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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Return to 1943, Her Favorite Year

Valentina Pavlenko tried the peanut butter sandwich and smiled.

"This takes me back to Archangelsk, 1943", she said.

A teenager at the start of World War II, Pavlenko was a frequent guest at the social club for English and American sailors who delivered equipment and aid to Arkhangelsk, one of two Soviet ports open throughout the war. She danced to big band music, watched American movies, and tasted such American delicacies as peanut butter.

It was also at the club that Pavlenko fell in love with a Brooklyn-born sailor who she says became the father of her oldest daughter, Isabella. The sailor left Arkhangelsk in 1943. Pavlenko paid for the youthful romance with six years of hard labor in Siberia.

Now, half a century later, Pavlenko's memoirs are being published by Vozrashchenie, a society dedicated to preserving the experience of Stalin's labor camp victims. By publishing her story, Pavlenko is not only fulfilling a promise she made to herself "to tell everyone the truth" about the camps, but she is also opening her search for Warren Bowsley, the American soldier she last saw sailing out of Arkhangelsk in 1943.

Pavlenko is not one to carry a torch -- especially one that burns for fifty years. But by finding her American sailor, she says she will not only be able to tell him he is a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all at once; but she will be able to recapture a little piece of 1943.

"That was the best year of my life", says Pavlenko. Shortly after the war ended Pavlenko, then a student at the Arkhangelsk drama academy, was arrested on charges of espionage and held in isolation. All the girls who had been at the social club were arrested. "I knew it was coming", she says of her inevitable arrest. "I wasn't stupid. I saw they were rounding up all the pretty girls in Arkhangelsk".

Pavlenko was locked alone in a cell where, to keep from going mad, she sang to herself and recited poetry. At night, her captors would interrogate her, threaten her, play tapes of her daughter crying -- anything to force her into signing a confession. "They tried to make a spy out of me, but I would have no part of it", says Pavlenko. "I was seventeen at the time -- what did I know about besides love? "

After four months of solitary confinement and sleep deprivation, Pavlenko would not give in and sign. Instead, she was convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and given six years of hard labor.

But even life in the labor camps was not harsh enough to dampen Pavlenko's spirit. She quickly adjusted to the routine of chopping wood or forming bricks. and once again she found her performance skills came in handy. No longer playing to an audience of one, Pavlenko kept her fellow prisoners entertained with evening concerts.

She was freed in 1953, and returned to Arkhangelsk to get her daughter out of an orphanage. She then came to the Moscow region, where she has been living ever since.

Now 65 and a great-grandmother, Pavlenko has lost none of the childlike enthusiasm that brought her through the hardships of labor camp, the events of which are preserved in her nearly flawless memory. Even if the publication of her memoirs does not help her find the American sailor, it has enabled her to relive an oddly happy time.

"I would have gladly served another six years in camp if I could only have another year like that one", she said.