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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just Send Me Word
This is the moving story of the love affair between Lev and Sveta, who first met while taking the entrance exam at Moscow University in 1935 and only ended with their death in old age. What makes this story extraordinary is that they were kept apart, first by WWII and then by Lev's sentence to ten years in a Gulag on his return to the Soviet Union. During all these...
Published on 21 May 2012 by S Riaz

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing but strangely detached
This is an intriguing book and an at times fascinating glimpse behind the Soviet iron curtain and the often arbitary terrors of the gulag are charted here with clever precision.

That has of course a lot to do with Orlando Figes skills as a writer- I often think he could make a recipe for rice pudding sound interesting- but that skill is also what carries off a...
Published on 20 Nov 2012 by Zipster Zeus


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing but strangely detached, 20 Nov 2012
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This is an intriguing book and an at times fascinating glimpse behind the Soviet iron curtain and the often arbitary terrors of the gulag are charted here with clever precision.

That has of course a lot to do with Orlando Figes skills as a writer- I often think he could make a recipe for rice pudding sound interesting- but that skill is also what carries off a book that is still decidedly lumpy. To be honest I really couldn't develop any empathy for, or deep understanding of the two central characters and it pains me to say it, but these may be some of the most mundane love letters I've ever read.

So if you are a student of the soviet system and fascinated by the gulags and the socio-political contradictions of a communist ideal twisted into the horrors of Stalinism, then this is a good charting of all that. An emotive love story however, it is not, and to my mind this book is too heavy on the letter extracts, which at the end to my shame I ended up skim reading and then at times simply skipping. I would rather have had more Figes and less 'ramblings' and so the book should have, by rights, have been about half the length. Then, perhaps, it would have packed a bit more of an emotive punch.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just Send Me Word, 21 May 2012
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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This is the moving story of the love affair between Lev and Sveta, who first met while taking the entrance exam at Moscow University in 1935 and only ended with their death in old age. What makes this story extraordinary is that they were kept apart, first by WWII and then by Lev's sentence to ten years in a Gulag on his return to the Soviet Union. During all these years, they kept their love alive by infrequent, and often perilous, meetings and thousands of letters. What makes the letters even more important, is that they were often smuggled into and out of the camp, avoiding the censors and making them a fascinating record of life both within the Gulag itself and in state controlled Moscow during the years of the Cold War.

Both Lev and Sveta seemed to be very sensible people; when they first met they were studying physics, which Sveta continued to work in for most of her life and they were both careful not to burden each other with negative feelings during their time apart. During the war Sveta found herself evacuated, along with her colleages, so they could continue their work away from the front lines. Meanwhile, Lev was taken prisoner and, at the end of the war was sent on a death march from Buchenwald. Forced into a force confession he then found himself sentenced to ten years in a Gulag near the Artic Circle. From 1946 until his release in 1954 his life was that of a prisoner. At first he was unsure about whether to contact Sveta or not, not even sure that she was still alive and unwilling to pressurise her with his feelings when he was a prisoner. However, it was clear from the start that Sveta still loved him - even though they had not seen each other for five years.

What follows is an extraordinary relationship, where Lev literally lived through her letters. Eventually, Sveta wondered why, "if letters couldn't be smuggled in, why couldn't she?" and there begins the first of many desperate attempts to visit him, against the odds and many difficulties. Over the years their meetings were fleeting and few, but their letters were far more than the one censored letter allowed a month. She sustained him, while he attempted to keep his self-esteem, and she longed to have a child and a normal life.

This book takes us through the Cold War. The problems faced not only by Lev, but also by Sveta - as Soviet scientists were under immense pressure and she suffered depression and the feeling her life was slipping away. Meanwhile, we read of how Lev and his fellow prisoners coped with the Gulag - as security increased or declined and prisoners were threatened with Siberia. This takes us through the death of Stalin and the changes that came about because of this. However, this book is not really concerned with politics - both Lev and Sveta were either too careful to discuss politics openly, or more interested in other matters, but this is the story of a personal relationship in troubling and tumultuous times. As the record of a love story it is an incredible and moving testament to the human spirit and a privilege to read. As Lev wrote, "let us hope, while we still have strength to hope."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a reader, 16 Jun 2012
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Consumer A "ReaderAAA" (England. UK) - See all my reviews
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A cache of over 1,240 letters from Lev to Sveta smuggled in and out of Gulag from 1946 to 1954 tells a heroic true story of an inside view of Stalin's labour camps. This is a story of love and survival. It charts the horror Stalin's victims went through. The harshness and injustice of life in Russia before during and after World War 11. The letters of course were written in Russian and are now housed at the archives in Moscow - the largest private collection relating to Gulags. Historically amazing. There must have been so much to sift through , choose etc., and then there is the translation from Russian to English. These Documents and background history of Lev and Sveta and their parents and friends do highlight how talented future physicists, mathematicians, scientists, polymaths were neutralised and made impotent by a suspicious State apparatus. Perhaps a mainstream film or even better a Television serial dramatisation would be very successful.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I feel privileged to have read this book., 8 Nov 2014
By 
Mrs. H. V. Minor "Halimeda Hilary" (Guildford, England) - See all my reviews
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My, what a story! This isn't fiction but the account of two people, Lev and Svetlana, who lived through the worst of the Stalin years. They meet while waiting to be called to the entrance exam of Moscow University and forge a deep friendship that turns to love and profound loyalty. Lev gets swept up in the ghastliness of WWII, is taken prisoner by the Germans for whom he agrees to be a translator. " . . . Lev and half a dozen other Muscovites were taken to the spy school in Katyn, where a Russian-speaking German captain proposed to turn them into spies and send them back to Moscow to gather information for the Germans. Only this, he said, would save them from almost certain death in Dulag-127, where they would be returned if they refused". Lev and another prisoner, Aleksei Andreev, eventually manage to escape from the Nazis, taking extreme risks with their lives to do so, and are picked up by a contingent of United States tanks: "Lev explained that they had been in Buchenwald and now wanted to return to the Soviet Union." You couldn't make up a story like this - it is the stuff of legend but it is true. Meahwhile, Svetlana waits for Lev who is arrested and imprisoned by SMERSH under accusation of spying for the Germans: "On 10th November 1945, a three-man military tribunal of the 8th Guards Army in Weimar sentenced Lev to death for treason against the motherland, under article 58-1(b) of the Criminal Code reserved for Soviet servicemen. the sentence was immediately commuted to ten years in a corrective labour camp of the Gulag - a concession often made by Soviet judges in the interest of a system built on slave labour. The trial had lasted all of twenty mintues." Lev ends up in Pechora and the rest of the book details his struggle to survive in that hostile environment. What is truly remarkable is that all this is made available for us through the 1,246 letters written by Lev to Svetlana over a period of eight years. What is yet more remarkable is the fact that these letters are uncensored as they were smuggled into and out of the Gulag by friends. A certain amount of self-censorship is there as both Lev and Svetlana had to be very careful how they expressed things and used a code they concocted to talk about certain things or people: MVD officials were 'uncles' or 'relatives', the Gulag system was the 'umbrella' and bribe money was 'vitamin D'. "Names of friends and relatives were never written out but given as initials or concealed through nicknames." The letters are now in the archives of the Memorial Society, Moscow. Carefully named, dated and numbered by Lev and Svetlana so that they could keep track of which letters had or had not been received, these letters are a humbling testimonial to abiding love and loyalty, telling of the steadfast love between two people, conditions in the Gulag, the effect of separation on both the imprisoned and those who waited for them, of relationships between other prisoners and "their relations with the administration of the camp, details about feuds, intrigues, denunciations and slander". It is a testimonial to the way in which prisoners, who could become brutalised by conditions in the Gulag, came together in mutual support and it is certainly true that without the support of others, Lev might well not have survived his ordeal. Eventually, faith and hope win through and Lev and Svetlana marry and have a family. Lev died on 18th July 2008 and Svetlana on 2nd January 2010 but, through this book and their love letters, they will live forever. I feel hugely privileged to have read this book and would urge others to do the same.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Love in the time of Gulag, 30 Oct 2014
By 
DubaiReader "MaryAnne" (Rowlands Castle, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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I have to review this book for Amazon Vine, but it turned out I managed even better, I got to hear the author tell the story from the book, himself. The whole room was riveted as he told the story of how Svetlana Ivanova and Lev Mishchenko managed to exchange hundreds of letters while Lev was incarcerated in Stalin's infamous Gulag. Over a period of eleven years these letters were carried by sympathisers, in and out of the camp, and as a result they were not subject to the enforced censorship that other correspondence had suffered. The collection of letters and other documents was donated to a human rights charity in Moscow and forms the basis of Orlando Figes' book.

Not only were the letters unusual in that they had not been censored, it was also rare for such a collection to be kept intact; it would have represented a considerable danger for them both if they had been discovered. On top of this, Svetlana even managed to smuggle herself in, in person, on a couple of occasions.
As an amazing addendum to their story, it turned out that both Lev and Svetlana were still alive, in their nineties, as the time that the author was researching his book. He met them in 2008 and the meeting was filmed by the BBC. We were able to see part of this footage during the presentation.

The book presents a rare image, both of life in The Gulag and of the struggle of living in Moscow between 1946 and 1954. There are photographs of both Lev and Svetlana, their families and others from the era and, altogether this represents an amazing account.

(Readers may also be interested in Morning Comes and Also the Night by Marijcke Jongbloed, based on letters smuggled between Japanese camps in Indonesia. The author was born in one of these camps)
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4.0 out of 5 stars Authentic testament to devotion in harsh circumstances, 15 April 2013
By 
K. Z. Sobol (Bristol, UK) - See all my reviews
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I have to admit that it has taken me longer than usual to read this book, but for good reason. The historically fascinating story of the relationship and the circumstances of Sveta and Lev has been reconstructed chiefly through the vast collection of letters that they wrote to one another over their 14-year separation. Every one of their letters was preserved in spite of their very circumstances (Lev's had to be hidden away under floorboards and smuggled back out, having been smuggled in in the first place via various methods!

This is a real story and you have to remind yourself of that - this is no fictionalised romance or wartime drama, although it feels as though it might be and as such there are times that it might feel a little slow burning. This however adds to the realism of the book, these two had to endure long periods of waiting and endurance - something so alien in this day and age.

I was gripped by the tale and of dedication and devotion of the two central characters. It is a real privilege to be allowed an insight into their thoughts and experiences and to see them right through to their conclusion. If you know nothing or little of the Gulags, this will open you eyes to some uncomfortable truths about the hardships suffered, but also enchanting glimmers of the kindness that emerges in difficult circumstances.

Having read the book, I was left with the sense that I would have liked to have met Sveta and Lev and heard more about their stories, but it isn’t the easiest of reads, but well worthwhile.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gulag Romance Through Love letters Type Book., 27 Aug 2012
By 
Tommy Dooley "Tom" (London, England) - See all my reviews
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This is another book by the renowned Russophile Orlando Figes (`Crimea', Natasha's dance' and `A Peoples Tragedy' all good to excellent) and I was hoping for the same for this one. It relates the story of a love affair that was carried on whilst Lev was imprisoned for ten years as a political prisoner in Siberia. They wrote letters to each other all the time and got them out past the guards so as to avoid the censorship of Stalin's regime.

Svetlana was split up from Lev after World War II broke out, he was captured by the Germans and agreed to do translation work for them, and it was for that collaboration that he was sentenced to ten years in the gulag. She meanwhile finally got a letter from him after not hearing from him for five years and so the spark of love was rekindled and their correspondence brought them back together.

Whilst this is basically a love story in letters it is also a piece of history in that this is the biggest archive of first hand life in a gulag. Lev was luckier than most as he had some scientific background and that meant that he was able to secure less physically demanding work than some of his co prisoners. We do get to hear about some of the treatment of the inmates and the attitude of the guards and authorities but mostly the letters contain the story of their emotions and the ups and downs that took place between them over such a long period with mere moments together that were so hard fought for it is amazing they actually did it.

We also have a glimpse into the mind sets of both of them Lev was clearly homophobic thought it was a good idea to beat sense into children and seemed to accept his fate as being an unwitting traitor to the USSR. Svet did not mind breaking the rules to get what she wanted whilst at the same time rejoicing in Stalinist architecture and looking down on people who were not fascinated by science. These of course must be taken as being `of their time' and as such is more than forgivable. There are moments of true philanthropy mixed in as well as true love, sacrifice and comradeship. They could never have done all of what they did without the help of others and they seem to have repaid that in spade fulls. There are also pictures from the actual camp and some up to date ones as well as some very informative maps which all add to the story.

So why three stars? Well I just found it a bit plodding and repetitive, as a lot of the book concerns quotes from their letters they are all very personal and limited in scope so what I thought might be an insider's expose of the gulag system became more of a Mills and Boonski without the sex. Sorry if I am being harsh it just did not rock my world. That said I will always read any offering by the very talented Mr Figes.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting chronicle of a remarkable relationship., 27 Sep 2013
By 
Fiona Millar "cookiemum" (Edinburgh) - See all my reviews
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'Just Send Me Word' tells the story of Lev and Sveta, whose burgeoning relationship is interrupted by the Second World War and Lev's subsequent incarceration in a gulag. While many couples would have found their story ending there, Lev and Sveta began an extraordinary relationship through letters to each other, many smuggled by helping hands and all of them (over a thousand!) preserved against all odds to the present day.

The contents of some of the letters are used to tell the story of what Lev and Sveta went through, with plenty of historical detail given about their lives and circumstances. I actually found by halfway through the book that the letters became less of an interesting focus, partly because they start to feel quite repetitive, and partly because the self-censorship that the couple had to employ means they are fairly pedestrian in nature. Lev and Sveta are both strong-minded, practical and not given to romantic whimsy, so the love and romance angle of the book isn't that strong. Figes' narration of what the couple were going through and the people they were interacting with is more interesting, and the book gives a very compelling and interesting account of what life was like for many Russians during Stalin's rule.

A recommended read, but more for the history than for the romantic aspect.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Orlando Figes- Love in Stalinist Russia, 28 Oct 2012
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Red on Black - See all my reviews
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Orlando Figes has become renown over recent years for the Amazon scandal which saw him desperately posting anonymous reviews on this website praising his own work and criticising rivals. This led him to pay libel damages and costs to his "victims" and besmirched a reputation of what was one of our finest historians. He has since been ploughing away attempting to put these setbacks behind him. Indeed we would do well to remember that scandal or otherwise his magisterial work on the years which led to Bolshevik revolution and the emergence of Stalinism "A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924" remains the best one volume history of this period. Thus he has since offered profound apologies to all involved for his review faux paus and is gradually moving on (but see below). There have of course been a number of big histories of the horror of the Gulags not least the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of which the seminal "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is the most approachable; while in terms of pure straightforward history Anne Applebaum's "Gulag" that deals with the evolution and culture of USSR's punishment and labour camps cannot be touched as historical narrative.

For his latest book Figes has therefore wisely gone into micro history of the period. "Just send me word" is the story of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova. His primary source is a cache of old love letters sent between the couple which somehow survived being smuggled out of camps and the distance of 1500 miles apart. In essence this is a poignant book that details the story of the love affair between Lev and Sveta and a romance that survived the worst turbulence that the 20th century and its "War of the Worlds" could throw at them. It was a gradually evolving love that endured from their first encounter whilst taking the entrance exam at Moscow University in 1935 and only ended with their death in old age. What makes this story extraordinary is that they were kept apart, first by WWII and then by Lev's sentence to ten years in a Gulag on his return to the Soviet Union. Somehow during the apocalypse around them they kept their love and hope alive by infrequent and hugely dangerous meetings and thousands of letters. Lev unfortunately turned out to be one of those Russian soldiers who committed the ultimate "Stalinist" crime, namely he surrendered to the Germans. As a result having survived a Nazi concentration camp he returned home only to find himself serving a long prison sentence in one of Stalin's labor camps in Siberia. The book is worth seeking out alone for the retelling of how Svetlana made five trips to Pochora where Lev was held and managed to navigate the whole apparatus of Soviet terror to get there.

Figes tells this story with considerable skill but unfortunately some of his account has again been subject to criticism in terms of accuracy. The Guardian recently highlighted that Irina Ostrovskaya the chief researcher at Memorial, the institution set up to record Soviet crimes and the fate of some 24 million people who passed through the Gulag camps or forced exile has argued that the book is "melodrama" and has significant mistakes. She equally was a fierce critic of his book on Stalinism "The Whisperers". It may well be that Ms Ostrovskaya ia right it may alternatively be that she has a "axe to grind" Whatever the case this reviewer enjoyed "Just send me word", if that is the right term for an often shocking read of cruelty and degradation. Others can judge whether mistakes exist in the text but for the general reader this captures the fact that despite state sponsored oppression love can conquer the worst of all possible circumstances and survive. In that sense the key underpinning of Figes excellent book is one of hope and who can failed to be moved by these forlorn messages not least the the one sent to Lev at the start of this wealth of correspondence "How many times have I wanted to nestle in your arms but could only turn to the empty wall in front of me? I felt I couldn't breathe. Yet time would pass, and I would pull myself together. We will get through this, Lev,". Get through it they did and Figes should be thanked for telling their story.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'One must learn to be able to live in this world, which will probably always remain cruel', 23 May 2012
By 
Lost John (Devon, England) - See all my reviews
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Lev Glebovich Mishchenko and his wife Svetlana Aleksandrovna are buried side by side in Moscow's Golovinskoe Cemetery. Both were born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, and both outlived the Soviet Union, Lev dying in 2008 and Svetlana in 2010. The quotation above is taken from a letter Svetlana wrote to Lev in 1947, the greater part of a year after she discovered that her pre-war sweetheart was alive but serving a ten year sentence in a GULAG prison camp.

Pre-war, Lev trained as a nuclear physicist. During the war he was a Red Army officer. Captured by the Germans, liberated by the Americans, he was offered passage to the United States, but chose repatriation. Like thousands of other returning Prisoners of War, he was - on the basis of a false 'confession' of treason against the motherland - sentenced in 1946 to death, commuted to ten years in the camps.

But for something over a year of evacuation, Svetlana had meanwhile remained in Moscow. She too was a physicist, and she made a career in a research laboratory attached to the tyre industry. Because her work was considered militarily sensitive, it took outstanding determination and moral courage to respond to letters from a political prisoner. She was short of neither.

The letters began in July 1946 and continued to November 1954. So that each would know if they had received all that had been sent, Lev and Svetlana numbered their letters, which over the years amounted in total to 1246, 647 from Lev, 599 from Svetlana. Remarkably, none were censored (though all were self-censored as they were written and various codes employed) and all survived, to be handed eventually to Memorial, an international historical and civil rights society operating in Russia and some other post-Soviet states. It was through Memorial that Orlando Figes became aware of the letters and Lev and Svetlana's remarkable story, and he was fortunate to be able to meet and interview them both whilst they were still alive.

Through the letters, with supplementary information from the interviews and other sources, Figes takes us chronologically through Lev and Svetlana's whole story. Although it is also much more, it is fundamentally a love story. Not, of course, that true love always ran smooth, but each was very firm in their love for the other, and determination eventually to marry.

As readers, we gain new insights into life in Stalin's Russia and a view of a prison camp that, although close to the Arctic Circle, was on the European side of the Urals, and in which Lev was able to secure a position as an electrical engineer that was at least potentially survivable. In other words, the book provides a different perspective from those of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Shalamov's Kolyma Tales and complements rather than competes with those classics.

Most remarkable of all is that Svetlana five times managed to visit Lev at the camp. The first visit in particular provides exciting reading. There are other high points too, and Figes makes good use of such photographs as are available, along with relevant camp records and descriptions drawn from other sources.
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