A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag
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Pub. Ed. $28.00
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Review by Martin A. Miller
Orlando Figes, a serious scholar who can reach wide general audiences, has done it again. Focusing on modern Russia, in previous books he has tackled the causes and impact of the Russian Revolution, the creative genius of the Russians who chose exile rather than live amid the Soviet experiment, in-country denouncers (“Whisperers”) of the Stalin era, and the Crimean War disaster. In his new book, he recounts the relationship between two victims of the gulag system as recounted in a vast correspondence that endured from 1946 to 1954.
The evidence for this narrative emerged from the discovery of thousands of letters deposited as an archive with the Memorial Society in Moscow, an organization devoted to incorporating the conditions of the Stalinist labor camp system into the country’s collective memory. Needless to say, Putin’s regime has hardly been cooperative with the effort, and has even raided Memorial’s offices.
The letters in this particular collection were primarily exchanges between Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko written during Lev’s years of confinement in Siberia. Figes uses the letters as the basis for his engaging portrait of a revealing and intimate relationship within almost unimaginable conditions. Somehow, this entire correspondence eluded the severe censorship of the camp authorities. With help from guards and others who chose to undermine the authoritarian regime in a small way, the letters were secretly transmitted from the Pechora camp where Lev was detained to Moscow where Svetlana resided. After meeting as students in the 1930s, Lev was captured by the Nazis during the war, escaped to the American army before being repatriated to the Soviet Union. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and so many other Red Army POWs, Lev was interrogated upon his return, coerced into admitting he spied for the Germans, and then sentenced to the Pechora labor camp where he survived through his correspondence with his beloved Svetlana.
This book is a rare portrait of the conditions facing millions of ordinary Gulag prisoners, and the ways in which they found the strength to survive. Some aspects described by Figes will surprise readers with uni-dimensional views of the quotidian labor camp conditions. While brutality and punishments were common, so too were efforts to escape, in some cases, aided by the guards themselves. Fraternization between the administration and the prisoners was also in evidence. Particularly compelling are the passages in the letters between Lev and Svetlana that demonstrate their fusion “of belief and doubt,” as Figes puts it. On the one hand, they were both completely aware of the horrors and injustices of the camp system; on the other, they wrote of their pride in the achievements of Soviet science, technology and architecture, in spite of the fact that much of this was accomplished by the unfree labor system of prisoners like Lev. As Lev wrote after reading a Turgenev story, he survived by not giving up. “The loss of hope is the paralysis, even the death of the soul. Sveta, let us hope, while we still have the strength to hope.”
Hardcover Book : 352 pages
Publisher: Metropolitan Books ( June 05, 2012 )
Item #: 13-585106
Product Dimensions: 6.235 x 9.25 inches
Product Weight: 20.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)