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Her role as witness to history

Actress Tamara Kryman saw war, suffering and a system's decline as a Soviet stage veteran. `It's all too easy now' in today's Russia, she says.

March 19, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Moscow — YOU walk through the snow with a cane, old and tiny amid the birch and pine. You still call St. Petersburg by that other name. Leningrad. Your husband died a long time ago, and your life has been whittled into a room scattered with hand creams, lipsticks, reading glasses, a hot plate and pictures of an actress frozen in her youth.

"I was famous once," you say.

Yes.

"I played young roles for a long time, you know. I looked young but I was experienced, that's why the directors loved me. I could improvise. Years ago, I did a belly dance onstage. It was in Poland. They thought I was a ballerina."

Your name?

"Tamara Kryman."

Born in Moscow in 1922. Your country has witnessed much since you were a girl: wars, bread lines, men in space, the fall of communism, new democrats and gangsters and rich boys with their big cars and guns. You are different, too. Right hand cupped from arthritis, the face still pretty, but more rounded, and the eyes, yes, the eyes glitter, blue, if a bit cloudy. You've traded in your high heels for snow boots, but your mind is as sharp as an icicle, even here at the Yablochkina Rest Home for Theater Veterans.

Go back.

1941.

Rifles clattered in alleys and burning papers drifted from Moscow's office windows. Ash and cinder swirled through the streets as you fled past Russian soldiers waiting for the advancing Germans. They were so scared; the city balanced on dwindling bullets and courage. You took a train to Tashkent. It sounds so romantic now, a journey to safety in Uzbekistan. But then ...

"I worked in an orphanage as a substitute teacher. Many teachers at the orphanage were men because it saved them from being drafted into the army. They loved me. They called me doll. I didn't really know how to teach, so I told the kids stories I had heard or read in my life, like 'Ivanhoe.' "

Your first acting role came a year later.

"A small part in a Russian play. I can't remember the name of it, 'A Girl' something or other. The lines were in verse. I played a girl carrying a cake. I got bigger parts and the theater hired me full time, which meant I got bread coupons. I was a stand-in for some very popular actresses back then. All of them heroines. I quit the orphanage."

Your break was playing a woman named Malva.

"I was 20. The character was much older. They applied makeup, but my voice was rich enough for an older woman. I have a crystal voice. I played with gusto, and with God's inspiration, of course."

You became Cinderella, stepped into the classics. The director, Alexander Ginsburg, admired your flair and upped your salary from 430 rubles a month to 750 rubles, which bought more rations and a few extra skirts. You were the lead in "Poverty Is Not a Sin." In real life, you married a soldier returned from the front. He took a job in theater administration; the government, in the years after World War II and during the Cold War, assigned him to an office in Siberia, where the air stung so hard it grabbed your breath. You were the star on his stage.

"I played Chekhov, and I played in some stupid political propaganda play about a woman in a Nazi concentration camp. I still can't figure that insipid play out."

THREE years in Siberia were enough. On to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, so battered and ruined by war that flowers were the only things left. You acted on Russia's stages for nearly four decades, raising your husband's two children from an earlier marriage, smoking and drinking with intellectuals and traveling occasionally to Moscow. Soviet spies hovered around theaters like moths, always looking for the dissident, or the weak one who would turn him in.

"The theater was the light in the window for the Soviet citizens. They had radio, but no television, nothing in cultural terms in Kaliningrad except our theater. We were the preachers, priests and activists....

"The communists put a lot of pressure on us. They'd censor plays or force us to perform ridiculous skits about workers and factory production processes, collective farms. Nothing enlightening. They were false. Sometimes we'd fool them and put hidden messages in the plays, add a bit of irony in the subtext to depict a party official in not such a positive light."

You laugh, a ripple of eyebrow, a glimmer of a gold tooth. Your husband died in 1986. You quit the stage two years later. Your stepchildren took the family apartment. (You wince at that, but only for a moment; you are still a fine actress.) But what to do? Your pension was small, no villas to retire to; the Soviet system, that great and failed perversion, paid less in money and more in prestige, but that, as you know, is fleeting. The theater union found you a room here, along a hallway of other rooms, where pictures of actors hang on walls and a black-and-white cat darts amid potted plants.

THIS new Russia bothers you. You have aged with your country, lived through its purges and all those vanished lives, but today it seems foreign.

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