In this astonishing, book, historian Orlando Figes reveals an unprecedented discovery of an intact correspondence from a Gulag inmate, Lev, and the woman he loves on the outside, Svetlana.
It’s unprecedented because letters didn’t usually survive the Gulag system, the chaos and censorship. Hell, human relationships and human life itself did well to survive the camps. But what has been pieced together is detailed and revealing, as well as being a inspirational narrative on physical and spiritual endurance. ‘Love conquers all’ may be a fatuous cliché, but here it actually breaks through into reality.
The other cliché it makes real is that truth outshines fiction. The early part of the narrative, where Lev, serving as a soldier in WW2, cheats death and escapes capture repeatedly, would test the patience of a reader in terms of contrivance if this was fiction. Given that this is what happened, though, it is shockingly amazing.
Lev is eventually captured and navigates life as a POW. Then there is another incredible escape. This time Lev makes it home to Moscow, but then has to run the deadly gauntlet of Stalin’s regime of terror and paranoia. His status as a survivor of Allied POW camps and the fact that he helped as a translator is enough to convict him to a ten year sentence in the Gulag.
Running parallel to this early part of the narrative is the story of Lev and Svet’s early relationship and courtship. This is rich in detail about Soviet life in the period, what it was like to work and study as a scientist and researcher, the rituals of courtship, (including long walks and references to Russian poetry), family, social and economic life and other mechanics of survival in the Soviet regime.
The correspondence between Lev and Svet during Lev’s time as a Gulag inmate gives a rich picture both of life in the Gulag system, and life in Moscow in the last decade of Stalin’s regime. In the Gulag, everyone was Sisyphus. Lev is appointed to the wood combine in the camp in Pechora, and must join his fellow prisoners in labouring hard in freezing and wet conditions with very poor provisions, facing repeated frustrations from camp administration incompetence and corruption.
For her part Svet works as a scientist and researcher with all the other duties required of a loyal Soviet citizen. She also needs to look after increasingly frail parents.
Svet and Lev’s relationships survives through their correspondence and also Svet manages to visit Lev a handful of times, actually smuggling herself onto camp, with the help of a sympathetic network of Lev’s Gulag peers. This event, where Svet sneaks into the Gulag system to spend a night with Lev, would again be a contrivance that would make you snap the book shut if fiction, or walk out of the cinema if a movie. That it happened is wonderful and incredible.
The narrative reflects the daily grind for both Lev and Svet, with the details and mechanics of daily survival laid out in fascinating historical detail. They use a code system so as not to offend the censor when talking of the camp or Soviet life. And their aching longing for each other burns beneath the most mundane detail. Every now and then emotion breaks through. And every now and then, through reduction and confinement, the miracle of daily existence is laid bare. There’s a transcendent and poetic quality to a letter where Lev is driven to wonder by looking up at the sky, and seeing the stars, or watching a sunset break through the clouds and illuminating the trees. Surrounded by the ruin and desolation of a camp system in decline, Lev can still lift his eyes and spirit.
Lev and Svet’s relationship also kindles into life a support network, as Svet sends Lev items necessary not only for his but also his Gulag fellow’s survival, including medicines. This is reciprocal as these inmates then help with the subterfuge of Svet’s more clandestine camp visits, and helping accommodate her in neutral zones near the camp. This support network survives the camp, as Svet helps not only Lev but his fellows resettle and re-accommodate near Mosow by giving them temporary lodging at her home.
In our present age here in the West of material and technological affluence, where we can satisfy immediate cravings by swiping our fingers across a screen, here is a world where oppressive and paranoid tyranny, corruption, depredation and incarceration do not necessarily bring despair but a fierce determination to do what is right in human relationships; to soul mates and to family, friends and those in need, to look after their physical and spiritual needs, and to value the daily miracles of existence when life is boiled down to the essentials of survival.
This is an important and accessible historical work and a beautiful and haunting story of how Good with a capital ‘G’ we can be in the direst of times. It’s a rebuke to the cynicism and confusion of principle our present and more affluent age can bring.