‘Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag’ by Orlando Figes


 2012, 303 pages & notes.

For someone who should be deeply immersed in nineteenth century colonial history, I seem to be spending rather a lot of time in twentieth century Stalinist Russia.  I was there a few weeks back with Sheila Fitzpatrick, who gave an outsider’s view of living and studying in Moscow during the 1960s, and here I am back again.  This time, I’m in the company of insiders – people who could not in any way be described as dissidents, who  lived and died in Russia- but one of them,  Lev Mischenko, became a physical outsider when he spent eight and a half years on the extreme edge of Russia in one of the gulag camps in the Arctic Circle.

Orlando Figes- where do I know that name?  I’ve read some of his books before: Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy.  In this book he brings his deep knowledge of Russian history and society to contextualize the archive of almost 1300 letters that were written between Lev and his partner Svetlana Ivanova while he was imprisoned in the gulag, working in the wood-combine generator that powered the timber works in the frozen forests at Pechora Labour camp.  Figes does it well.  There are maps, photographs, explanations and he explains not only the minutiae of labour camp life, but also the sweep of Soviet politics on the outside during the time that Lev was imprisoned.

But the real, real strength of this book is Lev and Sveta’s story, and the beautiful, nuanced, tender letters that they shared over this time.   They met at university and went out together for three years.  When war was declared, he rushed to enlist but was soon taken captive by the Germans.  He was able to speak German, and as a prisoner-of-war, used his linguistic skills to translate camp orders.  When the prisoner-of-war camp was liberated, he was arrested almost immediately  and falsely accused as a ‘fascist collaborator’.  The trial was a farce, he was tricked into a confession, and sentenced to ten years at Pechora.  For the first few years, he struggled silently to survive in the cold and deprivation.  It was only then that he dared to write to an aunt and asked, almost in passing, whether Svetlana and her family had survived the war. Svetlana, who had thought that he was missing in action, wrote immediately on learning that he was still alive.  And so the correspondence began.

Prisoners, on average, were allowed to write and receive one censored letter per month.  And so it seems almost incredible that they could write so many letters, but his relatively favoured position as a skilled engineer in the generator-room brought him into contact with the indentured and free workers who lived and worked side-by-side with the prisoners.  These friends acted as intermediaries and passed their letters to and fro, at great risk to themselves.  I was surprised to learn that people lived and worked in the labour camps by choice, and in this regard, I was reminded of John Hirst’s work in describing a gulag of a lesser sort: the penal colony of New South Wales.  As Hirst explains it, as soon as free settlers were included on the First Fleet, the solely-penal nature of Botany Bay was compromised.   It is just not possible to have free and unfree together without allowances, incentives, slippages and concessions.  And so too, Pechora Labour Camp required some skilled workers and guards, and some ex-prisoners, completely alienated from the world they had left behind, chose to work there for wages after their sentences had expired.

But it was a tenuous and fragile position nonetheless.  Lev’s his greatest fear was that he would be sent into the forests at a moment’s notice to wade in the frozen rivers, pushing logs along the river and loading them onto trains for transport out of the forest.   Even more striking was Sveta’s determination to visit him.   At this point, with the organisation of the logistics of her visit, and the deceptions that she had to practice to hide her trail, I found myself feeling quite sick with anxiety.  I eyed the number of pages left in the book:  was it a good or a bad thing that I was barely half way through?  I don’t want to tell any more.  Their letters, and Figes’ exposition, do it far, far better than I ever could.

But where did I know the name Orlando Figes? I found myself bemused by the rather wooden epilogue, penned by Irina Ostrovskaya, the director of Memorial, the organization that is custodian of this priceless and unique archive.  Given that in a narrative,  the epilogue is often the emotional touchstone of the whole book, it struck me as odd that it would be turned over to such a stilted and redundant piece of writing.  Then, on reading some reviews of the book, I remembered where I knew the name Orlando Figes.  It seems from this Guardian article that this book has been attended by controversy as well. I wrote about it here.

“No one knows what to do with you… Professor Figes” wrote Maria Tumarkin in her 2011 Meanjin essay (available here), and I must admit that I don’t know what to do with the knowledge of the academic murk that swirled/swirls? around his reputation either.   These letters don’t need an academic to introduce or explain them: they stand strong as beautiful literature and testaments to love and humanity in their own right.  That said, I believe that they have been enhanced by Figes’ contribution.  But then, academic integrity is a hard-won and cherished attribute.  The academic world can be unforgiving.  How does a writer gain redemption? What agenda was at play in the inclusion of the epilogue?  I must admit that I don’t know what to think.  I do know that I closed the book and announced “That’s the best book I’ve read all year”.

5 responses to “‘Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag’ by Orlando Figes

  1. Very interesting, Janine – thank you. I hadn’t come across the Meanjin article! which is beautifully written (though it makes me wonder about the way I address the people I write about – Walter rather than Mr Davidson, and so on – I’m not quite sure about that argument).

    As I understand it, there’s more to the Figes scandal than the Amazon reviews. I believe that the Memorial custodians intended to republish The Whisperers in Russian, and not surprisingly, thought that rather than retranslate the Russian sections, they would go back to the original documents and use them. When they compared them, they found that Figes had made up / exaggerated / whatever the originals to dramatic effect. The whole story is very troubling – and involves such interesting questions about the role of translations, too.

    • Oh dear- I hope that the translations of the letters in this book are accurate because I was really struck by the language in them. I suspect that there is quite a back story to the inclusion of the epilogue from Memorial.
      I think that I might have hesitated reading this book had I remembered about the Figes controversy before I borrowed it, but I think that it would have been my loss.

  2. It’s interesting isn’t it? The reviews scandal is just about being a nasty person, and if we didn’t read anything by nasty people, we’d never read a lot of good writers – Byron?
    But if his translations are dubious, then it makes his history unreliable. As a historian, I find that more troubling. Maybe he should have been a novelist!

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