Memoir of a Gulag Actress
Tamara Vladimirovna Petkevich
Komi Republic, Russia
SUMMARY: The memoir starts off with Petkevich’s childhood in a communist family. Her father is described as quick-tempered and often punished her for trivial things such as talking back. She initially reasoned that this was due to her being stubborn, but later writes that it stems from his fear of imprisonment by Soviet police, which unfortunately did happen. After her father's arrest, Petkevich describes her struggle living under the radar but finds hope through her mother and sister before the start of World War II. The war kicks off a downward spiral for Petkevich, starting with losing the rest of the family during the Siege of Leningrad. Petkevich is captured and falsely charged with terrorism and sent to a gulag camp.
During her imprisonment, Petkevich talks about doing manual work and her eventual reprieve from labor due to Aleksandr Osipovich Gavronsky. Gavronsky is a theatre director who teaches her and other prisoners to perform. This inspires Petkevich to create friendships with Margo and Inna, other female prisoners, and she details more of the importance of her theatre and art in the gulag camp. Eventually, she is released but struggles with the stigma of being an ex-prisoner and finding out her father was executed when he was captured. However, her life improves and she lands multiple acting jobs that lift her up to possible popularity and ability to inform others about the gulag camps and the art inside.
ANALYSIS: Petkevich’s account of her experiences in a gulag camp is valuable as she lived through the rise of the Soviet Union. Her accounts provide a deeper look into what prisoners did in the gulag (e.g., theatre) and what was created inside. Specifically, performance art from prisoners proves to readers that there’s humanity within prisons and that are those who are disrupting the routine lifestyles inside the camps. This knowledge from her memoir was important in shedding light on gulag prison art’s existence and impact towards society in Russia.
Additionally, having a woman’s account of imprisonment breaks the traditional world of male Russian camp authors. Petkevich was able to provide a detailed account of how she was able to survive in the gulag as a female prisoner. Also, the focused look on family and children gives an emphatic look into how important bonds are, both inside and outside the prison walls.
“With every whipping I learned to handle the pain better, to scream less loudly and not be so quick to apologize. I was indeed becoming a ‘stubborn little girl.’" (8)
“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.” (367)
“But when my landlords found out I was an ex-prisoner, they grew hostile…Early one morning, their five year-old daughter came into my room…scrutinizing me her eyes. Then she said, ‘Go away! You’re a beggar.’” (399)
BIOGRAPHY: Tamara Vladimirovna Petkevich was born on March 29, 1920 in Petrograd, Russia. Her parents fought during the Russian Civil War with a goal for revolution. This continues with her father’s work as a communist during the rise of the Soviet Union until his arrest for anti-Soviet propaganda. As a result, Petkevich was labeled as an enemy of the state alongside her mother and sister. As time passed, the Soviet Union entered World War II and Petkevich chose to be exiled for her safety. Afterwards, her mother and sister died during the Siege of Leningrad and her father was executed. She was captured during the conflict and falsely charged with terrorism due to her working at the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs in Leningard.
Petkevich spent seven years in a gulag camp making materials for Soviet troops at war. She injured herself often and soon worked at the ward to escape those dangers. At the same time, she developed an interest in theatre through Aleksandr Osipovich Gavronsky, a theatre director that taught her and other prisoners to perform inside the camps. Through her theatre, she befriended many prisoners, recounted her and their humanity, and survived the gulag until her release. Indeed, she became a popular Russian actress and bought attention to the arts and humanity inside prisons with the risk of stigma as an ex-prisoner. She continued her work until her death on October 18, 2017.
Petkevich, Tamara. Memoir of a Gulag Actress. Translated by Joshua Rubenstein, Northern Illinois University Press (2010).
“Celebrating the Lives of Soviet Women: Tamara Vladimirovna Petkevich (29 March 1920 – 18 October 2017).” History, 18 May 2018,
Goscilo, Helena. “The Italics Are Hers: Matrophobia and the Family Romance in Elena Bonner’s Mothers and Daughters.” The Russian Memoir: History and Literature, edited by Beth Holmgren, Northwestern University Press, 2003, pp. 53–69.
Goscilo discusses the issue of women and children in prison memoirs and how they break literary norms in the Western world. Additionally, the theme of family is discussed and credited to making gulag stories more accessible to outside readers.
Diment, Galya. “English as Sanctuary: Nabokov’s and Brodsky’s Autobiographical Writings.” The Russian Memoir: History and Literature, edited by Beth Holmgren, Northwestern University Press, 2003, pp. 167–185.
Diment explains how English-translated Russian novels further expand the play on language authors purposely engage in. Tamara Petkevich details every moment of her story from prisoner to actress through these practices.
Kolchevska, Natasha. “The Art of Memory: Cultural Reverence as Political Critique in Evgeniia Ginzburg’s Writing of the Gulag.” The Russian Memoir: History and Literature, edited by Beth Holmgren, Northwestern University Press, 2003, pp. 145–166.
Kolchevska provides information on the rise of the USSR and the effects it had in Russian politics. Being that Petkevich’s memoir occurs during this era, this chapter provides good background reading to understand the Soviet Union’s censorship tactics.