Love can blossom in the most inhospitable terrain, as the poet is wont to say, but the Gulag? The vast archipelago of misery, suffering and death that was the hallmark (and economic mainstay) of Soviet communism was the graveyard of human emotions, as well as of not a few poets.
"Just Send Me Word" is a heroic, absolutely astounding love story told through the letters of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova, who met as students in the 1930s. Lev, orphaned at 2 when the Bolsheviks shot his parents, was reared by two aunts and imbued with pre-revolutionary notions of chivalry and grace; Sveta, the pretty, shy daughter of a well-off family of Bolshevik supporters, was more interested in physics than politics. Their paths crossed at the prestigious Physics Faculty of Moscow University.
They dated, which in the chaste strictures of the time meant walks along the Moscow River after class, sharing favorite poems, an occasional film and, hesitatingly, holding hands.
Caught up in the maelstrom of World War II, Lev, like tens of thousands of other Russian soldiers who had been captured by the Germans, was convicted of "treason" in a 15-minute "trial" and shipped off to a 10-year sentence in the Pechora prison camp on the cusp of the Arctic Circle. There he wrote his first letter to Sveta's family, daring not to address her personally for fear of the repercussions she would suffer for being linked to an "enemy of the people." That first tentative letter, wrenching in its delicacy and need, was answered by Sveta with a bold response filled with happiness and possibilities.
The roughly 1,500 letters that make up the heart of this book are the only known archive that recounts life in the Gulag in real time; heretofore we have had to rely almost exclusively on memoirs. Here are two people separated by a cruel fate yet determined to be together. Their love was so strong, in fact, that Sveta on several occasions traveled from Moscow to Pechora and broke into the prison compound to spend a few fleeting hours with Lev. It was a Herculean feat, one made all the more compelling by the potentially lethal risks she took.
British historian Orlando Figes, author of the highly acclaimed "Natasha's Dance" and "The Crimean War" among other important works on Russian history, puts these letters into context, explaining the Gulag system and the often cryptic language Sveta and Lev used in case their letters fell into the wrong hands. His knowledgeable, sensitive touch gives this book a pleasing narrative continuity that makes the reader an intimate companion of the two lovers.
Lev was freed in the amnesty that followed Stalin's death in 1953. He and Sveta married and had two children, who, like most Russian kids, never knew of their father's imprisonment -- or their mother's heroic devotion. Thanks to this archive, and to Figes' deft editing, they know at last. And, thankfully, so do we.
Michael J. Bonafield, who has traveled five times to Russia, writes from Apple Valley.