Natasha Petrovskaya was a young Moscow-native in 1935, a film projectionist for the Propaganda Ministry. Her husband was a high-ranking official in the same department, and both of them were members of the Communist party, who handed out pro-Bolshevik leaflets during the Bolshevik Civil War. However, her luck came to an end one fateful day in the projection studio, where her film caught fire and burned just as Stalin’s face came onto the screen. On a late winter night, she was woken by the NKVD, who insisted that they search her home and take her for interrogation. Believing the whole incident to be a mistake, she willfully went with the secret police officials without saying a goodbye to her husband and children.
Thrown into a stockade with other “Enemies of the People”, Natasha was shocked and demanded to be let out, but the guard obviously ignored her. Three times its capacity, the cell held Natasha and other prisoners for two weeks until she was put in solitary confinement. Along with freezing temperatures, the complete lack of human contact nearly drove Natasha insane until she started communicating in Morse code with another prisoner in another isolation cell. Finally, she was politely interrogated at first by an NKVD official who offered her food and other material goods, eventually telling her to sign a document that would implicate her and fifteen others in a “Trotskyist (Stalin’s nemesis) terrorist plot.” Unwilling to sign, she was beaten and verbally abused until the interrogator told her that they would arrest her children too, after which she desperately signed the paper. Her husband remained silent in fear of being arrested too, for Stalin would test family members with stressful scenarios to “prove their loyalty to the State”.
Sentenced to fifteen years in the gulag system, Natasha still pleaded that she was “not like the others” and was innocent of her supposed crimes. Packed into a cattle car with other women, she was quickly overwhelmed by the lack of food, water, sanitation, and the freezing air. Standing by one wall with fresh air, Natasha managed to persevere throughout the train ride and arrived in Vorkutlag, which was a coal mining institution. Sharing a bunk with another woman in the poorly ventilated barracks, Natasha was especially careful of the gangs of criminals that would stalk the camp premises at night. Given primitive tools to mine coal, Natasha was quickly put on starvation rations, which whittled her health down considerably.
Assisted by a section leader, who knew the hardships of gulag life, Natasha was able to acquire more food by faking coal amounts on the quota papers. However, she fell out of favor with the section leader because she still felt superior to the “real Enemies of the People”. Starting to starve, Natasha found it difficult to get any other jobs, and was resistant to becoming a camp prostitute, which she found disgusting. Instead she found comfort in a tolerable man, and she was soon pregnant, which lowered her workload and increased her ration intake to a stable amount. Standing out in the gulag, Natasha always wore nicer clothes than the inmates around her and didn’t interact with any of them, which painted a virtual target on her back. Criminals stole her decent clothing, spilled her food, and forced her into the hardest jobs until she realized that the best way to survive was to be invisible, to be another “cog in the machine”.
Natasha was never freed from Vorkutlag, which became a major coal mining facility for the Soviet Union, and she was rarely allowed to see her child. Once World War II ended, she was released with her baby in 1946 and learned the whereabouts of her old family; her husband was executed in 1937, one of her children died during the war, and the other child was missing.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades