Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, by Orlando Figes, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Metropolitan Books, RRP$28, 352 pages
While Orlando Figes was researching his study of the Stalinist terror, The Whisperers (2007), the historian was shown three huge trunks in the offices of the human rights organisation Memorial. Inside were about 2,000 letters between a man sentenced to the Gulags and his girlfriend, who never gave up on their love. As Figes read, he realised he had uncovered a treasure trove. Not only were the letters amazingly touching, they were invaluable historical documents too; having been smuggled out of the camps, they were therefore uniquely uncensored.
The author was able to meet the couple in 2008, before their recent deaths. Just Send Me Word tells their story from their first meeting in the 1930s through years of heartbreaking struggle. The result is a poignant record illuminating the experiences of the millions who suffered untold miseries in Stalin’s grinding system of repression – and throughout the history of Russia as a whole. But, more than anything, this is a book about love.
Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova met as science students at Moscow University in 1935. Svetlana’s family were part of the Muscovite intelligentsia: her father was a scientist who had once been an important Bolshevik industrialist, her mother a teacher. Lev, child of a provincial scientist and teacher – both shot by the Bolsheviks in the civil war – had no immediate family. It was not quite love at first sight but their friendship grew quickly due to “a profound sympathy”. While neither glamorous nor beautiful, they were both highly educated, serious and devoted to each other.
When the second world war began, Lev served at the front but was captured and imprisoned in various camps, and used as forced labour in factories in Germany and elsewhere by the Nazis. He was asked to serve as a translator under Andrey Vlasov, the renegade Soviet general who had defected to the Nazis after his capture in 1942. Lev refused but in confinement he had spoken German in front of other Russians, who on liberation denounced him. In 1945, he was arrested and sentenced to death for treason, commuted to 10 years.
At the age of 28, Lev was sent to Pechora in the Arctic Circle. By the time of his arrival this key Russian camp contained 10,000 prisoners, who worked to chop timber, process the wood and service the new railway that carried coal from the mines of Vorkuta to Leningrad. Vast numbers of prisoners had perished in the construction of the railway, their number replenished by new arrests after the war.
Altogether some 20m people passed through the Gulags during Stalin’s reign. In such penal colonies, working on timber and hauling wood in the snows, no one lived for long, but luckily Lev’s scientific expertise led him to be assigned to specialised work in sheltered conditions. Mentally he was kept alive by the devotion of Svetlana and their amazing nine-year correspondence.
Svetlana’s life was almost as challenging – her commitment to a distant love who might never return entailed risking her fairly important scientific management job in the rubber industry, not to mention her mental and physical health. Over the years we see how she staggers from strength to despair and even clinical depression.
In an early letter she writes to Lev: “If it can’t be otherwise, this way is better than nothing … We’ll get through this.” He in turn is delighted she still loves him: “I can’t put a name to it or measure the happiness I feel.” Yet there are frequent crises of hopelessness. At one point Svetlana writes: “Does hope depend on persistence? Yes I rather think it does. There’s a saying: by doing nothing, you get nowhere.”
The most touching aspect of these letters is their expression of profound love for one another: “The point of all this is that I want to tell you just three words – two of them are pronouns and the third is a verb – to be read in all the tenses simultaneously: past, present and future,” writes Svetlana. As years pass she writes: “I’d like to preserve my youth and as much beauty as I was given – as a gift to you.”
But this correspondence is also a unique historical source: in their private codes (The NKVD secret police are usually called The Relatives, for example) and in the details of their lives, we see the human and practical sides of the Gulags as never before. We meet Lev’s circle of friends in the camps, including the eccentric Strelkov, a scientist, Old Bolshevik and Soviet industrialist. Despite being a prisoner, Strelkov was permitted to run his own laboratory, in which he gave Lev a job, thereby saving his life.
In the Gulags, Lev writes, “everything in normal life is magnified. Human defects take on huge significance … Ill-will turns to wild hatred.” He analyses his own mental state and the pain of the system’s random cruelty: “Can you see the hardest thing is not the material hardships at all? It’s two other things – the lack of contact with the outside world and the fact that changes in our personal situation can happen any time unexpectedly.”
These letters chronicle the immense challenges and ingenuity necessary to communicate, to smuggle things in and out of the camps – and, above all, to meet in person. This leads to some of the most remarkable passages in the book, when Svetlana dares to travel north and break in to the Gulags, not once but several times, in order to meet Lev for short periods of intimacy. Her story may be unique: Figes writes that “nobody had ever thought to break into a labour camp before”.
In this adventure, they are aided by a cast of friends who risk everything to help them. One is again overcome with admiration for the kindness, bravery and generosity of some people in terrible peril (though elsewhere one recoils with horror at the pettiness, cowardice and cruelty of others). Each time Svetlana leaves again, Lev suffers all the more but overall these meetings kept their love alive. “We got a chance to see each other and to touch to make sure we exist in reality and not just in letters,” writes Svetlana. He agrees: “You’re still everywhere with me … in everything – in poetry, prose, music and even in my circuit diagrams – I see only you.”
In 1954, Lev is released; they marry and have children and live to old age. This compelling book is as fascinating and inspiring as it is heartbreaking; a unique contribution to Gulag scholarship as well as a study of the universal power of love, as relevant now as it was then. It is impossible to read without shedding tears. In one letter, Svetlana sums it up like this: “In the end, you and I are happier than many – happier than those who do not know love at all and those who don’t know how to find it.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore is author of ‘Jerusalem: the Biography’. He is currently writing a history of the Romanovs