The principal institution in Russia for investigating Gulag history and insisting on the nation’s responsibility for its past continues to be the excellent Memorial society, which despite harassment and hostility from the Putin government steadfastly pursues its work of collecting historical evidence and making it available to the public. Among its latest discoveries is the first extended correspondence between a labor camp prisoner and his fiancée, a correspondence that—unbelievably—was conducted almost entirely away from the eyes of the censors.
These extraordinary letters, the subject of Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, were unearthed by Irina Ostrovskaya, a researcher at the Moscow headquarters of Memorial. The couple in question, Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova, corresponded for eight and a half years, from 1946 to 1954 (mostly at the height of Stalinism), and together wrote 1,246 letters, 647 of them from Lev to Svetlana and 599 from Svetlana to Lev. Ostrovskaya learned about the letters after getting to know Lev in 2000 and helping him with a memoir he was writing, although five years went by before he showed them to her.
Ostrovskaya instantly realized she had stumbled across the largest collection of private correspondence relating to the history of the Gulag that had ever been found, a prize cache comprising a complete run of letters without a break, each carefully dated and numbered and stored away for safekeeping. Their preservation was possible because Lev had found a way to smuggle the letters in and out with the help of sympathetic free workers able to enter and leave the camp compound without being searched. He also found a way to hide Svetlana’s letters in a small hole beneath the floorboards of his barrack hut and send them back to her, so that, after his release, they were able to preserve the complete collection for posterity.
A selection from the letters is now appearing for the first time in English, translated and provided with a commentary by the talented but erratic British historian Orlando Figes (on whom more later). Figes has made the wise decision not to quote the letters in full, but to interleave excerpts with paraphrase and commentary to form a coherent narrative, much as he did with the interviews he used in his ambitious 2007 oral history of daily life under Stalin, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (on which he also collaborated closely with Memorial).
It is not his voice, however, but the voices of Lev and Svetlana that dominate these pages, which is exactly as it should be. Their letters reveal two highly attractive individuals locked in an extraordinary love story that on one level can be read as a unique, epistolary nonfiction “novel,” all the more striking for the fact that it unfolds against the background of an iron regime of repression and control. It is a true story and an inspiring one …