Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Just Send Me Word

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Just Send Me Word

Article excerpt

The letters of a young Soviet couple tell of Gulag life and love.

Orlando Figes is a serious scholar and the author of several highly acclaimed books ("A People's Tragedy," "Natasha's Dance," "The Whisperers") on Russian and Soviet history.

But when it came to the subject of his latest book, he more or less tripped over it. One day in 2007 Figes was walking through the lobby of a Moscow human rights organization. Blocking his path were three huge trunks containing about 1,500 letters - a miraculously uncensored cache of love letters that had been exchanged over the course of eight years by a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag and his fiancee. In other words: a historian's dream come true.

Figes spent two years translating the letters and interviewing the couple who wrote them - Lev and Svetlana "Sveta" Mishchenko, then in their 90s. The result is Just Send Me Word, a remarkable love story intertwined with a rare glimpse into a harsh chapter of Soviet history.

Lev and Svetlana met as physics students at the University of Moscow in the 1930s. (She was one of a half-dozen women in the department.) Rather than love at first sight, the two (both more scientific than romantic) developed "a deep and permanent affinity."

They were first separated when Lev left for war in 1941. Captured by the Germans, he landed in one of the most brutal of Nazi labor camps. He survived the war only to be branded a traitor by his own country (because he spoke excellent German he was accused of cooperating with the Nazis during the war even though in truth he had rather heroically refused to betray his country by becoming a spy) and sentenced to 10 years in a "corrective labor camp" in Siberia.

Ultimately, Svetlana discovered that he was still alive and so began eight years of correspondence - and waiting.

But Lev was fortunate. Highly educated, he was noticed by a powerful fellow prisoner who drew him into a (relatively) privileged circle. …

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