Just Send Me Word

Written by Orlando Figes
Review by Jessica Brockmole

Lev and Sveta meet in 1935 in the Physics program at Moscow University, but the German invasion in the summer of 1941 halts their burgeoning relationship. Lev joins the Volunteer Artillery Division, where, not three months later, he’s taken prisoner. Moved from one labor camp to another, he finally escapes in 1944 and makes his way back to Soviet forces. Interrogated and beaten by his own army, he’s found guilty of treason for communicating with the enemy while imprisoned and is sentenced to ten years in an Arctic Gulag. Two years later, he unexpectedly received a letter from Sveta, who hadn’t heard from him since the war began. In the midst of the Gulag, Lev finds reason to hope again.

Over the next eight years, they exchange more than 1,500 letters, many sent uncensored through back channels, even managing to smuggle Sveta herself into the camp for a handful of visits. Their correspondence is more than the only real-time record of Stalin’s Gulag; it’s a story of patient love blooming in adversity. Drawing on archives and recent interviews, Figes puts the letters in their historical context, while keeping a compelling narrative drive. Tender, yearning, but also heartbreakingly frustrated, this is a very human perspective on a dark slice of history.