May 02, 2012

Love letters from the Gulag

By Orlando Figes
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Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko are proof that love can conquer all, even war, imprisonment and torture. For eight years, the couple wrote weekly love letters to each other while Lev was locked in a Soviet Gulag. Their story is remarkable for a variety of reasons. First, consider how Svetlana maintained her love for Lev and waited for his release, even though she was denied access to the man she loved. Consider how the pair were able to share their feelings of love and longing even though most letters in and out of the Gulag usually were heavily censored. Finally, consider how these yellowing, hand-written letters were preserved and now are archived in the Memorial in Moscow. These letters are not only a testimonial to the love between a young couple, but also a detailed account of life in the Gulag during Russia’s darkest years.

Author Orlando Figes brings the story of Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko to life in his powerful new book, Just Send Me Word. Figes is an accomplished historian and author, and his latest book compares favorably to such important prison camp accounts as Night by Elie Wiesel and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The life of Lev Mishchenko is an astounding tale in itself. He was a young man when he met and fell in love with Svetlana. By the time he was finishing his university studies, World War II was in full rage, and in 1941, he enlisted in the Soviet army. Not long afterward, he was captured by the Germans and sent to a series of concentration camps, including the infamous camp in Buchenwald. Svetlana grew morose when two years went by without word of whether Lev was alive. Even after she learned he was a German prisoner, it would be another three years before her first letter reached him. After four years in German camps, Lev was liberated by the Americans. On an arduous hike back home, he was detained by Stalinist troopers—fellow soldiers from his homeland—and accused of “anti-Soviet propaganda” because he was fluent in German and had served as a translator while in prison camp. He was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet labor camp, subjected to long days of work, little food and severe cold. His letters from Svetlana, the first of which arrived in 1946, and the ones he wrote to her, helped sustain him. Finally, Lev was released in 1954 and was reunited with Svetlana.

Figes does a masterful job at research, combing through 1,500 letters between Lev and Svetlana to chronicle their lives during years of separation. Just Send Me Wordis a book filled with agonizing moments of human pain and suffering, but also uplifting feelings of passion and tenderness, as two young people refuse to let anything stand in the way of their love.

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Just Send Me Word

Just Send Me Word

By Orlando Figes
ISBN 9780805095227

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