A few years ago I was having dinner with a group of friends and somehow we started chatting about the best places in London to take visitors. Without hesitation I said that my favourite museum was the Imperial War Museum. Most people seemed surprised, and someone asked what I particularly liked about it. So I explained that the museum does an amazing job of telling the war stories of real people: it’s not about guns and tanks but about the human lives that are torn apart and transformed by war. It’s about ordinary folk, just like me, the challenges they face and the amazing capacity they have to overcome and hope for a better future.
It is the real story of a young couple that does the same impressive job of illuminating a very dark period of history in Orlando Figes book Just Send Me Word. The book contains the edited letters of Lev Glebovich and Svetlana Aleksandrovna who were separated first by the second world war and then by Lev’s imprisonment in the Gulag. Over a period of eight and a half years they wrote over a thousand letters to each other – letters that were smuggled in and out of the camp and so escaped censorship.
Svetlana’s letters reveal much about ordinary life in Moscow after the second world war; from restrictions on travel to food rationing, while Lev’s are a fascinating account of the Gulag system. The poor health conditions (both physical and mental) of the inmates are referred to on a number of occasions – conditions made worse by the fact that the infirmary was, as Lev put it: “useful only in that allows for a brief rest”. He talks about the poor management of the Gulag; something that he found deeply frustrating: “The reason the …job is being done so sloppily is that none of the bosses overseeing it care one bit; they won’t be punished if it’s done badly”. He also writes about simple human nature within the camp: how the quick-witted often turned to theft, how prisoners mistrusted each other, how he and his friends quite simply got bored of each other’s company after so many years.
But the daily grind of life is not the only thing they write about: as a young couple who are hoping to get married, love fills the pages of their letters – often in small ways through their concerns for each other’s health and wellbeing but from time to time in quite simply beautiful declarations of their love:
People have tried to prove to me so many times, in word and deed, that a loving couple cannot be happy in a hovel unless it’s insulated and equipped with…comforts, but I haven’t given up yet, Levi. I would only need to see that you are there when I wake up in the morning and then, in the evening, to tell you everything that had happened in the day, to look into your eyes and hold you close to me.
Orlando Figes has done a fantastic job of choosing which extracts from the letters to include, and he is very skilful at putting the letters into their historical context; not only does he explain wider issues that were happening at the time but he includes information from his research into the records of the Gulag where Lev was imprisoned and also from interviews with Lev, Svetlana, and their friends and family.
A book about the Gulag sounds like it might be a rather depressing read, but this is a story about love and the need for hope in even the most awful of circumstances. If you want a book that leaves you full of hope, then this is a great read:
I understood that the most terrible thing in life is complete hopelessness…To cross out all the maybes and give up the fight when you still have strength for it is the most terrible form of suicide…the loss of hope is the paralysis, even the death of the soul. Sveta, let us hope, while we still have strength to hope.