The pitch is irresistible: some 1,500 letters written by a young couple in love, separated by one of the most hideous totalitarian systems, Stalin’s brutal, nightmarish free-for-all for sadists and executioners-1,500 letters, most of them exchanged in secret, in defiance of this murderous aberration.
Just Send Me Word, the account of Svetlana and Lev Mischenko and their clandestine correspondence and enduring love, is a remarkable story, one that a novelist would be hard-pressed to pull off. The whole thing is just so far-fetched. They fall in love as students and then are wrenched apart by the Second World War and the gulag-Lev is drafted, captured and subjected to the Nazi camps, miraculously surviving only to return to the Soviet Union to be jailed as a German spy, the fate of most Soviet PoWs who managed to stay alive.
Despite not hearing from Lev for years, Svetlana stays true to him and then stands by him when she discovers that he has been sentenced to ten years, often making a perilous trip to visit him at his camp in the Arctic Circle.
Orlando Figes came across the cache of their letters in a Moscow archive in 2007 and was lucky enough to be able to visit the elderly Mischenkos for interviews. You can see why he and his publishers were excited by this trove, but while the film rights have probably already been sold, for those who’ve delved into gulag literature there’s very little here that is new.
Lev, like most gulag graduates, comes across as an extremely impressive, tough man. A budding nuclear physicist, his experience is less that of the hapless zek of One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich and more that of the scientists in The First Circle. There is a marvellous photograph of Lev in situ in his camp at Pechora, surrounded by his colleagues: his boss is wearing a suit and a tie, is clean-shaven, has immaculately combed hair. If you had to supply a caption for the picture you’d think it was open day at the electrical engineering department at Moscow University. It’s a great testament to the self-discipline and dignity of Lev and the others that they look so fresh-faced and composed.
Unsurprisingly, one theme that occurs again and again in Lev’s letters is the avoidance of self-pity and the need to develop strength (Lev even had time for a bit of weightlifting during his incarceration). Not that everyone in the gulag succeeded in reaching that level of fortitude. Lev wrote: “I understood that the most terrible thing in life is complete hopelessness . . . To cross out all the maybes and give up the fight when you still have the strength for it is the most terrible form of suicide.”
Clearly, his love for Svetlana gave him enormous succour, and while their romance is deeply moving and admirable, not all their letters are that gripping. We’ve all read about lovers missing each other, and after a while, the effusions of love and quotations from Akhmatova pale a little.
Figes has done a competent job of selecting and editing the letters and has anchored them in his clear exposition of the period and the background of Lev and Svetlana’s romance. Their plight might have been a common one, but it is in the details of how they circumvented the Stalinist ethos that the book is superb, and demonstrates how, in the very worst of circumstances, ingenuity, humanity and courage can score against evil.
Svetlana’s first visit to Lev was illegal, and only possible through the help of several people who risked their necks. When she finally gets to the gates of the camp, she is involved in a farcical scene where a drunk worker has to pretend to be her husband and needs to be “refreshed by a bucket of cold water”, before being given an earful by his real wife who’s not in on the arrangement. Later on, in an officially-sanctioned visit, she is granted only 20 minutes with Lev, but the guard cunningly and kindly refuses to log a start time for her visit, so she can spend several hours with him.
Figes depicts the winding-down of the gulag and its corruption with skill: “There was even a black market in ‘government secrets’, official documents stolen from the headquarters of the MVD in the settlement and sold to the prisoners, some of whom got hold of their personal files and forged alterations to the articles of their sentence or even changed the date of their release.”
Just Send Me Word contains few surprises for veterans of Solzhenitsyn or Shalamov, and could have been a little shorter, but Orlando Figes may well find a new audience for gulag tales with this accessible and poignant book.