Memorial Society, Moscow

Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova, 1936

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, illustrating the triumph of the human spirit in adversity and the ability of ordinary people to become extraordinary when pressed to extremes. Love in such conditions is literally a lifesaver. There is also an undertow of tragedy, the spectacle of innocent lives blighted and almost destroyed by a brutal regime, though catharsis is provided by what turns out to be a happy ending.

Of the two lovers, Lev had by far the greatest challenges to overcome. Having seen both his parents executed by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War at the age of four, he was raised by aunts and grandparents, and in the late 1930s became an honors student of physics at Moscow University, where he met and fell in love with Svetlana. Their relationship seems to have been chaste and casual to begin with, but soon turned more serious, and Lev would probably have asked Svetlana to marry him had the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 not led to his being mobilized and eventually given command of a small supply unit. His brief, inglorious military career was brought to a sudden end when, owing to Soviet incompetence, his unit was surrounded and captured by the Germans.

Overhearing him speak German one day, his captors tried unsuccessfully to enlist him as a spy. They then put him to work as an interpreter behind the lines. They also tried to persuade him to join the anti-Soviet Russian Liberation Army headed by General Andrei Vlasov. When that failed, they transferred him to a work brigade in a concentration camp. He escaped his captors twice, the second time from Buchenwald, and ended up in a zone captured by the Americans at the end of the war. He was given a chance to emigrate to America but declined, in part because of Svetlana, and was shipped back to the Red Army.


All this is described in considerable detail in Lev’s memoir, Poka ia pomniu (While I Remember), published in 2006,1 which Figes also draws upon, but only about twenty pages are devoted to the tragic aftermath, the subject of the present book. Back under Soviet control, Lev was arrested by SMERSH, the counterespionage arm of the NKVD, and tricked into admitting he had worked for the Germans. Despite his protestations that he had resisted all German efforts to recruit him as a spy, he was summarily sentenced to death for “treason against the motherland.” This sentence was quickly commuted to ten years in a corrective labor camp, a common procedure at the time (the Soviets needed to replenish the pool of slave labor they relied upon to rebuild the country), and he was dispatched on a months-long train journey to the giant timber-processing plant of Pechorlag, not far south of the Arctic Circle.

Drawing skillfully on the archive of the Pechora gulag, Figes gives an unobtrusive commentary on what was going on there at any particular time. He describes how, once in Camp Pechora, Lev was issued the regulation camp clothing familiar to us from the writings of Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and others: fur cap with ear-flaps, a padded cotton jacket, heavy cotton trousers, gloves, and shoes that failed to protect him from the subzero temperatures as he stood in ankle-deep icy water while hauling tree trunks from the river to the processing plant. Food rations were doled out according to how many logs you were able to haul in a day, sickness was rampant, and Lev felt he was about to be a “goner” when his engineering background was recognized by the colorful head of the camp’s research laboratory, Georgy Strelkov (a former Old Bolshevik and industrial manager, himself serving twenty-five years for “counterrevolutionary activities”), who recruited him for his wood-drying unit. In these warm, comparatively sheltered surroundings, Lev wrote his first letters home, not to Svetlana, but to his Aunt Olga:

I am writing this to you and not to her because I do not want to burden her. Let her live her life calmly, without my complicating it, without my overshadowing it with memories of the past and thoughts about my current existence.

Olga immediately showed the letter to Svetlana, who wrote back in no uncertain terms:

You remember that September [during the war] when you said you didn’t want us to meet like that, whereas I was grateful for the week that was given to us? It’s the same now, Lev: if it can’t be otherwise, this way is better than nothing. We are both 29 years old, we first met 11 years ago, and we haven’t seen each other for 5 years. It is terrible to spell out these figures, but time passes, Lev. And I know you will do all you can so that we can meet before another five years pass.

I’m becoming stubborn, Lev. How many times have I wanted to nestle in your arms, but could only turn to the empty wall in front of me? I felt I couldn’t breathe. Yet time would pass, and I would pull myself together. We will get through this, Lev.

Thus began their eight-year correspondence, censored for the first few months, but mostly free after Lev found a way to circumvent the censors. Neither of them seems to have had literary inclinations. Svetlana was a physics graduate and an engineer like Lev, but they developed a fine, flexible language in which they found their own ways to express their love (a word, Ostrovskaya reminds us, in her note published at the end of Figes’s book, that is hard to find in their letters):

Lev: When I see my name on the envelope and it’s written in your hand, I always feel the same sensation—a mixture of disbelief, astonishment, joy and certainty—when I realize that it really is for me—and really hers. Yours, that is. There’s no point to this confession—and now I’m afraid that, having thought about it logically, you’ll start to send me empty envelopes.

Svetlana [At the end of a long letter]: The point of all this is that I want to tell you just three words—two of them are pronouns and the third is a verb (to be read in all the tenses simultaneously: past, present and future).

Astonishingly, Svetlana’s desire for them to meet within “another five years” was realized much sooner than either of them could have expected. Family visits were theoretically possible, but political prisoners were usually denied such visits. Moreover they weren’t married, so Svetlana wasn’t “family.” The journey from Moscow was also long and arduous, and it seemed unlikely that Svetlana could get the necessary time off from the rubber factory where she worked, or be able to conceal her clandestine holiday destination. But Lev had successfully set up an elaborate system for them to correspond freely about their plans, and Svetlana was fired up by the prospect of a secret visit to a Gulag settlement that wasn’t even on the map—if caught, she had an excellent chance of ending up inside the Gulag herself.


Figes’s account of how she secretly planned her journey and of how Lev’s meticulous arrangements for her repeatedly postponed arrival makes up one of the most tense and thrilling chapters of the book. Svetlana finally set out in late September 1947, right after her thirtieth birthday and a year after she had said she hoped for a meeting. A week later she was smuggled into the camp compound as the “wife” of a drunk free worker who had been pressed into service at the last minute. Finally alone, they spent the whole night talking, and Svetlana was able to stay for two whole days, which felt like a miracle after six years of separation.

Such a visit inside the camp precincts is unprecedented in my reading about the Gulag, yet it appears that Svetlana was able to make not just one, but at least three visits while Lev was in Pechora,2 and that other wives were doing the same. It makes me wonder if similar things were going on in other parts of the Gulag. The fact that it happened at all illustrates one of the main themes of Just Send Me Word, namely the peculiar culture of the Gulag. Once he was safely in the drying unit, and later as an electrician in the plant’s power station, Lev was able to lead a comparatively comfortable life for a prisoner and do relatively interesting work. As an engineer he dreamed of ascending to the sort of closed scientific institute described by Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle. In fact the deep bonds he formed with his boss, Strelsky, and the other prisoners around him are strongly reminiscent of the friendships described in Solzhenitsyn’s novel. Lev’s hopes were never realized, but the letters show that he enjoyed his work at the power station and settled into a life that might have been tolerable, had it not been circumscribed by barbed wire and armed guards.


Boris Ivanov

A convoy at the Pechora gulag, where Lev Mishchenko was imprisoned in the 1940s and 1950s

Lev’s letters also illustrate the complicated relationships that sprang up between the prisoners, the paid free workers, and the guards. Although the free workers mixed easily with the prisoners and often worked side by side with them, they were employees of the Ministry of Internal Security (MVD). But many were former prisoners themselves, or had lived and worked for most of their lives in and around the camps, so they tended to side with the prisoners more than their employers. According to Figes:

There were no systematic searches of the prisoners and their barracks, so all sorts of things were smuggled in and out of the prison zone…. The guards at the main guard-house were corrupt and took bribes to let goods and people through. Many of the guards were in cahoots with the prisoners in the black market…. There was even a black market in “government secrets” (official documents) stolen from the headquarters of the MVD inside the settlement and sold to the prisoners, some of whom got hold of their personal files and forged alterations to the articles of their sentence or even changed the date of their release.

Discipline was tightened, but later on conditions for prisoners gradually improved. New barrack huts were built, a clubhouse was constructed, and also a “Palace of Culture” where the prisoners were able to see movies. After watching a documentary about the building of the Volga-Don Canal (by prison labor)—a film that concealed many of the human costs involved—Lev, without a hint of irony, wrote to Svetlana that he had “no other thoughts or feelings but a sense of pride and admiration for the power of the human mind and the systematic and harmonious transformation of thousands of ideas into a tangible marvel.” He had no more illusions about communism, yet could take a patriotic pride in the achievements of Soviet science and technology, a bifocal view of Soviet Russia that was shared by Svetlana in Moscow.

Lev also wrote in Poka ia pomniu (this theme is not picked up by Figes) about sympathetic prison guards who turned a blind eye to violations of the camp regulations and helped the prisoners circumvent them, such as a guard nicknamed “Loud Mouth,” who hid his kindnesses behind loudly bellowed commands. Lev even wrote to one of his guards long after his release to thank him for his humanitarian ways. It’s interesting to compare this with the situations described in Gulag Boss by Fyodor Mochulsky, an unarmed NKVD officer in Pechora from 1940 to 1946, just before Lev arrived. A loyal Party member, Mochulsky witnessed and recorded the same inefficiencies, corruption, and barbaric conditions that Lev describes, and also went out of his way to secure better living quarters for the prisoners to protect them from the sub-arctic temperatures while not doubting in any way that they were guilty and justly imprisoned in the camp.

Lev was well aware of the abyss yawning beneath the prisoners’ feet and gives many examples of the dangers they faced. At one point Strelkov antagonized a high official in the railroad administration and was hauled before the MVD on charges of sabotage. Facing a heavy new sentence, he was savvy enough to have his accuser discredited.

Lyubomir Terletsky, Lev’s Ukrainian bunkmate, was less lucky and was banished to a special regime camp in Siberia, while a half-Latvian friend, Oleg Popov, was transferred to a hard labor brigade in Pechora and then to the far north to break stones in a quarry. One of the most moving themes of the second half of the book is the efforts made by Lev and Svetlana to help these friends and their families, along with others in trouble.

Describing these problems, Lev was prompted to complain to Svetlana that the hardest things for the prisoner to bear were the “lack of contact with the outside world” and the way the camp acted as a pressure cooker to bring out the worst in everyone:

Everything in normal life is magnified. Human shortcomings and defects…take on huge significance…. Ill-will turns into hostility, hostility takes the form of wild hatred, and pettiness becomes meanness, eventually leading to some crime. Abruptness becomes an insult, suspicion slander, money-grabbing robbery, indignation rage, sometimes ending in murder.

Lev was by nature an idealist and optimist. He exhorted Svetlana to be brave and patient whenever she complained about the difficulties of her job in the rubber factory, standing in long lines for food and clothing, and coping with aging parents, not to speak of her own sicknesses and depression. Lev perhaps dimly understood that psychologically and emotionally Svetlana had a harder life than he did, and tried when he could to rally her (and his own) spirits: “Sveta, let us hope, while we still have strength to hope.”

I have understood the most terrible thing in life is complete hopelessness…. To cross out all the “maybes” and give up the fight when you still have strength for it is the most terrible form of suicide.

Some relief came with the death of Stalin in March 1953. Conditions in the camps visibly improved, rumors flew of amnesties and early releases, but true to their warped values, the Soviet authorities let the criminal prisoners go first, and delayed the release of political prisoners for as long as they could. Lev was finally released in July 1954, slightly ahead of time, but his return to Moscow was neither joyful nor triumphant. His reunion with Svetlana took place by the bedside of her sick father. It took him over a year to be amnestied and allowed to live in the capital, where he got a mid-level job in the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the University of Moscow. He and Svetlana finally married in 1955, had two children, and were still able to enjoy a long and happy family life. Lev died in 2008, at the age of ninety-one, and Svetlana followed him eighteen months later.

Figes frames his story well, with Lev and Svetlana’s first meeting at the beginning of the book, and Figes’s own meeting with the couple just a few months before Lev died. His handling of the letters and choice of excerpts to me seems unexceptionable. His background commentary is generally unobtrusive and well timed, and the reader is caught up in the suspense of Svetlana’s various visits to Pechora. Where the book falls short is in its narrative arc. The intense exchange of love letters immediately after her first visit is detached from the visit itself and tucked into a different chapter, thus failing to underline the emotional impact of their meeting. There is also a distinct drop in temperature in the second half of the book, perhaps because Figes has shackled himself too tightly to chronology, and drags out the tedious details of Lev’s journey home and the couple’s practical plans for the future, when what the reader wants to hear are their hopes and fears for their impending marriage.

At this point, a brief caveat is in order, for past experience has shown that much of what issues from Figes’s computer should come with a health warning. Despite his obvious talent and occasional brilliance, he has been shown to take liberties with his sources and prefer readability to accuracy in his work in ways that undermine his credibility, while exhibiting an ethical deafness in scholarly matters that has gravely wounded his reputation. In at least two earlier books on Russian and Soviet history, Figes has been found by colleagues to have borrowed ideas, themes, and even phrasing from other scholars without the usual acknowledgment or attribution,3 and he later took revenge by attacking one of his accusers (together with another Russian history scholar—and rival) in anonymous book reviews for Amazon. When caught out he flatly denied authorship of the reviews and threatened legal proceedings; but he was obliged to admit his deception and pay legal costs, and he apologized publicly for his actions.4

Meanwhile Figes had written and published his masterpiece, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, an impressive oral history of Soviet Russia that was showered with praise and shortlisted for prizes when it appeared in English. This was Figes’s first book written in collaboration with Memorial, whose employees did most of the research and interviews for it, and all seemed well until a Russian edition was planned, when Memorial’s researchers said they discovered dismaying discrepancies between the original Russian texts and Figes’s reproduction of their contents in English. Memorial concluded that Figes had been “too free with his material—above all with the texts of the interviews and the biographical facts we provided him with,” and had committed “absolutely incredible factual errors” in his work. The dilemmas and difficulties of converting the English back into Russian proved too great for the publisher that had planned to issue the book and the proposed Russian edition was canceled.5

This was in 2010, by which time Memorial had concluded another agreement with Figes for him to write the present book. So far as I know, no one has had time to compare the English text of the letters with the Russian originals, most of which are in the possession of Memorial and still unpublished, but I did manage to spot check a few that have appeared online, and they are perfectly accurate6—as are the excerpts from Lev Mishchenko’s autobiography. The only signs of Figes’s hubris and carelessness surface in the preface and epilogue, where he appears to magnify his role in the discovery and publication of the letters and does not give adequate credit to the contribution of Memorial’s researchers, notably that of Irina Ostrovskaya, whose brief description of the Mishchenko letters is printed at the back of the book and who is given some due in the acknowledgments.

Still, Just Send Me Word is a much less complex work than The Whisperers, and I for one hope that it marks the appearance of a more humble and more conscientious Orlando Figes, ready to subordinate himself more fully to the facts and submit himself more fully to his material. It would be a pity if the controversy surrounding his past were to interfere with appreciation of the present book, for Figes’s account of the Mishchenkos’ improbable romance and correspondence, whatever the degree of fidelity to its source material, still makes an indelible impression. Lev and Svetlana’s epistolary love affair is entrancing, and their unsparing account of what life was like in and out of the Gulag after World War II shows this world from a fresh angle and with a literary flair uncommon in such documents. On that score alone, Just Send Me Word is a notable addition to the literature of the Gulag.

Figes concludes his book with a last glimpse of Pechorlag after its factories have burned down and it has become “a wasteland inhabited by a few people and wild dogs.” That is the way the Russian government would undoubtedly prefer to leave it, virtually unmarked (the gate and a brick chimney are still standing) and its victims unremembered. Thanks to Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, among others, it—and they—will not be forgotten.