‘Gulag Actress’ Tamara Petkevich died recently in St Petersburg at the age of 97. Here is an abridged version of the review of her Memoir that I wrote when it was published in English in 2010. This volume has made a significant contribution to my own research on the Soviet women who fell victim to the Stalinist purges.
This book makes a welcome contribution to the Western literature on women’s experience of exile, arrest, imprisonment and the gulag under Stalin. Tamara Petkevich’s story, though far from unique, is recounted with insight and feeling. Of threads that run through the book, not least is what happened to her father, a low-ranking Party official, after his arrest in November 1937. By the beginning of 1938, the family learned that he had been transported. They received a visitor, a former prisoner, bringing a letter purportedly from the father: ‘he was working in a bay on the Sea of Okhotsk, up to his knees in water’. In 1947, Petkevich speculated about what had become of him: ‘What if he had survived the ten-year term and was set free? I imagined him coming back to Leningrad, searching in vain for traces of his family and having no one to turn to for help’.
By this time, Tamara had chosen voluntary exile from Leningrad to set up home in Frunze with another arrested official’s son, whom she met when searching for her father following his arrest. Her mother and sisters remained in Leningrad to their own cost. Only the middle child survived the siege and was sent to an orphanage. After her release, Tamara experienced considerable difficulties in re-establishing her relationship with her sister, the emotional distance between them having become too great.
In 1956, Tamara received her father’s official death certificate, which stated that he died in an unnamed settlement in 1942, but ‘the official who signed the certificate hadn’t even bothered getting my father’s age correct. … The indifference of the hand which wrote that document also counts as history’. In fact, according to the post-Soviet listings of victims, Vladislav Iosifovich Petkevich had been executed on 15 January 1938.
Petkevich writes with a self-conscious detachment whilst realising the historical significance of her experience. During the early months following her arrest and transportation in 1943 she recalls that, ‘A distant hope arose in me: someday I’ll tell all this to someone in such a way that at the moment I myself wasn’t able to understand … I will definitely speak of what I have seen and lived through’. She portrays herself as both victim of circumstance and controller of her own destiny. She had many admirers, but there were also many who rejected and betrayed her, including her own bigamous husband.
The greatest betrayal came from a lover Petkevich took in the camps. Although professing undying love, he took their son to be raised by another woman with whom he was living. He repeatedly denied Petkevich access to their son, even after her release. When Petkevich was preparing a court case to secure the return of her son, the pretend family disappeared. It was several years before she tracked them down, by which time her son had forgotten his birth mother: ‘I lived my life without my son. I didn’t see him grow up or hear him call me “mama”’.
Petkevich was still a young woman when she was released in 1950: ‘Getting accustomed to normal life was a painful process, often insuperable and always dramatic’. She paints a harrowing picture of the difficulties faced in adjusting to everyday life through the political, geographic and social constraints imposed on ex-detainees in addition to their cultural and emotional estrangement: ‘Fences taller than those encircling the camps had been raised in the consciousness of the “non-has-beens”. In everyday usage, people referred to it as an unspoken civil war’. Many were re-arrested and Petkevich lived in the knowledge that she faced a similar fate. She resisted attempts by local security forces to recruit her as an informer.
In later life, Petkevich became an actress, a role she fell into during her time in the gulag and through which she gained a good deal of emotional resilience.