Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag
By Orlando Figes (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 325pp £20)
Immured behind an iron curtain for the whole of their sixty-year existence, the Soviet concentration camps have never been as well known in the West as their much shorter-lived Nazi equivalents. Detailed accounts first started making their way out in the Sixties, in the form of fiction - Solzhenitsyn's Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - and a handful of survivor memoirs. Though the overall numbers - how many camps were there? How many people were in them? - could only be guessed at, the on-the-ground picture, of hard labour, relentless cold and hunger, and violent guards, seemed clear. Twenty years after the Soviet Union's collapse, the numbers are fairly firm. About 18 million people passed through the Gulag (the acronym stands for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration) between the start of its great expansion in 1929 and Stalin's death in 1953, and upwards of 2.8 million, including exiles, died in it. But we are only now comprehending what was in reality a wide variety of individual Gulag experiences, dependent on when and where one was imprisoned, how well or badly one's camp was run, and most of all, on one's usefulness to the camp authorities.
In his last book on the period, The Whisperers, Orlando Figes mined private archives deposited with the Russian human-rights organisation Memorial to describe the destruction Stalinist repression wrought upon ordinary family lives: the millions of lonely widows and 'northern wives'; the orphans brought up by grandmothers or under pseudonyms in children's homes; the failed re-entries into normal life when sentences finally came to an end. In Just Send Me Word Figes returns to Memorial's files, this time to focus on the fate of just one couple, Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova.
Told through the letters they wrote to each other during the eight years Lev spent in the Gulag, their story is informative, immensely touching, and has an unusually happy ending. Lev's fate, from the start, was the harder. Orphaned aged two, when the Bolsheviks shot both his parents, he was brought up in poverty by his grandmother and aunts, working his way through school to win a place at the prestigious Physics Faculty of Moscow University. There he met Svetlana, the pretty, popular daughter of a relatively well-to-do industrial chemist. The pair had been going out - meaning poetry and chaste walks along the Moscow River - for four years when the war intervened. Together with the rest of the faculty, Lev immediately signed up to the Red Army, only to be captured three months later in one of the great German encirclements on the approaches to the capital.
What saved his life in German captivity, but also sealed his fate later, were his language skills. Picked out as a German-speaker from a transit camp near Smolensk, he was first sent for indoctrination to a training centre for spies, then made interpreter to an inspector of prisoner labour at a munitions factory in Leipzig. Though he only held the post for a few months, subsequently escaping and spending several weeks on the run before being recaptured near the Polish border, it was enough to condemn him in the eyes of the Soviet security officers who 'filtered' liberated PoWs at the end of the war. Convicted of treason by a military tribunal, he was sent straight from Germany to Pechora, a small timber-processing camp that turned out furniture and construction materials for the fast-expanding railways and coalfields of the Gulag-run Russian Arctic.
Here, again, his education saved him, earning him a soft job as an electrical engineer in the combine's power plant, instead of a deadly one hauling logs out of the freezing Pechora River. Though he slept in squalid, thievery-ridden barracks, he was able to spend much of his free time in the factory's research lab, run by a hospitable Old Bolshevik who, despite a twenty-five-year sentence for 'counter-revolutionary activity', presided over comfortable quarters complete with Repin prints, tomato plants, opera on the radio and a black-and-white cat. Vitally for his relationship with Svetlana, Lev was also able to mix with the camp's 'free workers', themselves mostly former prisoners unable or unwilling to return home. A man called Lev Izrailevich, once a writer of children's science books, acted as courier for their letters, enabling them to evade censorship and write far more often than the prescribed once a month. Even more remarkably, he helped arrange for the pair actually to meet. Svetlana made trips to Pechora, initially dangerously and in secret, every autumn from 1947 to 1951.
It's an instructive story - a reminder, among other things, of how the camp system eased from the late Forties - but above all it is a human one. Lev's first letter to Svetlana's family from Pechora - he dared not approach her directly for fear she would want no more to do with him - is heartbreaking in its need and delicacy. Hers in reply is blazingly brave and true. Neither is a great writer, Svetlana in particular tending towards what Figes admits is the 'somewhat dry and spare' language of the Soviet technical intelligentsia (her loneliness is that of a nucleus shorn of its electrons, and weeping means 'losing a lot of H₂O'). But on both sides love shines through - in mutual reassurance and determined optimism, in the complicated, coded planning for their all-too-brief meetings, and in jokey chat about everyday life. From Svetlana, we hear of food shortages - 'we don't see any meat, but there are such things as vegetarians, and it's said they often live to be a hundred' - and her burgeoning career researching synthetic rubber. Lev speaks of breakdowns at the wood-combine, fellow prisoners in and out of the camp infirmary, and the otherworldly beauty of the far northern skies. She spares him her pain at her childlessness; he spares her his fear that some bureaucratic turn of the wheel will put him on a convoy to one of the 'special regime' logging camps upriver, from which no letters can be sent and few prisoners return.
And finally they have their happy ending. In March 1953 Stalin dies. The following year Lev is released and returns to Moscow, his fledging career as a research physicist ruined and eight years of his life wasted, but a free man. He and Svetlana marry, and although she is now thirty-nine and in poor health they miraculously have two children, a girl and a boy. Five decades later Figes finds them still together, in a flat on the fourteenth floor of a suburban tower block. The Gulag, Lev says, taught him two lessons. First, to live, wherever you find yourself, as though you were going to be there for ever. Second, not to indulge in self-pity. Amen to that, and to this heartening gem of a book.
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Anna Reid's Leningad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44 (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper and Hessell Tiltman prizes.