In response to:
Love Against All Odds from the June 21, 2012 issue
To the Editors:
I am pleased that Michael Scammell has much good to say about Just Send Me Word [NYR, June 21]. But it is puzzling and disquieting that he should end his review by turning to contested criticisms of my earlier book The Whisperers (2007). Even more so that he should cite them to cast doubt on my latest book, in which he can find no fault.
Scammell refers to the “factual errors” Memorial’s researchers claim to have found in The Whisperers and invokes this claim to raise the suspicion that Just Send Me Word may harbor some as well. Yet he cannot give a single example.
Memorial’s concerns were communicated to me in a private letter in April 2011. On close examination, the alleged inaccuracies turned out to be errors of translation, matters of interpretation, or derived from Memorial’s own sources—leaving a handful of genuine errors in a 739-page book based on thousands of interviews and archival documents.
All historians strive for accuracy, but mistakes, however regrettable and unintended, make their way into most books. Even Scammell’s 3,500-word review of Just Send Me Word contains at least eight:
1. Svetlana was not Lev’s “fiancée” but his girlfriend.
2. They met in 1935, not “in the late 1930s.”
3. Lev was not in a “work brigade in a concentration camp” but in a stalag (Oschatz).
4. Svetlana worked in a research institute, not in a “rubber factory.”
5. She was not an engineer.
6. The head of the laboratory was called Strelkov, not Strelsky.
7. Svetlana made five, not four, trips to Pechora. There is no “mystery” about how many there were as they are all documented in the letters.
8. Scammell says I failed to tell my readers about Lev and Svetlana’s “hopes and fears for their impending marriage.” But there is little about these themes in the letters, and I make the most of what there is (see pages 249–251 and 264–265). In any case, Lev and Svetlana did not even think of getting married until he was legally entitled to live with her (see page 279).
I reject the suggestion that I “magnify” my role “in the discovery and publication of the letters.” I give myself no credit for that at all in the preface. Nor do I mention that I raised the finance for Memorial’s transcription of the letters and other parts of this important archive.
Michael Scammell replies:
The phrase “factual errors” (preceded by the words “absolutely incredible”), applied to Orlando Figes’s book The Whisperers, came not from me but from a representative of Memorial. I doubt whether the eight “errors” Figes claims to find in my review fit that description, some of which are specious, others trivial and not worth quibbling about (e.g., whether Svetlana Ivanova is best described as fiancée or girlfriend, or met Mishchenko in 1935 rather than the late 1930s). I am happy to concede that Svetlana was a physicist in a research institute (studying rubber, but not in a factory). I do find one mention of the name “Strelsky” in my review: otherwise he is called Strelkov throughout.
My use of the word “mystery” in connection with Svetlana’s visits to Pechora is based on a reading of Mishchenko’s 2006 memoir, Poka ia pomniu (“While I Remember”), where Mishchenko writes: “Svetlana came three times to Pechora.” Figes describes five visits, and since he also draws on the memoir, I thought he might have taken note of the discrepancy, that’s all. Meanwhile, after praising Figes’s commentary, I ventured the thought that the book drags a bit in the second half and suggested that Figes “shackles himself too tightly to chronology.” It was an opinion about structure, nothing more, and can hardly be called a factual error.
In my review I didn’t dwell on the way Figes exaggerates his role in the discovery of the letters in his preface, but since he challenges me, let me quote the book’s opening, which is set in Memorial’s offices:
Three old trunks had just been delivered. They were sitting in a doorway, blocking people’s way into the busy room…. Noticing my interest in the trunks, they told me they contained the biggest private archive given to Memorial in its twenty years of existence…. We opened up the largest of the trunks…. The most valuable section of the archive was in the third and smallest of the trunks…. We couldn’t say how many letters it contained…. The letters were so tightly packed I had to wedge my fingers between them to get the first one out…. As I leafed through the letters my excitement grew.
The preface ends: “There turned out to be almost 1,500 letters in that smallest trunk. It took over two years to transcribe them all. They were hard to decipher….”
This makes for an excellent “novelistic” opening to the book and I have no problem with that as a literary device. What’s disquieting is the impression given that before Figes came along, Memorial’s researchers were barely aware of the treasure in the trunks, and the repeated use of the words “I” and “we,” which seem to suggest that Figes “discovered” the letters and himself participated in deciphering them. There is no mention until the “Note from Memorial” on page 297 of the person who really discovered their existence, realized their priceless value, and winkled them out of the hesitant Mishchenkos for Memorial’s archives.
This was Irina Ostrovskaya, who didn’t just have the trunks “delivered,” but personally lugged them to Memorial’s offices and supervised the transcription of the letters. Ostrovskaya is warmly thanked in the acknowledgments at the very end of the book, but it’s noteworthy that her dry summary of the way she discovered the letters, together with a brief history of their composition and the full contents of the archive, buried at the back of the book and included, I was told, at Memorial’s insistence, doesn’t refer once to Figes or his English version.
Finally, the relevance of The Whisperers to Just Send Me Word is as follows. When I was asked by The New York Review to review Just Send Me Word, which, like The Whisperers, is based on material in Memorial’s archives, I contacted an acquaintance at Memorial, Aleksandr Daniel, for some background information. At that point I had no inkling of any problems with The Whisperers, but was quickly informed that they existed. Daniel and others also made it clear to me that it was not their decision to cancel publication of the Russian translation of The Whisperers. They reported their findings to the publishing house, leaving it to decide what to do.
The controversy over that book had also thrown a certain shadow over Just Send Me Word. Memorial’s researchers, I was told, had checked a draft of Just Send Me Word (at Figes’s request), just as they had The Whisperers, and found a number of errors, but didn’t know to what degree they had been corrected in the published English text. I have not seen, or asked for, the list of errors in Just Send Me Word compiled at Memorial, if only because its researchers made it clear that they wouldn’t give it to me until they had seen the English version and checked it themselves, which will obviously take a while. I did, however, think it appropriate to suggest a caveat, while praising Figes’s account of the correspondence for the “indelible impression” it makes. I regard this as a fair assessment.