Star rating - 9/10
This is the extraordinary true story of Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, brilliantly pieced together in a consistently captivating and fascinating way by historian Orlando Figes.
The couple met in Moscow as 18 year old physics students. Their fledgling romance was abruptly halted by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Like so many other Russian young men, Lev went to fight in his country's defence but was captured by the Germans. On being liberated, he refused an American offer of emigration to the West because of his love for Svetlana. He was returned home, only to be accused of spying for the Germans by the Soviets. After extracting a false confession from him he was sentenced to 10 years hard labour in the remote and freezing cold Gulag in northern Pechora for 'treason against the motherland'.
Not having seen or heard from each other for five years, Svet could reasonably have assumed that Lev was dead, but some inner belief in their love kept her hope alive. And then the first precious letter came, via his aunt, in case she had not been waiting for him as he had for her. That was the start of an intimate and tender correspondence amounting to thousands of letters over many years.
Svet saw her role as keeping Lev's spirits up, and sharing her hopes for their future together with him, no matter how distant and unlikely they were. The first tentative declaration of her love against all odds came in her 18th letter:
"The point of all this is that I want to tell you just three words- two of them are pronouns and the third is a verb (to be read in all the tenses simultaneously: past, present and future)."
Their love sustained itself and deepened through many challenges: the harsh conditions of the Gulag (although not as bad as many others endured due to his special status as a scientist working in the huge wood-combine power station); her depression; her longing to have a child and wondering if it would be too late for them when he was released; and his almost inevitable insecurities about her feelings for him if letters were slow or failed to arrive.
They managed a few, not even as much as annual, brief visits. Svetlana risked much to see him - as a state employed research scientist whose work was of military significance, visiting a political prisoner and therefore an enemy of that same state - but she couldn't not try. Visits entailed a major trek of over 1,000 miles from Moscow - with up to 4 days' difficult journey each way - all for the possibility of a few hours together - perhaps in the presence of a prison camp guard.
They never gave up hope that they would be together:
"I understand that the most terrible thing in life is complete hopelessness...the loss of hope is the paralysis, even the death, of the soul. Sveta, let us hope while we still have strength to hope."
As well as a window on a remarkable love that was tested to the extreme, this book also gives a fascinating insight into the Soviet Gulag system of forced labour on which much of its economic might was actually built.
Lev was finally released in 1954 after over 8 years as a Gulag prisoner, and over 13 years since he left as a young man to fight the Germans. The challenges the couple faced following his release continued, but were nothing in comparison with the pain and frustration of such an enforced and protracted separation.
This is not only a wonderful and wonderfully told story, but is also a reminder about the beauty and richness which a treasury of letters can bring - a timely reminder of the power of the handwritten word as we sadly let the art die out in favour of much more prosaic mediums.