Homo Sovieticus in Love

Controversial historian Orlando Figes' latest attempt at telling a tale of life in the gulag takes the form of excerpts from 1,246 letters between two young people.

Eli Shaltiel
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Eli Shaltiel

“Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag,” by Orlando Figes. Penguin Books, 331 pages, £9.99

Orlando Figes is one of the best-known and most influential historians of recent years. His areas of expertise are pre-revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union. His books about the Bolshevik Revolution, and also his spectacular work on 19th-century Russian culture ‏(intriguingly titled “Natasha’s Dance”‏) have earned him a name as an original scholar blessed with excellent writing skills.

In recent years, the British Figes has focused on Soviet history under Stalin, and his 2007 book “The Whisperers” about the terrors of Stalinist totalitarianism was described by all reviewers as a masterpiece. ‏(The book was translated into Hebrew, and published by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan‏). Accompanying the stories of suffering and horror was a sense of calling: Figes became a mouthpiece for the millions who died of starvation, in the gulag, in forced labor, in psychiatric institutions − in all those places where Stalin and his people sent the suffering citizens of that evil empire. Figes deftly wove a tale of horror and terror from the stories of victims of the system, as it emerges from the documents and fragments of testimonies that have piled up in the archival collections of those seeking to remember and remind.

“The Whisperers” led Figes to the heights of fame, but also became a breaking point on his ascent to the top of the historians’ heap. After the book came out, the heads of the Memorial society – the human-rights organization that has attempted to trace the fate of the approximately 24 million people who passed through the gulag or were exiled, and that had assisted Figes in finding the more than 1,000 people he interviewed for that book – arranged for the book’s translation and distribution in Russia. About a year ago, however, Figes’ partners in Russia announced they were backing out of their plan to publish a local edition and canceled their contract with the author.

Western critics, historians and colleagues alike were shocked by the move, and rushed to accuse the Russian organizations involved of bowing to pressure from Vladimir Putin’s regime, which every intelligent being knows does not encourage the work of those who would expose the Stalinist regime of terror.

For its part, Memorial defended its position, saying, “We are the great opponents of the authoritarian government of ‘the new czar,’ and it is completely unthinkable to accuse us of trying to conceal the injustices of Stalin’s regime.”

But general refutations were not enough, and they were forced to go public with their reasons for backing out of the agreement with Figes. They divulged that in the process of editing the translation into Russian, researchers had found that Orlando Figes had played fast and loose with archival materials. Specifically, they accused him of falsification, negligence and misquoting of testimonies of prisoners and victims of the gulags. Even the book title, “The Whisperers,” which Figes claimed came from a female prisoner’s testimony, he had apparently falsified. That supposed quotation does not appear in the testimony to which Figes directs his readers.

When the historian was publicly discredited, his colleagues in the West turned their backs on him, apologized to the Russian organizations, and also went digging into his earlier work, where they found more and more flaws. For example, they exposed his practice of publishing bluntly harsh critiques on the online Amazon website of books by colleagues, and on the other hand, rave reviews of his own books − either anonymously or with a pseudonym. Figes denied the allegations and claimed that it wasn’t he but rather a member of his family who was responsible for the offensive posts.

A secret language

This long and disturbing introduction is called for before a review of Figes’ latest attempt to tell another gulag story, a book that was published only after “The Whisperers” affair was made public. The sole allusion here to that affair is an afterward by Irina Ostrovskaya, a representative of the International Memorial Society. She does not say anything about Figes’ work, but the organization’s willingness to have someone who representing it add something as an addendum to the book is tantamount to a “seal of approval” for it as a whole.

“Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag” is indeed a wondrous and moving story, demonstrating once again Figes’ talent for eliciting from archival documents human sagas of great resonance. The book recounts the love story of Lev Glebovich Mishchenko and Svetlana Aleksandrovna Ivanova as reflected in the 1,246 letters − 647 his and 599 hers − they sent each other in World War II, and during Lev’s imprisonment in the gulag camp of Pechora from 1946 until November 1954.

Before World War II, Lev and Svetlana were chemistry students at Moscow University. When the war broke out, Lev was drafted into the Red Army, and contact with his sweetheart was severed. He was soon captured by the German army and spent the war years in various German POW camps, among other things as a translator for the German army. Like thousands of other Russian soldiers taken captive by the Germans, upon returning to his homeland he was arrested, tried for treason and sent to a forced-labor camp for treason. Pechora, Figes reminds us, is the camp to which Menachem Begin was sent during World War II. The author even cites Begin’s autobiographical memoir “White Nights: the Story of a Prisoner in Russia” when describing some aspects of the harsh existence in the camp.

This large and wide-ranging collection of letters is very rare among the whole of archival materials from gulag days. Writing and sending letters was a tough and dangerous business, both for prisoners and for their loved ones who were left behind. People who corresponded had to contend with restrictions on writing, problems caused by the postal service, and mainly with the dangers of exposure to the eyes of the censors. Anyone who wrote took a risk. The same was true for a letter’s recipient, who could be charged with conspiring with those branded “enemies of the state and the class” and sent to penal colonies.

Lev and Svetlana managed to overcome the obstacles and outsmart the camp authorities; it seems there were always civilian gulag workers willing to send and deliver their letters for them. In time, when Svetlana’s longings grew and she decided − in an incomparably bold move − to visit Lev, there were even those who were willing to put her up, conceal from her employers the purpose of her trips, and otherwise facilitate her forbidden visits. The couple worked out diverse and convoluted methods to be in touch, a secret code and various means of ensuring delivery of their correspondence. Their brief acquaintance before the war and Lev’s imprisonment cemented in the hearts of both the fierce desire to reunite after the incarceration ended.

Figes has chosen from the couple’s extensive correspondence excerpts of letters that would best suit the complex story he has woven here. He does not bother to present letters in full, and at times he does not even stick to a chronological sequence when presenting them.

The book’s chapters are arranged, rather, according to a myriad of topics and issues. Sometimes he makes a point of offering Svetlana’s responses to Lev’s questions from the camp, and sometimes he uses excerpts from their correspondence to demonstrate a certain claim he wants to make.

The crux of “Just Send Me Word” is, of course, the riveting love story, which withstands all trials and tribulations. Lev and Svetlana are in no way political creatures. From the selection of correspondence Figes presents to us, they do not come off as being particularly concerned with the nature of the regime and its ways. However, it is very possible that fear of the censor kept them from making free and unrestrained statements about such matters. Sometimes one gets the impression that the couple do not even question the authority of the regime and that they even see its judgments as legitimate.

For instance, Lev does not write to Svetlana about the injustice done him. He frequently describes his work in the gulag, the labor foremen, the living conditions, the beauty of nature, and the difficulties of surviving and − as his release date approached − their future together. He does not lament the fact that even after he is freed, he will not be permitted to return to Moscow, his birthplace, and must live in a city distant from the country’s center and from Svetlana. Perhaps this reflects a personality trait, or perhaps a clear knowledge that there was no point in regretting things, because the only way of surviving in that regime at that time involved coming to terms with what existed and trying to find one’s place in it. And perhaps this is proof that 30-odd years of a Stalinist communist regime really had given rise to the Homo Sovieticus who adapted to reality and existed within it.

In contrast, Svetlana does occasionally evince signs of not being reconciled to the reality the regime imposes on her. She is a loyal communist, or so at least we surmise from her willingness to go along with the dictates of the regime and its practices. When some anniversary or other is celebrated in Moscow and the achievements of the government are hailed, for example, she attends the festivities and often tells her beloved about them. Nevertheless, she manages to find ways to get around certain practices and edicts. She goes on forbidden journeys throughout the gulag regions and outsmarts the government’s representatives and police.

Lev’s letters add important layers to understanding how penal colonies were run and the way they fit into the Soviet economy of the time. Svetlana, on the other hand, is important for her depiction of daily life in the Soviet Union after World War II. She describes Moscow’s development, the hardscrabble existence and shortages, and the face of daily life in a totalitarian reality that imposes an obligatory order on each and every thing, and from which all who deviate risk severe and arbitrary punishment.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian, and editor of Am Oved Publisher’s Ofakim (Horizons‏) series.

Svetlana and Lev, 1936. They were chemistry students together at the University of Moscow.
Upon returning home from World War II, thousands of Russian soldiers were sent tothe gulag on charges of treason.