Orlando Figes' new book begins with an exciting discovery of several trunks of Stalin-era letters in the Moscow branch of the human rights organisation Memorial. It ends with a poignant meeting with the writers of these letters, Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, in their flat in the city. In between unfolds a remarkable story of love and survival - and the survival of love - through and beyond Stalinist repression.
For Lev Mishchenko, as revealed in his 2006 Russian-language memoir, was one of millions of Soviet citizens to experience the Gulag: like many Second World War veterans, he escaped a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp only to be imprisoned by the Soviet authorities on suspicion of espionage. He then served a 10-year term in Pechora, in the far north. Many did not survive such experiences, but those who did have been of growing interest to historians and organisations such as Memorial. Figes' lucky find and his admirably determined pursuit of the story (from Moscow to archives in Pechora itself) make - as we are repeatedly reminded - for one of the most detailed stories yet of Gulag survival and return. Writing to each other twice or more a week through thrillingly illicit channels, Lev and Svetlana not only kept their love alive but also made a detailed and evocative record of the first Soviet post-war decade.
Although Figes weaves this broad historical context into his narrative, it is clearly the love affair that captured his imagination. The author is, as always, a skilled and compelling storyteller, here smoothly combining extracts and summaries of the letters, archive documents and later oral testimony (the potential problems of memory are smoothed away) into a dramatic and sometimes breathless narrative of love conquering all. And there is much about this story that is both remarkable and touching, even to those familiar with the large body of memoir literature on the Gulag - Lev seems exceptionally selfless and stoic, and Svetlana extraordinarily brave to have made several risky visits to the camp (the photos of these visits are truly fascinating). Yet what makes this story extraordinary is also what makes it only a partial vision of a brutal, brutalising and still relatively little known world.
In her trailblazing popular history of the Gulag, Anne Applebaum highlighted the surprisingly scant public knowledge of Stalinist repression compared with that of Nazi Germany. Although its prevailing note is optimistic, Figes' book will surely help to raise general awareness of Stalin-era persecution. For Soviet historians, though, there is less that is new. Many recent studies, based largely on state and party archives, have generated a rich and complex picture of the post-war Soviet Union. Equally, historians working with similar "ego documents" to those used here have recently done much to elucidate the distinctive mentality, or "subjectivity", of Stalinism. Figes' book mentions little of this historiography, either within the narrative (where it would break the dramatic flow) or in the bibliography. Moreover, as that bibliography announces, the book comes out a full year before other historians can access the Mishchenko correspondence. When they are eventually permitted to do so, they should find it an immensely rich source to explore and analyse some of the questions left unanswered here.
Above all, what did "love" and "happiness" - two of the most frequent terms encountered - mean in the (Stalinist) USSR? Much of the correspondence is remarkably chaste and unemotional, suggesting that both parties shared a particular, perhaps distinctively Soviet (or Bolshevik) understanding of love and sex. And what did incarceration mean for the Soviet beliefs of Lev and Sveta? While the notion that Soviet citizens were much like us serves to entice readers into an otherwise forbiddingly alien world, it risks obscuring the particular features of Stalinist ideology that allowed some victims of repression to retain their belief in Soviet (although not necessarily Stalinist) ideas, while permanently destroying others' faith (indeed "faith" is another term often encountered, but not analysed, in the correspondence). When at the end we see the elderly Lev and Sveta (who died in 2008 and 2010, respectively), we still do not really know if the Soviet beliefs they held in their youth perished as a result of their experiences or if they survived in some form. While less dramatic than the struggle to survive or to keep love alive against all odds, this question of belief is an important issue that Soviet historians should and will explore further.
Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag
By Orlando Figes Allen Lane, 352pp, £20.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9781846144882 and 9780141971407 (e-book) Published 31 May 2012