Orlando Figes is a serious scholar and the author of several highly acclaimed books (“A People’s Tragedy,” “Natasha’s Dance,” “The Whisperers”) on Russian and Soviet history.
But when it came to the subject of his latest book, he more or less tripped over it. One day in 2007 Figes was walking through the lobby of a Moscow human rights organization. Blocking his path were three huge trunks containing about 1,500 letters – a miraculously uncensored cache of love letters that had been exchanged over the course of eight years by a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag and his fiancée. In other words: a historian’s dream come true.
Figes spent two years translating the letters and interviewing the couple who wrote them – Lev and Svetlana “Sveta” Mishchenko, then in their 90s. The result is Just Send Me Word, a remarkable love story intertwined with a rare glimpse into a harsh chapter of Soviet history.
Lev and Svetlana met as physics students at the University of Moscow in the 1930s. (She was one of a half-dozen women in the department.) Rather than love at first sight, the two (both more scientific than romantic) developed “a deep and permanent affinity.”
They were first separated when Lev left for war in 1941. Captured by the Germans, he landed in one of the most brutal of Nazi labor camps. He survived the war only to be branded a traitor by his own country (because he spoke excellent German he was accused of cooperating with the Nazis during the war even though in truth he had rather heroically refused to betray his country by becoming a spy) and sentenced to 10 years in a “corrective labor camp” in Siberia.
Ultimately, Svetlana discovered that he was still alive and so began eight years of correspondence – and waiting.
But Lev was fortunate. Highly educated, he was noticed by a powerful fellow prisoner who drew him into a (relatively) privileged circle. As a result, he enjoyed a less grueling job, intellectual companionship, and the freedom to write letters. Svetlana even managed (at great personal risk) to visit him.
That’s not to say that anything about their eight years of waiting was easy. Lev suffered from boredom, cramped conditions, poor nutrition, drunken guards, brutal fellow prisoners, and the constant temptation to despair. Svetlana, meanwhile, was stuck in a grim postwar Moscow, caring for her parents and ever fearful for Lev.
It was through their pens that the two kept each other alive. “Your ... letters ... are with me constantly and are a substitute for everything that I’m missing – people, music, books,” wrote Lev. “Not a day goes by when you’re not on my mind morning, afternoon and evening,” Svetlana reassured him.
Sometimes nonfiction narratives are hailed with phrases like “reads like a novel.” “Just Send Me Word,” instead, reads a lot like real life. The tone is often grave, the details are frequently quotidian, and the periods of waiting can seem endless.
But the descriptions of daily life that Lev and Svetlana exchange offer an unparalleled glimpse into life in the Gulag and also into a postwar Soviet mentality. (Interestingly, despite it all, both Lev and Svetlana remained loyal Soviets.)
And perhaps more remarkably, they never lost faith in each other. “Sveta, the world is unquestionably good, but it is so much more beautiful when it’s lit up by you,” wrote Lev from his bleak Siberian bunker. “I don’t want this joy to subside and I want us to be young for a long time,” Svetlana replied after more than a decade of lonely waiting.
Theirs was a beauty of character that even the Soviet penal system could not destroy.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.