hemp.

    There's so much about this book that is covered--personal life, Russian politics, family interactions (her mother-in-law is a piece of work!), and unimaginable horror, that it's hard to review and not tell it all. There's so much beyond just the facts but how she processed them as they occurred. It left me with many questions.

    Namely, given that she doesn't appear to have many close friends that have remained loyal, no family to count on, no spiritual connection to draw on, and very few examples of courage, how did she remain sane and decent? What gave her the strength to go through it all, essentially alone in every aspect? A cheating husband, a sister who can't forgive her for leaving (and failing to protect her), a son ripped from her arms who ends up never wanting to be part of her life? The physical pain of hard labor, starvation, and beatings?

    As a personal history, it's astounding. Her voice throughout it is never self-pitying, and in fact, at a few points I imagined she was being a little too positive about the situations. Was it just in her nature to look for the best in it all? Suicide was an option of many-for her it was unimaginable.

    It's very fast-paced and dramatic, and while a knowledge of some Russian history is helpful, I wouldn't think it's essential. A few moments of confusion occurred for me as many of the names were not only difficult but she didn't use each name consistently, sometimes she would use a nickname or a surname or the Russian patronymics (patronyms?) interchangeably. I felt like I needed a sheet to keep track of names.

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