This book, put together from the love letters of Lev and Svetlana Mischenko, provides a detailed record of life in the Soviet gulag for a political prisoner between 1946 and 1954. The couple had met and fallen in love as science students in Moscow in the 1930s. Separated when Lev was called up in 1941 at the outbreak of war, they were forced to remain apart for a further eight years at the end of the war; Lev, who had been a POW of the Germans, was accused of spying for them and sentenced to ten years hard labour. This was not an unusual way for Stalin to treat his returning soldiers; the camps were full of political prisoners on similar trumped-up charges. Approximately 20 million people, mainly men, endured Stalin’s labour camps.
What was unusual in the case of Lev and “Sveta”, was that a cache of 1500 letters survived their separation, all uncensored due to an elaborate smuggling system devised by Lev at the Pechora wood-combine near the Arctic Circle, where he worked as a slave labourer. Thus they have significant historical value as research material about the post-war regime in camps like Pechora.
The letters describe the appalling living conditions: long work shifts, scarcity of food, unsuitable clothing for winters of minus 45 degrees, sickness, disease and the brutality of the guards. What helped Lev to survive were his own inner integrity and determination; his love for Sveta; his refusal to complain; and his ability to accept his state of life as permanent while it lasted, and thus avoid fruitless longings.
Sveta had her own problems to contend with. Coming from the technical intelligentsia – Lev came from the older world of the Muscovite middle classes – she was well qualified for her work as a scientist in a rubber factory. But as well as this she had to care for her elderly and ailing parents, cope on a meagre salary and to accept that her longing for children and a family life would suffer an indefinite postponement.
In this story of fortitude and hope there were also elements of luck: Lev was allowed to transfer in 1946 from exhausting physical labour to a white-collar unit under the enlightened direction of Strelkov, a cultured and kindly fellow political prisoner who had been an industrialist in pre-war Russia. This gave him the privacy and leisure to be able to write letters, and to make contact with free workers at Pechora as well as sympathetic guards, who were prepared to smuggle all such correspondence in and out of the camp.
Despite the “halting and frustrating” nature of the correspondence –letters crossing each other, the fear of possible interference, their contents being stolen – they helped the couple to survive the long years apart. They “mourned the time they were losing” but contact “was like a resurrection”, in Lev’s words. Sveta sustained him with her assurance that “We have to get through this together, walking arm in arm as we used to do”. Lev lived for her letters, knowing that “the loss of hope is the paralysis, even the death, of the soul.”
With extraordinary tenacity and courage Sveta even managed to make several clandestine trips to Pechora over the years; always very brief and always carried out under fear of cancellation. By 1950 camp conditions had eased somewhat: prisoners could earn a low wage and cultivate allotments to boost their meagre diet. By Stalin’s death the whole gulag system was starting to shut down. There were no more mass arrests and deportations, so the prison population declined.
Like many of their generation who had suffered in similar ways, Lev and Sveta managed to separate their outward acceptance of the Communist ideology from their personal commitment to justice and their loyalty towards other political victims. As Figes writes, “It was a dual world of belief and doubt.” There was also, thankfully, a happy ending: the couple were at last able to marry, aged 38, and raise a son and daughter. They remained devoted to each other until separated by the death of Lev in 2008, aged 91, the year Figes met them both.
The author includes a fascinating map of the wood-combine at Pechora, with its workshops, its bakery, stables, canteen, barracks, infirmary and bathhouse. Despite the misery a kind of normalcy was maintained, sometimes degraded by acts of violence or petty spite, at other times warmed by random acts of generosity and kindness.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.