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Visits to the Gulag

In response to:

Love Against All Odds from the June 21, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

Regarding Michael Scammell’s review of Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, by Orlando Figes [NYR, June 21]: the book in question is a narrative that makes use of over a thousand letters between Lev and Svetlana Ivanov, the former a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag, the latter a free woman. Svetlana at one point sneaks into a camp disguised as another woman in order to see her husband, an event “unprecedented in [Scammell’s] reading about the Gulag.”

To the reviewer’s credit, such incidents were surely rare, but they existed in numbers greater than one. For the benefit of those interested in the subject, we would like to point readers to Tamara Petkevich’s Memoir of a Gulag Actress, which we translated together and which was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2010. This book tells the story of a young actress who survived seven years in the Gulag in the 1940s and stayed in the north as a free woman for several more years after being released. In particular, she describes her own visits as an “outsider” into the local camp, where the man she loved was dying at the infirmary barracks. Petkevich portrays the psychological and the moral borders between the two distinct worlds. Perhaps it’s time somebody seriously looked into this important albeit understudied topic.

Yasha Klots
Williams College
Williamstown, Massachusetts

Ross Ufberg
Columbia University
New York City

Michael Scammell replies:

The information in the letter from Yasha Klots and Ross Ufberg is exactly what I was hoping to hear when I qualified my comment with the words “in my reading,” and I’m delighted to be informed of Tamara Petkevich’s memoir, which I have been told about but have not read. I agree that the porousness of the Gulag and relationships between those living on both sides of the perimeter fences could well bear further study.

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