Just Send Me Word Orlando Figes

Allen Lane, pp.333, £20

Anyone who has ever written a history book will feel a twinge of envy on reading the preface to Just Send Me Word:

We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs…

It was a unique family archive, the property of Svetlana and Lev Mishchenko, and it contained, among other things, packets of their love letters.  

The two had met as university students in Moscow in the 1930s, but their relationship was cut short by the outbreak of war. Lev joined the Red Army in 1940, fought near Moscow but then fell into German captivity. Upon returning to the Soviet Union in 1945 he was arrested — a common fate for Soviet ex-POWs, who were automatically considered traitors — and he remained in the Gulag until 1954.

For 14 years they lived apart. Svetlana remained in Moscow, finished her studies and took a job at a research institute. Lev was condemned to live behind barbed wire in barracks in Pechora, in the far north of Russia, where he worked in a wood-processing plant.   

During that time, they wrote one another more than 1,200 letters. Many were sent via camp-smuggling networks, thus by-passing the censors. Unbelievably, they then preserved the letters for 60 years, creating the only known Gulag correspondence collection of such size and scope. What historian or history-lover could resist such a treasure trove?

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Orlando Figes didn’t resist. Instead, he helped organise the transcription of the faded, yellowed, almost illegible and partly encoded letters. He consulted the very elderly Lev and Svetlana, both since deceased.  He visited Pechora and its archives. He then faced a choice: analyse the correspondence for its unusual historical content, or tell the love story of Svetlana and Lev.

Figes chose the second course, and the result is Just Send Me Word, a book which depicts with unusual intimacy the private lives of two people living in Stalin’s Soviet Union, while simultaneously telling the more universal story of what we would nowadays call a long-distance relationship.  

Lev and Svetlana were separated first by war, then by distance and barbed wire. They were also separated by taboo. Before the war they had not married, and thus Svetlana had no ‘right’ to have a relationship with Lev, an ‘enemy of the people’. Her correspondence with him was considered suspect, and she was several times interviewed by the police. Most women in the same position would have broken off the relationship. But not only did Svetlana keep writing, she made the extraordinary decision in 1947 to travel to Pechora, where she smuggled herself into the camp in order to meet Lev after a seven-year separation.

Had she been caught she too would have been sentenced and sent to a camp. Years later, she marvelled at her own daring: ‘How could I have gone there without even thinking of the dangers involved?’ A photograph taken immediately after the visit shows a very determined-looking young woman with a large suitcase and a large smile. After that she went home, returned to work, took up her pen and once again began writing to Pechora twice a week.   
Lev’s motivations in maintaining this horrifically difficult relationship are clear.Unable to leave Pechora, his correspondence with Svetlana provided the motivation he needed to stay alive. But Svetlana’s complicated feelings are harder to understand. She did meet other men from time to time, and she constantly had to explain her relationship with a convict. Occasionally, her frustration seeped into her letters: ‘When I got home and read your letters, I just wanted to cry, but I had nowhere and no time to cry.’

She was supported throughout not only by her love for Lev and by his eloquent letters, but also by an idealistic moral code and a sense of duty. These came mostly from her supportive family, but seem also to have been reinforced, odd though it sounds, by her equally idealistic Soviet education. In 1951, Svetlana marched in the Moscow May Day parade and was caught in a thunderstorm. ‘We had a lot of fun,’ she wrote to Lev. She and her colleagues had been singing popular songs with lyrics like ‘Pour cold water over yourself if you want to be healthy’ and ‘Become as hard as steel.’   

One of the most intriguing elements of the Lev-Svetlana correspondence, in fact, is what it reveals about the relationship ordinary Russians had with Stalinist ideology. Svetlana disliked many things about the Soviet political system which had separated her from Lev. She hated the Marxist-Leninist jargon she was forced to use, and she was disturbed by the anti-Semitic ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign which Stalin launched in the early 1950s. But she was also a loyal Communist Party member, and at some level she believed in the Soviet promise of progress through science, technology and general enlightenment.

Odder still, so did Lev. At one point, he tells Svetlana that the prisoners had been shown a documentary about the Volga-Don canal:

I had no other thoughts or feelings but a sense of pride and admiration for the power of the human mind and the systematic and harmonious transformation of thousands of ideas into a human marvel.

But the Volga-Don canal had been built in part by prisoners, as he well knew. One of his campmates had been sent to work on it. Yet like so many other Soviet citizens, he had no difficulty adopting some elements of Soviet ideology — especially the quasi-religious belief in scientific progress — while rejecting others.  

Separated in time and space from Stalin’s Soviet Union, we often imagine that all of its inhabitants were either automatons who mouthed every piece of propaganda with conviction, or else secret dissidents, who seethed in bitter silence. Yet the vast majority of Soviet citizens, even those inside the Gulag, had a more complicated relationship with their state and its propaganda, adopting some of its elements while privately rejecting others. In Pechora, ‘no one cried for Stalin’, Lev later remembered. Yet even after the dictator’s death he performed his Gulag ‘job’ conscientiously.

Their story ends happily: Lev and Svetlana finally married. They had two children who were brought up according to the same strict moral code. As their son remembered, Lev didn’t talk to them about the horrors of the Gulag, but rather tried to impress on them the lessons he had learned there. The most important were ‘never to feel sorry for yourself’, and ‘wherever you may find yourself, if only temporarily, you should always try to live as if it’s permanent’. He never told them ‘love conquers all’, but then he didn’t need to. He taught them that by example.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, History, Wwii