The Gulag Shawshank: Lev & Sveta Mishchenko in ‘Just Send Me Word’
The proverbial ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ could have been minted especially for Lev Mishchenko, one half of the extraordinary couple at the heart of Orlando Figes’ Just Send Me Word. Before completing his science studies in Moscow, he was whisked away to the Nazi front. Soon after, he was captured and spent considerable time as a German POW. As a German-speaker, he was able to make himself useful – though he resolutely refused to become a German spy. That wasn’t enough to prevent him from being convicted as one on his release – for which his sentence was death, commuted to 10 years hard labour in Siberia.
Life for ‘politicals’ in the Gulag was brutal, with the more standard criminals given terrible sway over the so-called traitors of the people. Those familiar with the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and others will have a pretty good idea about the world of the Gulag. However, where Figes’s book stands out is that it is crafted around the hundreds of letters Lev (seen below as a young man) and his college friend (later love, and then eventually wife) Sveta were able to smuggle to each other uncensored. They used all kinds of means to send them, but they were never caught.
Thus they have bequeathed to the world a unique legacy of accounts of day-to-day life in both Stalinist Moscow and ‘Uncle Joe’s’ ruthlessly exploited camps. Figes (with colleagues from Memorial) was able to spend hours reading them when they came to light, and perhaps even more significantly, was able to interview both of them before their recent deaths. This book therefore is an extraordinary testimony. Figes’s interspersed narrative, is informative and insightful, though it can feel at times a little pedestrian and clunky – but that is hardly important. For it is the character, courage and resilience of this remarkable couple that sparkles on every page.
Three things have stayed with me since finishing the book last week – and I suspect will continue to do so for a very long time.
The terrible degradation of humanity
The testimonies of the Gulag survivors bear chilling echoes of those of Holocaust survivors: Primo Levi’s seminal If This A Man kept coming to mind. The horror, brutality and grey despair of the labour camps relentlessly erode humanity.
People who had once been decent were now brutal, selfish, mean, hardened and insensitive. ‘There is an unavoidable psychological evolution in the human being here.’ he wrote to Uncle Nikita. ‘Its extend depends on the individual, but the direction is a general one – the dulling of all feeling… What develops is an acceptance of qualities and actions that before would not have been acceptable.’
The first thing Lev noticed was the breakdown of fellow feeling. ‘The infinite mutual hostility that chokes all human relations here amazes me,’ he wrote to Sveta.
‘There’s no trace anywhere of solidarity among friends, or even of solidarity at work – everyone mistrusts everybody else and tries to ride on their back; everyone is on their guard and lying in wait. There are still, it seems, some little groups of workers who are united by common interests into something like friendship, but this connection is easily broken because of the distrust which eats away at all relationships.’
Enterprising individuals were invariably thieves:
‘Watching people around me, I’m once again disgusted that no sooner do you meet someone who’s energetic and quick-witted than he’s almost always on the make to the point of theft, the scale of which is determined only by opportunity. If he’s a cobbler, he’s stolen and sold material, and the higher-ups have taken part in it. If he’s an electrician, he’s earned money of the side in a similar way. There is no need to even talk about the drivers.’
The labour camp had taught him to believe, as he put it, ‘that in 999 instances out of 1,000, the common principles of decency lead the average person to ruin or starvation in the struggle to survive.’ Lev was worried by the changes he noticed in himself. (p249)
He finds himself unable to stand people who earlier on in his imprisonment had been close friends. Irritation with others is the just the start of it. Inevitably, it provokes us into wondering how we ourselves would cope. And to reflect on the fact that we find ourselves showing our worst sides to others after only a fraction of these strains or provocations. Never did the words of Paul to Titus about the worst of human behaviour (“We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” Titus 3:3) seemed more relevant.
The difficult necessity of hope
That’s of course the resounding them of the wonderful Shawshank Redemption. But this book records real life – which makes its resonance all the more powerful. Yet hoping is difficult. Soon after a visit made by Sveta to Lev in the camps (more on that in a moment), Lev writes to her.
Three weeks later, Lev was still accepting his fate, having given up all hope of his release:
You once asked whether it’s easier to live with or without hope. I can’t summon any kind of hope, but I feel calm without it. A little bit of logic and observation do not leave room for fantasy. I don’t know why I just wrote that but, since I did, I’ll leave it. It’s not exactly what and not exactly how I’m feeling, but I can’t convey anything in its entirety at the moment – for that it’s necessary to think, and it’s much better not to think. (p139)
Sustaining hope over ten years in such circumstances seems unimaginable. But somehow, despite the wobbles this letter represents, he managed it.
…Lev read Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, a novel about love denied by circumstance and the fleeting nature, if not unattainability, of happiness. Lev read until late into the night and then wrote to Sveta his thoughts:
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. It’s almost unbearable to watch it happen in others. Unjustified hope – salvation for the weak in spirit and intellect – irritates me. But the loss of hope is the paralysis, even the death, of the soul. Sveta, let us hope, while we still have strength to hope. (p190)
That’s a crucial insight: ‘unjustified hope’ (in other words, plain old fantasy or wishful thinking) are wretched because they’re baseless. Hope has to be grounded on reality. As the years wore on (and the fact that others did leave after their prison terms ended) the possibility of release felt less remote. And of course the death of Stalin in 1953 changed the mood across the Gulag tremendously. That in itself didn’t lead to Lev’s release – but it heralded changes.
Lev’s hopes were raised by the early thaw of 1954. ‘Spring has been here for three days now,’ he wrote on 25 March… This year Lev found promise in the spring. The release of prisoners was gaining momentum and he was expecting to be free at some point in the next months. The prospect of release got him citing poetry, Pushkin in particular:
In the hope of glory and good
I look ahead without fear.
Again, I can’t help but recall the apostle’s understanding of the profound dependence of endurance on hope.
The wonderful grace of love
However, what this book recounts above all is a real, if almost unbelievable, love story. Two college friends who were separated for five years by the second world war, are able to rekindle their friendship by long distance and in the harshest of contexts. That friendship quickly blossoms into deep and genuine love and mutual dependence. It required astonishing endurance from both of them. Indeed, Sveta battled with what is now clearly understood as depression (but as Figes’ poignantly notes, There was no public recognition or discussion of depression in the Soviet Union, the ‘happiest country in the world’ -p119). But Lev was clear:
Lev felt blessed by Sveta’s love. He felt he had been saved. He had nothing to offer her, nor even hope that he would return, yet she gave herself to him. Lev felt profound gratitude that she would wait for him, a prisoner, that she loved him in spite of everything. But he was also troubled by a sense of guilt and shame. He did not want to be a burden to Sveta – or to anyone else. (p79)
That is a poignant description of the redemptive power of love. And it was love that was outworked in the most extraordinary way. Sveta’s logic was simple:
If letters could be smuggled in to him, why couldn’t she? It was an extraordinarily bold and daring plan. Nobody had ever thought to break into a labour camp before. (p115)
And so she did. Several times. She would use her short summer vacation to make the hazardous journey there and back. The first time they were able to have a night. In future, it would be a few snatched hours. And worse, there were one or two years when it was not possible (for instance, because Sveta’s sick family needed her at home). But these minuscule foretastes of the future sustained their relationship by keeping both love and hope alive.
Of course, it was not just Sveta’s love at long distance that kept Lev going. There were a few like-minded friends in the camp, in particular Strelkov (who wangled him work in his lab) and Liubka (who was grimly transferred to a worse camp during the course of Lev’s time). Because of them he could even write:
‘It’s no longer such a boring world, good Lord!’ Lev wrote to Sveta paraphrasing Gogol, on 18 November. In the company of Strelkov and his other friends there were joyful moments even in a place as God-forsaken as the Pechora labour camp. ‘Generally speaking, the day hasn’t been too bad at all,’ Lev wrote to Sveta. (p88)
Survival in the Gulag was heavily dependent on the support of friends, and Lev thought of Liubka as his only true friend in the labour camp, as he explained to Sveta on 9 November:
I was never able to cry on anybody’s shoulder, unless it was yours, but with Liubka here I found it easier to bear difficult moments. I never told him anything if the cause of my misery was private, and generally our friendship didn’t involve any kind of sentimentality. But even having an argument with him brought some relief, or just talking about random things, trivial things… Liubka, Liubka, if only I knew you were still alive, if only you can hold out until the day of your release. (p173)
But it was clearly this long-distance love in Moscow that mattered most – for which Lev’s gratitude to a remarkable woman would never be forgotten in his ultimately long life.
Learning from the extreme
The breakdown of common humanity (as described above) and the horror of human isolation and lovelessness are truly tragic. And there are moments when this book feels to hard to read – not least because I was lying so comfortably on my favourite sofa, in my lovely warm sitting room, while the joyful strains of Radio 3 played and the gentle snow fell outside.
It was nevertheless, and in fact simultaneously, an inspiring read – one that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and one to which I feel sure I will return. For in it, we see the human hell of the Gulag endured through the simple wonders of human trust, love and hope. And in this messed up world, such gifts of grace are all too rare.