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Tatiana Kunyevskaya

Persecuted Soviet actress

Tatiana Okunyevskaya, a classic Soviet actress whose screen talent was ironically and tragically linked to the worst years of Stalin’s regime, died in May 15 in Moscow. She was 88.

Honored as “one of the last Soviet divas” whose popularity was phenomenal at the height of her career, Okunyevskaya was born into the family of a czarist White Army officer who at the end of the Civil War decided not to emigrate. The family suffered as a result, and the young Okunyevskaya was denied the chance to study her profession of first choice, architecture.

But, being a legendary beauty, she owed her introduction to cinema to her looks: She was approached on a Moscow street by a director who asked her to audition. Her first major role was in Mikhail Romm’s “Boule de Suif” (1934, when it won awards at Venice), followed in quick succession by Alexander Zarkhi’s “Red Army Days” (1935) and Yuly Raizman’s “The Last Night” (1937), whose action, with some irony given her own fate, was set on the last night of the czarist empire in 1917.

After the arrest of her father and other relatives in the 1937 Stalinist purges, Okunyevskaya was unable to pursue her screen career, and moved instead to the provincial town of Gorky, where she played for three years in the city’s theater company.

Only with the outbreak of war in 1941 was she able to return to Moscow, playing heroic roles in two of the main Soviet films of the period, “Night Over Belgrade” (1942), part of an almanac of war films, and “It Happened on the Donbass” (1945).

Partly through the connections of her husband, writer Boris Gorbatov, and partly through her beauty, she became a part of the Soviet political-cultural elite of the period. It proved a bitter experience, as Okunyevskaya became the target of romance or revenge by future Yugoslav leader Iosip Broz Tito and Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin’s infamous NKVD — later known as the KGB.

The consequences for her would be devastating. After refusing the advances of yet another member of the Soviet nomenklatura, she was in 1948 sentenced to 10 years in a concentration camp on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage. Although released in 1954 with the amnesty that followed Stalin’s death, her career was never the same: five small roles over the next 40 years. Her last screen appearance came in 2001 with a part in Alexander Mitta’s “The Border: A Taiga Romance.”

Achievements of her last years included a volume of extremely frank memoirs, “Tatiana’s Day,” as well as appearances in a number of benefit stage shows along with her surviving contemporaries.