Since I was just an oddball kid in the smalltown Midwest, I have had an inescapable fascination with Russia, much to the bewilderment of my mothers and an entire town of working class folks more interested in the outcome of the Bears' game than that of the Romanov Dynasty. 

But it was not until I left Lombard's meager library for the eye-opening splendor of Princeton that I finally had the opportunity to dive deep into my passion for Russia history. My freshman year, aside from the cafeteria food, introduced me to the topic that would come to shape the next decade of my life. In a course on the Soviet Gulag taught by my soon-to-be advisor-for-life Professor Deborah Kaple, I discovered within a thousand-page tome on Gulag history a single sentence that would emblazon itself on my mind. The prisoners performed a play. 


Since I read that line I have been hellbent on digging into the complex world that lay below the surface of those words. The world of Gulag Theater. My journey of discovery has taken me to Russia's Subarctic, where I heard the tales and met the descendants of the incredible professional Gulag theaters of the Komi Republic. 


I returned to Princeton armed with a trove of never-before-studied documents (photos, articles, programs, journals and memoirs), and these sources coalesced into a 200-page thesis that completely dismissed the recommended page count. Though the years after my undergraduate work was complete saw my pursuit of a career as an actor and playwright, never once did the miraculous and still-so-untouched story of Gulag Theater stray far from my thoughts. 

In 2018, after a grueling four-month theater tour across the American South, I decided to dive back into that world that had captivated me for so long. I endeavored to translate the most remarkable document I found while in the Russian Far North: a one-of-a-kind memoir detailing the life of one of the most incredible Gulag theaters, the first-ever theater beyond the Arctic Circle: The Music and Drama Theater of Vorkuta. 

A year later, as a Teaching Assistant for the Princeton Global Seminar in Moscow, fate once again granted me the opportunity to return to Russia and continue my research into these miraculous theaters. In the archives of the Union of Theater Workers and the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), I discovered new materials about the artists who would come to light up the stage of Vorkuta's polar theater. Then, unforeseen circumstances presented the chance to travel to Siberia's eastern shore, the former Gulag capital of Magadan, and the site of the other most famous Gulag theater. There I realized just how many materials still remain untouched and unread, and how fervently I longed to discover them all!

This year, amid a pandemic and catastrophic global upheaval, I completed my translation of Litinsky's memoir, and it is currently under peer review with Oxford University Press. All of these most recent brushes with Gulag theater have convinced me that I must do everything in my power to uncover more mysteries, to learn more stories, and share with the world the courage, the artistry and the triumph of those artists whose craft brought hope and light amid the all-too-hopeless abyss of Stalin's Gulag. 

© 2020 by Jake Robertson