Neal Ascherson 

Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes – review

Letters to and from the gulag sustained a relationship for a lifetime. By Neal Ascherson
  
  

Asked to choose between love and friendship, most people in western cultures would immediately, nervously, tick love. It makes the world go round; it has a beginning, a middle and an end happy-ever-after; its sincere expression, according to Stendhal, always possesses a character of beauty. That's the faith in which we were all brought up. But even in our own times, there have been societies which ticked the other box.

My most vivid memory of the old Soviet Union, or – if you like – of Russia in hard times, was about institutionalised friendship. In Leningrad, I came to know circles of friends, mostly women, who met every week over cake, tea and wine to exchange news, thoughts and plans. But these gatherings were far more than tea parties.

They were ceremonies of mutual support, of a serious quality of friendship which demanded utter loyalty. If parents disappeared overnight, they could be certain – as the jail doors slammed on them – that friends from the circle would rescue their children left alone in the apartment and bring them up as their own.

Friendship, then, was the primary relationship. It was reliable, and it was for life. Love was marvellous, irreplaceable, but not to be counted on. Men, especially, came and went; that was how the world was and all the more so in times of war or state terror. Husbands and lovers appeared at those circle sessions, often with a bottle of cognac or a carton of Kent cigarettes, but did not always reappear.

That is what makes this book remarkable. There are many Russian friendships in it, maintained and tended across continental distances, across barbed wire and the lapse of years. But at the centre is a love story or perhaps, more accurately, a story of love.

It's that story, as expressed in the lovers' own letters, which readers of the book should hold on to. Unhappily, a Figes publication now comes with a health warning. Uproar over pseudonymous reviews of his own work has been followed by the current row over alleged errors and distortions in The Whisperers, his previous book about Stalinist tyranny. Irina Ostrovskaya is chief researcher at Memorial, the institution set up to record Soviet crimes and the fate of some 24 million people who passed through the Gulag camps or forced exile. A fierce critic of The Whisperers, Ostrovskaya now denounces Just Send Me Word as "melodrama … I found a lot of things with which I did not agree". It's a fair guess that there will be challenges about fact and detail in Figes's narrative here. But that must not detract from the marvel of the letters themselves, the superb faith that can exist between two unimportant, "superfluous" human beings.

Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova did not hurl themselves into one another's arms. Lev said, when he was an old man: "It was not that we fell madly in love with one another, but there was a deep and permanent affinity." Svetlana – Sveta – said in her own old age: '"I knew he was my future from the start." But it wasn't for several years, long after they knew that their lives were bound together, that she wrote in a letter that "I want to tell you just three words – two of them are pronouns and the third is a verb (to be read in all the tenses simultaneously: past, present and future."

The endurance of their love, their refusal to give one another up in the face of everything the Soviet 20th century could thrust between them, was a matter of obstinate, non-fanatical faith. When they met as Moscow university students before the second world war, they were the same age but not at all the same in background. Lev was an orphan whose parents had been shot as "bourgeois counter-revolutionaries" by Bolshevik troops; he was brought up by loving aunts and a grandmother. Sveta's family were "technical intelligentsia", her father an industrial scientist who had quietly left the Communist party in disillusion. Their courtship was intense and chaste: long walks, reading poetry together (Akhmatova and Blok), cycle rides to the countryside. Three years went by. Then the war came.

Lev joined up, and was captured in the first victorious onrush of the German armies. He could speak German, and in the prison camps he was pressured to change sides and join the anti-communist "Vlasov" army. He refused, but occasionally used his German to translate camp orders. For that, Soviet security arrested him after the war as a "fascist collaborator" and sentenced him to death, commuted to 10 years in a labour camp at Pechora in the far north. He had been posted missing in 1941.

Sveta feared that he was dead, but steadfastly refused to give up hope – in the spirit of Simonov's much-loved wartime poem "Wait for me …" It was not until July 1946 that he managed to tell her where he was. At once she wrote to him, the first of 1,246 letters exchanged between Sveta in Moscow and Lev in the gulag over eight and a half years. Miraculously, all have survived. Thousands of handwritten pages carefully numbered, they form one of the most precious acquisitions of Memorial, the institute and archive established to preserve the memory of the gulag and the crimes of soviet communism.

At first Lev was set to dragging logs to the "wood combine", crushing labour which he would probably not have survived for long. But his life was saved when he was recruited by Georgii Strelkov, an ardent Old Bolshevik serving 25 years for a fictional offence, who was running the combine's research laboratory. Lev found himself in a group of likeable, intelligent men who kept themselves minimally warm and fed. And in Strelkov's "salon" it was possible to write forbidden letters, posted by "free" workers living near the camp.

Sveta hadn't seen Lev for five years. Her first letter, after she discovered he was alive, starts with wonderfully Russian asperity: "Levi, if I didn't know that actions should be judged by their motives and not by their results, I would reproach you for your silence …" But her feelings had not been changed by war and tyranny. "I'm becoming stubborn, Lev. How many times have I wanted to nestle in your arms but could only turn to the empty wall in front of me … we will get though this, Lev."

She was working in a tyre research unit, living with her parents in Moscow. Her letters avoid "sentimental words about love (both lofty and cheap)", but give a unique sense of her Moscow life, the journeys to work, the clothes she wears ("my summer grey-green coat is still alive") the curious people she meets on trains, and her research ("A Project on the All-Union State Standard for the Determination of Frost Resistance using the Impact Fracture Method").

Lev's letters are more passionate, and his moods more uneven. He felt blessed and saved by Sveta's love, but was visited by doubts about his own worthiness. She spent much energy pumping optimism into him, as the years passed. She and her family sent parcels to him and to his friends at Pechora: warm clothing, food, soap and toothpaste, pens and ink, "glucose and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C to the unenlightened) – eat it, for God's sake". But "Vitamin C" soon became part of a code between them. It meant bribing the guards with vodka, while "Vitamin D" was bribes of money. "Umbrella" and other words about rain meant the gulag itself.

Sveta decided that she must visit Lev. This was utterly illegal; discovery would have wrecked her life and that of her family. It was a forbidding journey of almost 4,500km; it required deception, bribery, patience, courage and cunning. But after a year of joint plotting, she managed to blag her way across northern Russia, through cordons and past sentries, and spend a night with Lev in an empty room. She did it again, and then again. Sometimes they could only be together for a couple of hours, holding hands in a crowded office. Sometimes more than a year could pass without a meeting, so that they saw each other only in dreams. But it was worth it. As Sveta said, they were stubborn.

Orlando Figes, selecting and then interpreting this mass of letters, makes them tell two kinds of story. The first is a uniquely detailed narrative of the gulag, of the callous, slatternly universe which consumed millions of lives and yet, through its vastness, developed chinks in which lucky prisoners might construct a shaky independence. The second is about two people determined not to lose each other. Lev suffered most; the moral degradation he saw in the camps at times made him lose hope. He tried to keep that from Sveta, who was more upset by his depression than by the wasted years of separation. About time and age, they were fearless. Lev wrote: "You once said, and quite correctly (you were sitting at your table with 'Principles' or 'Thermodynamics', I've forgotten exactly but I remember it was evening and a table light was buzzing, and I was standing near the piano) that without changing over time people would not become themselves …"

Lev and Sveta had no time for the ideology; they hated the injustice and cruelty of the system. But Lev took pride in Soviet achievements such as the Volga-Don canal, even though he knew it had been dug by the labour of slaves like himself. Sveta, although she despised the bureaucracy and the jargon, was a party member and in some ways a model of the busy "Soviet woman". They were not "dissidents", just two people who put their love first.

A terrible suspense builds up in this book, as Lev's sentence nears its end. They both take dreadful risks. But it would be wrong to give the end of their story away. Enough to quote Simonov again:

"Only you will know how I survived;
It was because you waited."

• Neal Ascherson's Black Sea is published by Vintage.

• A response by Orlando Figes can be read here

• This footnote was added on 20 November 2012. A paragraph about a controversy relating to The Whisperers, an earlier work by Orlando Figes, that should have been the sixth paragraph of the review was left out due to an editorial error. It was restored in July.

 

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