Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb uncovers a love story in unusual circumstances.
In a crowded room in Oriel College, Oxford, historian Orlando Figes spoke eagerly about his latest work, Just Send Me Word. Inspired by the contents of a 37kg trunk, the narrative is, at its core, a love story, drawing on 1,246 letters exchanged between Lev Mishavenko and his girlfriend, Svetlana Ivanova (Sveta). These remarkable letters, the largest known collection of private correspondence between the Soviet Gulag and the outside world, were found intact and uncensored.
Through Lev and Sveta, Figes constructs a vivid social history of the Soviet Union. The couple first met as physics students in Moscow University; he, the son of ‘bourgeois counter-revolutionaries’ shot by the Bolsheviks; she, by contrast, born of the technical intelligentsia. Their courtship was cut short by war: Lev was captured in the first German offensive. Although, he never joined the anti-Soviet Vlasov Army, he was forced, as a German speaker, to translate camp orders.
In Stalin’s realm, surrender or material support for the enemy meant treason, and Lev’s reward for surviving the war was 10 years at the notorious Pechora labour camp, near the Arctic Circle. He would certainly have died before those years were up were it not for the kindness of strangers. In the Gulag, as in the Soviet Union as a whole, the worst kinds of hardship gave rise to strong bonds of solidarity.
It was a stranger, a laboratory researcher by the name of Georgii Strelkov who found a ‘white-collar’ job for Lev, thereby saving his life. Using the privacy of Strelkov’s laboratory, Lev began to write to Sveta, making contact with ‘free’ workers within the camp to send his uncensored letters outside. Both free workers and those imprisoned offered mutual support, aiding the smuggling of letters, clothes, and food into the camp. These groups made possible five clandestine meetings between Lev and Sveta inside the barbed-wire zone in Pechora. She once travelled over 4,500km to visit Lev alone for a mere 20 minutes. All of these visits, including the intricate planning required, are recorded in their letters.
That which is not said is also revealing. Their feelings towards the Soviet system, or Stalin’s death for instance, are not elaborated, and remain complex. Much of Sveta’s writing was intended simply to give Lev hope: “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.”
Considering the dearth of contemporary sources from the Gulag, these letters provide a valuable record of daily life. Lev’s writing conveys the dynamics of the Pechora camp system and the utmost fears of prisoners, namely loss of trust, and travelling in convoys with homicidal criminals. Some may be sceptical that Figes is the right editor after the controversy surrounding The Whisperers, but one hopes that at least Lev and Sveta’s correspondence will get a fair hearing.