Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag [Kindle Edition]



Orlando Figes


From Amazon : “Lev Glebovich Mishchenko and his wife Svetlana Aleksandrovna are buried side by side in Moscow’s Golovinskoe Cemetery. Both were born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, and both outlived the Soviet Union, Lev dying in 2008 and Svetlana in 2010. The quotation above is taken from a letter Svetlana wrote to Lev in 1947, the greater part of a year after she discovered that her pre-war sweetheart was alive but serving a ten year sentence in a GULAG prison camp.

Pre-war, Lev trained as a nuclear physicist. During the war he was a Red Army officer. Captured by the Germans, liberated by Americans, he was offered passage to the United States, but chose repatriation to Russia. Like thousands of other returning Prisoners of War, he was – on the basis of a false ‘confession’ of treason against the motherland – sentenced in 1946 to death, commuted to ten years in the camps.

But for a period when Moscow was evacuated, Svetlana had meanwhile remained in her native city. She too was a physicist, and she made a career in a research laboratory attached to the tire industry. Because her work was considered militarily sensitive, it took outstanding determination and moral courage to respond to letters from a political prisoner. She was short of neither.

The letters began in July 1946 and continued to November 1954. So that each would know if they had received all that had been sent, Lev and Svetlana numbered their letters, which over the years amounted in total to 1246, 647 from Lev, 599 from Svetlana. Remarkably, none were censored (though all were self-censored as they were written and various codes employed) and all survived, to be handed eventually to Memorial in Moscow, an international historical and civil rights society operating in several post-Soviet states. It was through Memorial that Orlando Figes became aware of the letters and Lev and Svetlana’s remarkable story, and he was fortunate to be able to meet and interview them both whilst they were still alive.

Through the letters, with supplementary information from the interviews and other sources, Figes takes us chronologically through Lev and Svetlana’s whole story. Although it is also much more, it is fundamentally a love story. Not, of course, that true love always ran smooth, but each was very firm in their love for the other, and determined eventually to marry.

As readers, we gain new insights into life in Stalin’s Russia and a view of a prison camp that, although close to the Arctic Circle, was on the European side of the Urals, and in which Lev was able to secure a position as an electrical engineer that was at least potentially survivable. In other words, the book provides a different perspective from those of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and complements rather than competes with those classics.

Most remarkable of all is that Svetlana five times managed to visit Lev at the camp. The first visit in particular provides exciting reading. There are other high points too, and Figes makes good use of such photographs as are available, along with relevant camp records and descriptions drawn from other sources.”

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