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VINE VOICEon 8 November 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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on 3 February 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This story, based on the trove of letters between a prison camp inmate and his girlfriend and later wife is a truly remarkable find. That the letters exist at all is due to the quiet subterfuge of many people who became friends of prisoner Lev and smuggled out his letters,and on one occasion brought Sveta into the camp. We discover that the brutal Soviet gulag was leaky as a sieve as the many people on either side of the barbed wire tried to live out their own lives despite its depredations. The story takes the lives of 2 young students who meet and fall in love (in a stop start sort of way), are separated firstly by the second world war and then, the returning soldier, having escaped probable death in German camps is immediately interred into Stalin's. The book tells of life in the camps and back home with Sveta in Moscow, and his eventual homecoming and their long time reunion. The couple were also extensively interviewed before their deaths, filling out the gaps in the story.

All this is expertly woven together by Orlando Figues in a quiet, unsensational way. He allows the letters to do much of the talking (although he could have done more). The writing is sometimes so unsensational i found it a little flat, but despite that i kept turning back to the tale.

All in all a remarkable social document showing how the great Soviet experiment impacted on the ives of 2 ordinary people
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VINE VOICEon 27 September 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
'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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 31 May 2014
This is the story of Lev, a political prisoner of the gulag in Stalin's Soviet Union, and of Svetlana his great love. The enduring love between these two people, separated for 14 years by war and imprisonment, is captured in the hundreds of letters between them over that period, which tell the story of their pain of separation, and their undying determination to be together.

There is much here to learn about the reality of life in the Soviet Union of the 1940s and 1950s, accepted as normal in Lev and Svetlana's letters - the mind numbing bureaucracy, the shortages of almost everything, the corruption, the continual lack of privacy and the endless tedium in which searching for mushrooms was a redeeming highlight of life.

This story paints a clear picture of what life must have been like at this time - and the tedium stands out, even above the arbitrary injustices, and indeed of the kindness of people who helped Lev and Svetlana to meet and to survive.

An interesting book although it can, like the life it depicts, be tedious at times. I was left full of admiration for the loyalty of these two people, glad that they had their time in the world, and very glad not to have been born into such an awful environment
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VINE VOICEon 31 December 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It all takes place in Russia. This is the story of Svetlana and Lev. First they were separated when he became a soldier in WWII when the German's invaded. Then he got captured and was out of touch for about five years. During his time with the Nazis he does some traanslating for them. This is the reason when he is repatriated that he is sentenced in Russia to ten years. He manages to get a letter out to Svetlana via his Aunt. Svetlana instantly writes to Lev, which starts a correspondence of 1246 letters back and forth between the two of them. She tries to support him, show him how much she loves him, and keep him in contact with the outside world in Moscow. He tries to raise her spirits (she has depression), show her he loves and misses her, and tries to convince her that life in the camps is not as bad as it really is. There are so many life lessons here. There is so much history here. There is so much about love that has been forgotten. It is snapshot of life from a society alien to ours, yet people are people, alike in so many ways. A wonderful book.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 27 August 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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VINE VOICEon 3 January 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I expected this to be predominantly the letters between Svetlana and Lev. In fact Figes supplements short extracts from the letters with explanatory background. This works well and produces a powerful, continuous narrative. Reading of the personal suffering, doubts and fears makes it easier to reflect on how you would cope and how you would work to make a relationship survive such punishment and challenge to hope. Figes writes in a plain, passionless style, letting the characters and events speak for themselves. The human spirit survives another period of horrors. We are a great species but sometimes our government's seem to be taken over by something else.
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VINE VOICEon 17 May 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In this astonishing, book, historian Orlando Figes reveals an unprecedented discovery of an intact correspondence from a Gulag inmate, Lev, and the woman he loves on the outside, Svetlana.
It’s unprecedented because letters didn’t usually survive the Gulag system, the chaos and censorship. Hell, human relationships and human life itself did well to survive the camps. But what has been pieced together is detailed and revealing, as well as being a inspirational narrative on physical and spiritual endurance. ‘Love conquers all’ may be a fatuous cliché, but here it actually breaks through into reality.
The other cliché it makes real is that truth outshines fiction. The early part of the narrative, where Lev, serving as a soldier in WW2, cheats death and escapes capture repeatedly, would test the patience of a reader in terms of contrivance if this was fiction. Given that this is what happened, though, it is shockingly amazing.
Lev is eventually captured and navigates life as a POW. Then there is another incredible escape. This time Lev makes it home to Moscow, but then has to run the deadly gauntlet of Stalin’s regime of terror and paranoia. His status as a survivor of Allied POW camps and the fact that he helped as a translator is enough to convict him to a ten year sentence in the Gulag.
Running parallel to this early part of the narrative is the story of Lev and Svet’s early relationship and courtship. This is rich in detail about Soviet life in the period, what it was like to work and study as a scientist and researcher, the rituals of courtship, (including long walks and references to Russian poetry), family, social and economic life and other mechanics of survival in the Soviet regime.
The correspondence between Lev and Svet during Lev’s time as a Gulag inmate gives a rich picture both of life in the Gulag system, and life in Moscow in the last decade of Stalin’s regime. In the Gulag, everyone was Sisyphus. Lev is appointed to the wood combine in the camp in Pechora, and must join his fellow prisoners in labouring hard in freezing and wet conditions with very poor provisions, facing repeated frustrations from camp administration incompetence and corruption.
For her part Svet works as a scientist and researcher with all the other duties required of a loyal Soviet citizen. She also needs to look after increasingly frail parents.
Svet and Lev’s relationships survives through their correspondence and also Svet manages to visit Lev a handful of times, actually smuggling herself onto camp, with the help of a sympathetic network of Lev’s Gulag peers. This event, where Svet sneaks into the Gulag system to spend a night with Lev, would again be a contrivance that would make you snap the book shut if fiction, or walk out of the cinema if a movie. That it happened is wonderful and incredible.
The narrative reflects the daily grind for both Lev and Svet, with the details and mechanics of daily survival laid out in fascinating historical detail. They use a code system so as not to offend the censor when talking of the camp or Soviet life. And their aching longing for each other burns beneath the most mundane detail. Every now and then emotion breaks through. And every now and then, through reduction and confinement, the miracle of daily existence is laid bare. There’s a transcendent and poetic quality to a letter where Lev is driven to wonder by looking up at the sky, and seeing the stars, or watching a sunset break through the clouds and illuminating the trees. Surrounded by the ruin and desolation of a camp system in decline, Lev can still lift his eyes and spirit.
Lev and Svet’s relationship also kindles into life a support network, as Svet sends Lev items necessary not only for his but also his Gulag fellow’s survival, including medicines. This is reciprocal as these inmates then help with the subterfuge of Svet’s more clandestine camp visits, and helping accommodate her in neutral zones near the camp. This support network survives the camp, as Svet helps not only Lev but his fellows resettle and re-accommodate near Mosow by giving them temporary lodging at her home.
In our present age here in the West of material and technological affluence, where we can satisfy immediate cravings by swiping our fingers across a screen, here is a world where oppressive and paranoid tyranny, corruption, depredation and incarceration do not necessarily bring despair but a fierce determination to do what is right in human relationships; to soul mates and to family, friends and those in need, to look after their physical and spiritual needs, and to value the daily miracles of existence when life is boiled down to the essentials of survival.
This is an important and accessible historical work and a beautiful and haunting story of how Good with a capital ‘G’ we can be in the direst of times. It’s a rebuke to the cynicism and confusion of principle our present and more affluent age can bring.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Subjects of the biography ‘Just Send Me Word’ are Lev Mischchenko and Svetlana Ivanova who met as students in the 1930s in Moscow where initially they formed a somewhat chaste relationship. Lev was an orphan brought up by relatives after his parents were killed by the Bolsheviks, and Sveta was brought up by her technically and scientifically orientated parents. In 1941 Lev was drafted into the Russian army and was captured by the Germans, spending time in prison and at one stage in a concentration camp. He survived but after the war was treated as a traitor and sentenced to death before this was commuted to 10 years in a Gulag in the far north of Russia. Sveta continued studies and research biased work throughout the war, and though Lev was posted missing she never gave up hope, and this was rewarded when in 1946 Lev got information to Sveta via an aunt. She replied with the first of hundreds of letters and there began a correspondence between Lev and Sveta on which ‘Just Send Me Word’ is based.

It was a time of tyranny and terror in Russia and in addition to the intimate nature of the letters described accurately in the book’s sub-title as ‘A True Story Of Love And Survival In The Gulag’ there is commentary by Lev on life in the Gulag, administrative arrangements, security measures, work conditions, relations between prisoners etc. and from Sveta there are details of daily life and the complications in Russia under Stalin’s rule, her family and friends, her work, her studies etc. Both Lev and Sveta are witnesses to a traumatic part of 20th century history, and perhaps greater emphasis on external matters could have strengthened ‘Just Send Me Word’ as documentation of events rather than emphasis on personal issues. Respected biographer Orlando Figes, a professor of history, was in Moscow in 2007 when he almost accidently came across a private archive of letters, notebooks, diaries etc. in the possession of the Offices of Memorial. One section was a small trunk containing 647 letters from Lev to Sveta and 599 from her to him for the period of Lev’s imprisonment in the Pechora labour camp from 1946 to 1954. The professor also researched other periods and he conducted face to face interviews with the aged Lev and Sveta and he learnt of the codes, hidden meanings etc. in their letters.

Though convicted of treason against the motherland Lev was not a political activist or a dissident, and indeed he believed in the socialist ideal of progress through science and technology. However he existed under harsh conditions where belief and doubt became confused. He took great pride in major projects being successfully achieved with Gulag labour, and he always applied himself conscientiously to his work, though he came to acknowledge his service as translator to the Germans indicated a degree of guilt. Sveta was a member of the Communist Party but very little in her letters is about politics, and her letters were somewhat routine and pragmatic compared to Lev’s more lyrical writing. Love was hardly mentioned, but they were both strong and compassionate, and certainly she supported him whilst he also assisted with sympathy for her family difficulties and her bouts of depression. They corresponded with increased confidence as they avoided censors, and after Stalin’s death in 1953 which led to reductions in prison populations, deterioration in behaviour, diminution of arbitrary punishment, lowering of fear of being transferred to penal colonies etc. Sveta risked arrest, punishment, ending of her career etc. in going to visit Lev in Pechora, and she had to be continually aware how precarious was her own situation.

Lev was released in 1954 and there are descriptions of conflict between Sveta looking after her parents or being with Lev, restrictions on where to live and work, problems over qualifications etc. but there is hope with their marriage and bearing of children. Unlike many individuals persecuted by the State and being unwilling to talk of their experiences, this was not the case for Lev and Sveta who passed on details to their children who in turn met many colleagues of Levi from the labour camp. After his retirement Levi wrote accounts of his life and he published his memoirs in 2006 as ‘While I Remember’. Levi died in 2008 and Sveta in 2010, and in ‘Acknowledgements’ Orlando Figes records his disappointment over them never getting a chance to read ‘Just Send Me Word’. Perhaps some readers may also be disappointed because it could have clarified sections of narrative that appear to rely on supposition as the author describes matters indirectly. However as befits a scholarly historical commentary there are extensive ‘Source Notes’ including a bibliography of published works, and ‘Just Send Word’ deserves a place alongside such eminent dissertations.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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