Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Memoirs of a Gulag Actress by Tamara Petkevich (nonfiction)

Translated from the Russian by Yasha Klots and Ross Ufberg

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.  Also, it gave me a bit of pause to consider that she doesn't really reveal anything negative about herself:  no flaws or weaknesses.  Genuine history generally shows both sides, the good and the bad, to merit accuracy.  Yet, it's her biography so I'm sure it was her right to share only what she wished.  I just kept hoping she'd be a little more human and lose her temper with her conniving and hideous mother-in-law or give her cad husband a little more grief.

However, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Russia.  It's a clean read too, nothing explicit or unsavory, so even young teens could read this and learn just how ugly history can be.  I can't help but think anyone who reads this is better off in their own life by seeing just how, by contrast, our society is pampered and simple.

Special thanks to Northern Illinois University Press for the Review Copy.


  1. This certainly looks like a fascinating read; AP European History has made me really interested in Soviet literature and lives.

  2. Coincidence: I have this one sitting on my shelf. Have you by chance seen Slave of Love?

  3. Guy, no I haven't seen that title. Good?