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The art of surviving the gulag


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Tamara Petkevich and the others in her troupe were like actors anywhere, using every trick they knew to make an audience laugh, shudder or cry.

There was, however, one crucial difference. Petkevich and her colleagues were all prisoners of the gulag, the vast Soviet-era system of prison camps.

The actors knew that their lives might depend on how well they played their roles. And they realized that by evoking long-forgotten emotions, they could encourage their audiences to go on living, too.

"The fact is that camp art was completely different from art on the outside, because the ultimate purpose of an artist in the camp was to survive, by all means necessary," says Petkevich, who, at 82, retains the elegance and authority that made her a star of the gulag's stages.

"Anyone who participated in theatrical performances had more of a chance of surviving than those who worked in the mines," agrees Simeon Vilensky of Moscow, a gulag survivor, human rights activist and authority on Soviet prison theater. The actors also comforted their fellow inmates. "They helped other people to remain people."

The Soviet GULAG - the Russian acronym for "Main Department of Corrective Labor Camps" - came into being soon after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, as the victors built a network of prisons for political and criminal inmates. Soviet authorities soon recognized that the inmates were also an enormous reservoir of slave labor, ready-made for the state's ambitious plan to build an industrial economy from scratch.

Josef Stalin, who died 50 years ago Wednesday, set off a reign of terror that filled the camps and graveyards. By 1939, the system included perhaps 400 prisons, labor camps, labor colonies and "special settlements." By one recent estimate, the gulag at its height held more than 5 million prisoners, including purged party leaders, suspected saboteurs and traitors, members of ethnic groups viewed as politically unreliable and dissidents.

Inmates suffered from having little clothing, little food and unending labor. They were starved, beaten, tortured and, in thousands of cases, shot to death. But the system's cultural life is a reminder that authorities could not kill the human spirit.

Because Soviet officials regarded artists, musicians and intellectuals as particularly unreliable, many of them were arrested. Perhaps inevitably, camp bureaucrats - bored and isolated - organized amateur theater groups.

These troupes eerily resembled the serf theaters founded by Russian nobles in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like their serf predecessors, gulag performers were better housed and fed than other human chattel, exempt from punishing work schedules and frequently on tour.

"There was a regular exchange of dramatic troupes," says Petkevich, who wrote a book about her gulag stage career in The Life of a Mismatched Boot. "The camp officials took pride in showing off, in demonstrating that their actors were better than those of other camps."

Tatyana Leshchenko-Sukhomlina, an actress and singer, wrote of her joy at successfully auditioning for the theater troupe at a work camp in Vorkuta, 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow, above the Arctic Circle. "This was a great stroke of luck, for it meant working in a warm building and countless other benefits," the actress recalled in her autobiography, My Guitar. She died in 1998.

Administrators at Vorkuta had a nucleus of professional actors and musicians, and hired a professional Moscow director - who was not an inmate - to stage its shows, which included the operas Yevgeny Onegin and Rigoletto. Those shows, Leshchenko-Sukhomlina wrote, "earned praise even from theatergoers used to the best Moscow theaters."

Some troupes were little better than amateurs. Most performances were staged in dining rooms. Scenery was hand-sewn. Yet even in crude productions, survivors say, the audience could feel overwhelmed. Often, they would laugh or cry hysterically.

"The art was so sincere," Petkevich recalls. "The actor or the singer would give himself so completely to the performance. Our emotions were so much deeper because of the circumstances. When the performance penetrated our hearts, it was like the resurrection of the normal world."

But the actors' lives depended on the whim of officials, and female actresses were often preyed upon, survivors say. Some became the mistresses or "temporary wives" of their chief warders to survive.

Sometimes, these mistresses held significant power. A Kolyma camp official, Vilensky says, once sentenced a painter to 10 days in isolation for painting the boots of Stalin too long in a portrait. But the mistress intervened, freeing the painter after two days.

Actors, like other prisoners, dreamed of freedom. But most camps were in remote sites. And the U.S.S.R.'s system of internal passports made free movement impossible.

Few who tried to slip away survived. "They shot everyone - I don't know of a single escape," says Vilensky, who edited a 1999 book, Till My Tale is Told: Women's Memoirs of the Gulag.

Censors reviewed all songs and plays performed in gulag theaters. And there was pressure to stage Soviet propaganda. But most troupes resisted, preferring Russian or foreign classics to the work of Socialist Realist writers.

Still, the Soviet literary bureaucracy produced some plays that had both popular appeal and a suitable political message. Petkevich still proudly recalls playing the lead female role in The Russian Question, a famous post-World War II melodrama about an anguished American journalist who is forced by his capitalist bosses to slander the U.S.S.R. (The play struck many American writers of the day, including John Steinbeck, who saw it during a 1947 tour of the U.S.S.R., as absurd.)

The gulag, meanwhile, made stars of a few who, like Petkevich, had never performed before.

Petkevich fled Leningrad in 1937 after her parents were arrested and wound up in the Central Asian city of Frunze - now Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In 1943, as she sat in a class in medical school, the secret police arrested her, accusing her of being part of a Leningrad terrorist cell. She was sentenced to seven years of hard labor.

After a 60-mile forced march through the blazing steppes, Petkevich and hundreds of other recently sentenced inmates approached a hemp-producing camp. Shuffling through the dust were what she would later call "parchment people," because that was the color of the skin stretched over their bones.

Each day's ration consisted of a 21-ounce loaf of bread. As she fed bundles of hemp to a clattering loom, with whirling steel shafts that could snatch off a hand or an arm, she was so tired and hungry she could barely stand.

From the steppes, she was shuttled to the taiga near the Arctic Circle, where she dug ditches and cleared trees for a rail line. Once, an official at a small camp - intrigued by a photograph in her file - asked Petkevich to memorize and recite a tragic story for the other inmates. As she told the tale, her listeners wept.

She was recommended for an audition with a troupe based at the large Knyazh-Pogost Camp in the Komi Republic, about 800 miles northeast of Moscow. The troupe was led by a highly successful Moscow theater and film director, Aleksandr O. Gavronsky, who had been arrested in 1934.

He recognized Petkevich's raw talent and spent long hours tutoring the novice. She soon appeared in the lead female roles in Chekhov's Jubilee and The Bear. She spent several years on the gulag stages.

After Petkevich's release in 1950, she was condemned to internal exile in the Ural Mountains. Finally, in 1960, she was officially rehabilitated and allowed to return to Leningrad. But she found she was considered too old to pursue an acting career. So she became a writer, theater critic and artistic director for an amateur theater.

Despite their privileges, Vilensky says, gulag performers had an unusually high rate of suicide, perhaps because of the peculiar psychological pressures the performers faced. "It's very difficult to lead a dual life, to be a slave and at the same time to play the role of a free man," he says.

Petkevich - who can still weave a spell-binding tale - seems unscathed by her years in the camps. But during an interview, as her cat wound around her legs, she reminded her listener that psychological scars are often invisible.

Petkevich recalls the response a friend of hers - a Czech actress from Knyazh-Pogost Camp - gave when someone asked how she had survived the gulag.

"Who told you I managed to survive?" the Czech woman replied.

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