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.