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

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

by Orlando Figes

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A heroic love story and an unprecedented inside view of one of Stalin's most notorious labor camps, based on a remarkable cache of letters smuggled in and out of the Gulag

"I went to get the letters for our friends, and couldn't help but feel a little envious, I didn't expect anything for myself. And suddenly—there was my name, and, as if it was alive, your handwriting."

In 1946, after five years as a prisoner—first as a Soviet POW in Nazi concentration camps, then as a deportee (falsely accused of treason) in the Arctic Gulag—twenty-nine-year-old Lev Mishchenko unexpectedly received a letter from Sveta, the sweetheart he had hardly dared hope was still alive. Amazingly, over the next eight years the lovers managed to exchange more than 1,500 messages, and even to smuggle Sveta herself into the camp for secret meetings. Their recently discovered correspondence is the only known real-time record of life in Stalin's Gulag, unmediated and uncensored.
Orlando Figes, "the great storyteller of modern Russian historians" (Financial Times), draws on Lev and Sveta's letters as well as KGB archives and recent interviews to brilliantly reconstruct the broader world in which their story unfolded. With the powerful narrative drive of a novel, Just Send Me Word reveals a passion and endurance that triumphed over the tragic forces of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805095234
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 868,970
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Orlando Figes is the author of The Crimean War, The Whisperers, Natasha's Dance, and A People's Tragedy, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. The recipient of the Wolfson History Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among others, Figes is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Orlando Figes is the author of eight books on Russia that have been translated into twenty-seven languages; they include The Whisperers, A People’s Tragedy, Natasha’s Dance, and Just Send Me Word. A professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Figes is the recipient of the Wolfon History Prize, the W. H. Smith Literary Award, the NCR Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Just Send Me Word

A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag

By Orlando Figes

Henry Holt and Company, LLC

Copyright © 2012 Orlando Figes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9523-4


Lev saw Svetlana first. He noticed her at once in the crowd of students waiting to be called to the entrance exam in the tree-lined courtyard of Moscow University. She was standing by the doorway to the Physics Faculty with a friend of Lev's who waved him over and introduced her as a classmate from his former school. They exchanged only a few words before the doors of the faculty were opened and they joined the throng of students on the staircase to the hall where the exam would be held.

It was not love at first sight: both agree on that. Lev was far too cautious to fall in love so easily. But Svetlana had already caught his attention. She was of medium height, slim with thick brown hair, high cheekbones, a pointed chin, and blue eyes shining with a sad intelligence. She was one of only a half dozen women to gain admission to the faculty, the best for physics in the Soviet Union, along with Lev and thirty other men in September 1935. In a dark wool shirt, short grey skirt and black suede shoes, the same clothes she had worn as a schoolgirl, Svetlana stood out in this masculine environment. She had a lovely voice (she would sing in the university choir) which added to her physical attractiveness. She was popular, vivacious, occasionally flirtatious and known for her sharp tongue. Svetlana had no shortage of male admirers, but there was something special about Lev. He was neither tall nor powerfully built – he was slightly smaller than she was – nor as confident of his good looks as other young men of his age. He wore the same old shirt – the top button fastened but without a tie in the Russian style – in all the photos of him at the time. He was still more of a boy than a man in appearance. But he had a kind and gentle face with soft blue eyes and a full mouth, like a girl's.

During that first term, Lev and Sveta (as he began to call her) saw each other frequently. They sat together in lectures, nodded to each other in the library, and moved in the same circle of budding physicists and engineers who ate together in the canteen or met in the student club near the entrance to the library where some would come for a cigarette, others just to stretch their legs and chat.

Later, Lev and Sveta would go out in a group of friends to the theatre or the cinema; and then he would walk her home, taking the romantic route along the garden boulevards from Pushkin Square to the Pokrovsky Barracks near Sveta's house, where couples promenaded in the evening. In the student circles of the 1930s the conventions of courtship continued to be ruled by notions of romantic chivalry, notwithstanding the liberalization of sexual behaviour in some quarters after 1917. At Moscow University romances were serious and chaste, usually beginning when a couple separated from their wider group of friends and he started to walk her home in the evenings. It was a chance to talk more intimately together, perhaps exchanging favourite lines of poetry, the accepted medium for conversations about love, a chance for them to kiss before they parted at her house.

Lev knew that he was not alone in liking Sveta. He often saw her walking with Georgii Liakhov (the friend who had introduced him to Sveta) in the Aleksandr Gardens by the Kremlin Wall. Lev was too reserved to ask Georgii about his relations with Sveta, but one day Georgii said, 'Svetlana's such a lovely girl, but she's so intelligent, so terribly intelligent.' He said it in a way that made it clear to Lev that Georgii was intimidated by her intellect. As Lev would soon find out, Sveta could be moody, critical of others and impatient with people not as clever as herself.

Slowly, Lev and Sveta drew closer. They were brought together by a 'profound sympathy', recalls Lev. Sitting in his living room more than seventy years later, he smiles at the memory of that first emotional connection. He thinks carefully before choosing his next words: 'It was not that we fell madly in love with each other, but there was a deep and permanent affinity.'

Eventually they came to see themselves as a couple: 'Everybody knew that Svetlana was my girl because I didn't visit anybody else.'There was a moment when it became obvious to both of them. One afternoon, as they were walking in the quiet residential streets near Sveta's house on Kazarmennyi Pereulok (Barracks Lane), she took his hand and said, 'Let's go that way, I'll introduce you to my friends.' They went to see her closest friends from school, Irina Krauze, who was studying French at the Institute of Foreign Languages, and Aleksandra ('Shura' or 'Shurka') Chernomordik, who was studying medicine. Lev recognized this as a mark of Sveta's trust in him, as a sign of her affection, that she let him meet her childhood friends.

Soon Lev was invited to Sveta's home. The Ivanov family had a private apartment with two large rooms and a kitchen – an almost unknown luxury in Stalin's Moscow, where communal apartments housing a family per room with one shared kitchen and toilet were the norm. Sveta and her younger sister, Tanya, lived in one room with their parents, the girls sleeping on a sofa that unfolded into a bed. Their brother, Yaroslav ('Yara'), lived with his wife, Elena, in the other room, where there was a large wardrobe, a glass-fronted cabinet for books and a grand piano used by the whole family. With its high ceilings and antique furniture, the Ivanov home was a tiny island of the intelligentsia in the proletarian capital.

Sveta's father, Aleksandr Alekseevich, was a tall, bearded man in his mid-fifties with sad, attentive eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. A veteran Bolshevik, he had joined the revolutionary movement as a student at Kazan University in 1902, had been expelled and imprisoned, and then had re-enrolled in the Physics Faculty of St Petersburg University, where he had worked with the great Russian chemist Sergei Lebedev in the development of synthetic rubber before the First World War. After the October Revolution of 1917, Aleksandr had played a leading part in organizing the Soviet production of rubber. But he left the Party in 1921, officially for reasons of ill-health, although in reality he had become disillusioned with the Bolshevik dictatorship. During the next decade he went on two extended work trips to the West, before moving with his family to Moscow in 1930. This was the height of the Five Year Plan to industrialize the Soviet Union and the first great wave of Stalin's terror against 'bourgeois specialists', when many of Aleksandr's oldest friends and colleagues were rounded up as 'spies' or 'saboteurs' and shot or sent to labour camps. Aleksandr's foreign trips made him politically vulnerable, but somehow he survived and went on working for the cause of Soviet industry, rising to become the deputy director of the Resin Research Institute. In a household dominated by the ethos of the technical intelligentsia, all the children were brought up to study engineering or science: Yara went to the Moscow Machine-Building Institute, Tanya studied meteorology, and Sveta attended the Physics Faculty.

Aleksandr welcomed Lev into his home. He enjoyed the presence of another scientist. Sveta's mother was more distant and reserved. A plump, slow-moving woman in her mid-fifties who wore mittens to cover up a hand disease, Anastasia Erofeevna was a Russian-language teacher in the Moscow Institute of the Economy, and had the stern demeanour of a pedagogue. She would screw up her eyes and peer at Lev through her thick-rimmed spectacles. For a long time he was scared of her, but towards the end of Sveta's and his first year at the university an incident occurred that altered everything. Sveta had borrowed Lev's notes for a lecture she had missed. When he came to pick them up before the first exam, Anastasia told him that she thought his notes were very good. It was not much – a small, unexpected compliment – but the softness of her voice was understood by Lev as a signal of acceptance by Anastasia, the gatekeeper of Sveta's family. 'I took it as a lawful pass into their home,' recalled Lev. 'I began to visit them more frequently, without feeling shy.' After their exams, in the long, hot summer of 1936, Lev would come for Sveta every evening and take her to Sokolniki Park to teach her how to ride a bicycle.

For Lev acceptance by Sveta's family was always an important part of their relationship. He had no immediate family of his own. Lev was born in Moscow on 21 January 1917 – days before the cataclysm of the February Revolution changed the world for ever. His mother, Valentina Alekseevna, the daughter of a minor provincial official, had been brought up by two aunts in Moscow following the loss of both her parents at an early age. She was a teacher in one of the city's schools when she met Lev's father, Gleb Fedorovich Mishchenko, a graduate of the Physics Faculty of Moscow University who was then studying at the Railway Institute to become an engineer. Mishchenko was a Ukrainian name. Gleb's father, Fedor, had been a prominent figure in the nationalist Ukrainian intelligentsia, a professor of philology at Kiev University and a translator of ancient Greek texts into Russian. After the October Revolution, Lev's parents moved to a small Siberian town in the Tobolsk region called Beryozovo, which Gleb had got to know from surveying expeditions as a railway engineer. A place of exile since the eighteenth century, Beryozovo was far away from the Bolshevik regime and in a relatively wealthy agricultural area, so it seemed a good location to sit out the Civil War (1917–21), which brought terror and economic ruin to Moscow. The family lived with Valentina's aunt in a rented room in the house of a large peasant family. Gleb found a job as a schoolteacher and meteorologist, Valentina worked as a teacher too, and Lev was brought up by her aunt, Lydia Konstantinovna, whom he called his 'grandmother'. She told him fairy tales and taught him the Lord's Prayer, which he remembered all his life.

The Bolsheviks arrived in Beryozovo in the autumn of 1919. They began arresting 'bourgeois' hostages deemed to have collaborated with the Whites, the counter-revolutionary forces that had occupied the region during the Civil War. One day they took Lev's parents. Lev, four, went with his grandmother to see them in the local jail. Gleb had been placed in a large cell with nine other prisoners. Lev was allowed to go into the cell and sit with his father while the guard stood with his rifle by the door. 'Is that uncle a hunter?' Lev asked his father, who replied: 'The uncle is protecting us.' Lev and his grandmother found his mother in an isolation cell. He went to see her twice. On the last occasion she gave him a bowl of sour cream and sugar which she had bought with her prisoner's allowance to make his visit memorable.

Not long afterwards, Lev was taken to the hospital, where his mother was dying. She had been shot in the chest, probably by a prison guard. Lev was in the doorway of the ward when a nurse passed him with a strange red and palpitating object in her hands. Frightened by the sight, Lev refused to go into the ward when his grandmother told him to say goodbye, but from the doorway he watched her go up to the bed and kiss his mother on the head.

The funeral took place in the town's main church. Lev went with his grandmother. Sitting on a stool in front of the open coffin, he was too low down to look inside and see his mother's face. But behind the coffin he could see the painted faces of the colourful iconostasis, and in the candlelight he recognized the icon of the Mother of God directly above the coffin's head. He remembers thinking that the face of the Mother of God looked like his own mother's. Lev's father, released from prison for the funeral and accompanied by a guard, appeared by his side. 'He's come to say goodbye,' Lev heard a woman say. After standing by the coffin for a while, Lev's father was led away. Lev later visited his mother's grave in the cemetery outside the church. The mound of freshly dug earth was black against the snow and on top of it somebody had placed a wooden cross.

A few days later, Lev's grandmother took him to a second funeral in the same church. This time there were ten coffins lined up in a row in front of the iconostasis, each containing a murdered victim of the Bolsheviks. One of them was Lev's father. The prisoners in his cell must have all been shot at the same time. Where they were buried is unknown.

In the dry summer of 1921, when famine swept through rural Russia, Lev went back to Moscow with his grandmother. The Bolsheviks had temporarily called a halt to their class war against the 'bourgeoisie', and for the remnants of Moscow's middle class it was once again possible to make a living. Lev's grandmother had worked for twenty years as a midwife in Lefortovo, a district of small traders and merchants, and she and Lev now moved there to live with a distant relative. For a year they occupied the corner of a room – a bed and cot behind a curtain – while she did odd nursing jobs. In 1922 Lev was taken in by his 'Aunt Katya' (Valentina's sister), who lived with her second husband in a communal apartment on Granovsky Street, a stone's throw from the Kremlin. He stayed there until 1924, when he moved to the apartment of his mother's aunt, Elizaveta Konstantinovna, a former headteacher at a girls' high school, who lived on Malaia Nikitskaia Street. 'Almost every day, Aunt Katya came to visit us,' recalled Lev, 'so I grew up in a sphere of constant female influence and care.'

The love of these three women – none of whom had children of their own – could not have made up for the loss of his mother. Yet it produced in Lev a deep respect, even reverence, for women in general. This maternal love was supplemented by the moral and material support of three of his parents' closest friends, who all sent money to his grandmother on a regular basis: Lev's godmother, a doctor in Erevan, the Armenian capital; Sergei Rzhevkin ('Uncle Seryozha'), a professor of acoustics at Moscow University; and Nikita Mel'nikov ('Uncle Nikita'), a veteran Menshevik, linguist, engineer and schoolteacher, whom Lev called a 'second father'.

Lev went to a mixed-sex school in a former girls' gymnasium in Bolshaia Nikitskaia Street (single-sex schools had been abolished in Soviet Russia in 1918). Housed in a classical nineteenth-century mansion with two wings, the school still retained much of its intelligentsia ethos when Lev started there. Many of its staff had been teaching in the school before 1917. Lev's German teacher was its former head; the teacher of the infants was the cousin of a famous Ukrainian composer; and his Russian teacher was related to the writer Mikhail Bulgakov. But in the early 1930s, when Lev was a teenager, the school shifted to a polytechnic curriculum with an engineering focus linked to Moscow's factories. Industrial technicians would lecture at the school with practical instruction and experiments to prepare the children for apprenticeships in the factories.

Sveta's school in Vuzovsky Lane was not far from Lev's. What would they have made of one another if they had met then? They came from very different backgrounds – Lev from the old world of the Moscow middle class, where the Orthodox values of his grandmother had influenced his upbringing, Sveta from the more progressive world of the technical intelligentsia. Yet they shared many basic values and interests. Both were mature for their age, serious, clever, independent in their thinking, with open and inquiring intellects shaped more by their own experience than by propaganda or social convention. That independence was to stand them in good stead. In a letter of 1949 Sveta would recall what she was like at the age of eleven – at a time when the campaign against religion was at its height in Soviet schools:

It seems to me that I was more grown up than the other children at my school ... Back then I was very worried about the issue of God and religion. Our neighbours were believers and Yara used to tease their children. But I stepped in, standing up for freedom of religion. And I solved the issue I had with God for myself – I concluded that without him we still can't understand eternity or creation, and that since I couldn't see the point of him it meant that he's not needed (not by me, that is, though he might be needed by others who do believe in Him).

Both Lev and Sveta were by this age the conscientious products of an ethos of hard work and responsibility. In Sveta's case it was the outcome of her upbringing in the Ivanov family, where she was put in charge of her younger sister, Tanya, as well as many household chores, while in Lev's it was neccessitated by his economic circumstances. He had to work his way through school to supplement his grandmother's small pension.


Excerpted from Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes. Copyright © 2012 Orlando Figes. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Kristen_E More than 1 year ago
I put this book on hold at my local library because it has not come in yet (pub 5/22/12). I am so excited to read it after reading Between Shades of Gray by Rupta Sepetys. I am not Lithuanian, but I love this time period and the history! In the book, Between Shades of Gray, a love story could have easily been created...but the author chose not to go this route and instead focus on the power of the love and strength of the main character, Lina. This book, a love story, will fulfill that for me:) Read Between Shades of Gray by Rupta Sepetys if you have not already!!
Vesper0124 More than 1 year ago
However, I am very excited to read this! I have never come across it before, and the story line really touched my heart! Being Lithuanian myself I was really drawn to it, this is a hidden gem :) At least I hope so!
Mirella Patzer More than 1 year ago
When he was a child, Bolshevik revolutionary’s killed Lev Mischenko’s parents in Siberia. Raised by his grandmother, Lev became a physicist and while at university, he met and fell in love with Svetlana. When World War II began, before they could marry, he joined the army to battle the Nazi’s. During one particular battle, he was captured and imprisoned in concentration camps. Mischenko tried to escape, but failed. His face was added to the millions of Soviets already in custody. Fortunately, he survived when millions of others died. Accused of spying, he was sent to the Gulag, one of the most brutal Siberian prison camps. Over the next nine years, Lev and Svetlana exchanged hundreds of letters. On occasion, she was allowed to visit him. He remained in prison until 1954. After Stalin’s death, he was among the hundreds of thousands of prisoners who were released. Just Send Me Word is a non-fictional recounting of Lev and Svetlana’s lives in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. Decades later, the nearly 1500 letters were discovered in a trunk – carefully preserved, and ready to tell their dramatic story, of a great love separated, and the conditions Soviets suffered during the Stalin years. This book is a shocking revelation about the harsh conditions and the tens of millions of lives lost because of the Soviet Communists. Hunger, poverty, and illness were rampant. Despite all this, love proved true between Lev and his wife who waited so long for his release. Their love for each other and the miracle of human endurance is becomes evident in the letters as the couple bolsters each other in the harshest of conditions. It gives an accurate, first hand glimpse into the suffering of the Russian people and their suffering during the 20th century. Highly recommended and with appeal to those who love romance as well as a good war story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pinkymo More than 1 year ago
This was the most beautiful book that I've ever read. It's nonfiction, and tells the greatest love story since Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And this one has a happily ever after, but they had to earn it. It all takes place in Russia. This is the story of Svetlana and Lev. First they were separated when he became a soldier in WWII when the German's invaded. Then he got captured and was out of touch for about five years. The next thing Svetlana knew he was MIA. About a year later his Aunt Olga comes to see her with a letter from Lev! He's alive! But he's been sentenced to ten years in the gulag, Pechora as an enemy of the state under military heading, which is as bad as it can get for a political prisoner. Svetlana writes to Lev, which starts a correspondence of 1246 letters between the two of them. She tries to support him, show him how much she loves him, and keep him in contact with Moscow. He tries to raise her spirits (she has depression), show her he loves and misses her, and tries to convince her that life in the camps is not bad. At first there are censors, so Svetlana tells Lev - I love you, by saying, I have three words to tell you, two are pronouns, one's a verb. The verb is the most important. They find a way around the censors and speak freely, but still codewords umbrella for gulag and initials for people continue in their letters. Lev feels closest to Svetlana when looking at the sky because it is the same sky that she sees. I think it is perfectly summed up in the poem at the front of the book: Black and enduring separation I share equally with you. Why weep? Give me your hand. Promise me you will come again. You and I are like high mountains And we cannot move closer. Just send me word At midnight sometime through the stars. Anna Akhmatova, 'In dream' (1946) There are no wild passionate love letters, it is clear that the love these two have is the kind of love that could move mountains, the kind that you wish for your children, the kind these days that is too rare, and is sad all by itself. Love isn't showy, it isn't flashy, it's quiet, it's comforting, it's solid, and it's always there. The only thing Lev waxes lyrical about is nature; the aurora borealis, a beautiful sunset on trees, the beginning of spring. Yet when they show their love for one another, the words may not be lyrical, but their passionate love comes shining through like a light in the dark. It is clear that they love each other and will wait for Lev's sentence to be over, if not longer. They would wait until the end of time. The author, Orlando Figes, does a magnificent job of telling the story of Svetlana and Lev, from the the first day they met in college until the present. He turns those 1246 letters, plus research materials into a narrative that is easy to follow and gives a very good picture of Stalinist Russia in the '40s and '50s. He turned a pack of letters into the most beautiful book I've ever read. Mr. Figes, I want to thank you for doing an incredible job of research and writing. You have put together a masterpiece! I would recommend this book to anyone who speaks English. There are so many life lessons here, and so much history too, about love that has been forgotten. It is snapshot of life from a society alien to ours, yet, alike in so many ways. This book should be on every bookshelf. This deserves to become a classic and win a prestigious award.