Love and Survival in the Gulag

Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag

This book, by Orlando Figes, tells the story of two people, Lev and Svetlana, forcibly kept apart because Lev is serving ten years in the Soviet Gulag.

How did this come about? He was captured by the Germans, escaped to the Americans, then chose to return to Russia. At which point he was charged with being a spy and sent to a labour camp. The fact that he could speak German didn’t help, but it didn’t make him a spy either.

Once separated, they communicated by letter. Most of the letters have survived – over 1,240 of them. As is well known, letters were censored, so in some cases reading between the lines was necessary. But since it proved relatively easy to smuggle letters in and out of the camp, they soon became more candid.

Although this huge cache of letters needed to be translated for this book, Lev and Svetlana helped the author in his task by numbering them. This was not with an eye on posterity, but a method of alerting each other to the fact that a letter had gone missing, or that letters had arrived but in the wrong order. This betrays a methodical approach befitting two people both of whom were scientists.

The letters left an unexpected impression on this reader. The fact that the regime was run on inhumane and paranoid lines did not come as a surprise, but both Lev and Svetlana were in some ways supportive of it despite having inside knowledge of some of its worst horrors and stupidities. This attitude is hard to explain, but since it didn’t trouble the authors they make no attempt to account for it.

One aspect of the Gulag system which did not occur to me was why it was bound to fail. In the years immediately after the war, show trials resulted in a good supply of prisoners to the Gulag. But as the trials reduced in number at the input end and prisoners were released when they finished their sentences, the population of slave labourers started to fall off dramatically.

So what are we to make of our lovers? This can be well illustrated by an observation Figes makes about Svetlana.

She was a practical person, emotionally generous, often warm in her affections, but far too honest and plain-speaking to succumb to romantic illusions.

Or as she puts it herself:

Sentimental words about love (both lofty and cheap) produce the same effect on me as commerce. Mine to you, just as yours to me. From them stem never-ending grievances. P70

If I had to summarise this book in a word, that word would be ‘worthy’. It is worthy because Lev and Svetlana were worthy. Good people who were put in a horrendous situation by a corrupt system and wrote to each other over a period of ten years about their feelings and their lives.

I am reminded of other books dealing with life in repressive regimes, such as Wild Swans.The people who rise to positions of power in these regimes like to bend everyone to their will, for example, by killing them in their millions. And in extreme cases they may try to bend things to their will as will.

Wild Swans, Chang's first international bestseller

Wild Swans, Chang’s first international bestseller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mao declared war on grass and flowers – which should be hard to believe but is not.

9 thoughts on “Love and Survival in the Gulag

  1. We have Wild Swans and Helvi read it some years ago. She remembers it as a very good read.
    The world of spies is always dangerous. I had a very good English friend and business partner during my late teens till my marriage to Helvi when he too married to a Japanese girl and went to live in Japan.. He worked as a spy for the English Government during WW2 in Germany. Yet, he was detained in England for over five years as he was suspected of doing his spying in reverse.
    He died a few years ago. He had a few books of poetry published. His name is Bernard Durrant.

  2. This is interesting to me, both your reaction and the structure of the book, as I am wrestling with my parents letters between Malaya and England. Wrestling because they sometimes took two years to arrive, or they were returned and reposted at a different date than the one at the head of the letter. They also numbered letters for a long period and that helps, especially when they make dating errors. I am also wrestling with repetition and sameness, due to censorship and the lack of any reply making one correspondent give important news several times over.

  3. I don’t envy you in your attempt to sequence the letters, it must be very difficult. I think only choosing not to include parts of letters can solve the repetition problem, though that will also be a tricky and time-consuming business. Maybe ‘beta readers’ can help in pinpointing repetition?

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