Saturday 18 October 2014

Just Send Me Word

Finished October 11
Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag by Orlando Figes

This book is based on a collection of letters between Svetlana Ivanova and Lev Mishchenko over many years and interviews with them and others. The couple donated their private archives to Memorial, a human rights research charity in Moscow, and Figes became aware of it shortly thereafter. The letters span the time from July 12, 1946 to November 23, 1954. There are 647 letters from Lev and 599 from Svetlana. Most of these letters were not sent through official channels and so were not written with censors in mind, although they did use some code in case the letters fell into unfriendly hands.
The two met in September 1935 in the Physics faculty at Moscow University where both were students. Svetlana's father Aleksandr Alekseevich was also a physicist and graduate of the University, then working as deputy director of the Resin Research Institute. Her mother Anastasia Erofeevna was a Russian-language teacher at the Moscow Institute of the Economy.
Lev's mother Valentina Aleekseevna was a teacher and his father Gleb Fedorovich Mishchenko studied physics at Moscow University and then studied to be an engineer at the Railway Institute. He was a professor at Kiev University. Lev's parents moved to Beryozovo, Siberia to escape the Bolshevik revolution, but it found them both there and they died there after imprisonment and torture. Lev was raised by his grandmother, his Aunt Katya, and his mother's aunt Elizaveta Konstantinovna. He was also supported by his father's close friends and later by his Aunt Olga.
In June 1941, Lev had just passed his final exams and was readying himself to go on to study cosmic rays, when the war started. He was put in charge of a supply unit, but found that the front lines were in chaos and was captured by the Germans on October 3rd. Taken to a prisoner of war camp, Lev refused to spy for the Germans when pressured although he did work as a translator. He attempted to escape once and was recaptured, but during the final days of the war, when on a death march, he managed to escape with a fellow prisoner. The two were discovered by US troops and he was asked to emigrate given his physics education, but refused, wanting to go back to Moscow and hopefully Svetlana.
It is at this point that things got much worse for him. The Soviets treated all returning POWs as prisoners and collaborators, holding them in bad conditions, questioning them repeatedly trying to force confessions, and eventually tricked Lev into signing something they only read part of to him that had him admitting his guilt. On November 19, 1945, he was sentenced to death, which was commuted to ten years in labour camps.
He arrived in Pechora in March 1946, and was assigned to the Pechora wood combine, where he was able to get assigned to a drying unit, then a sawmill, and finally the power station, mostly due to his engineering and science knowledge. Svetlana, meanwhile, was working on rubber, in a job that had her with access to state secrets. This made her relationship with Lev very risky to her.
However the two not only wrote each other continuously, but Svetlana travelled to Pechora and made secret visits into the camp to see Lev. Their loyalty to each other was strong and enduring and they confided their feelings to each other without reservation.
Even after Lev was freed, they didn't marry at first due to his status as a freed prisoner. He even found job prospects difficult. But on September 17, 1955, there was an amnesty for Soviet servicemen who had collaborated with the Germans, which meant they could finally be together and lead a more normal life.
This is a moving story and also illustrative of both live in the labour camps and the general restrictions of life in Moscow as well. Figes has done a good job of pulling information together from the letters, interviews and other sources to make this narrative coherent.

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