Author: Orlando Figes
Release date: This UK paperback edition 3rd January 2013
Non-fiction: Biography, History
Target audience: Adult
UK Publisher: Penguin Books
Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag is a historical non-fiction book which explores the lives of Lev and Sveta – two young Russians who fall in love in the 1930s and are separated by war.
I’m not usually a reader of non-fiction for pleasure so this book is a departure for me from my comfort zone. I went along to the Jewish Book Week events in February and Orlando Figes spoke about his experience writing this book based upon the letters written by Lev and Sveta at the time of his imprisonment in the Gulag. It was one of the most interesting author events that I’ve been to and as soon as it finished I rushed to the bookshop to buy a copy. I had never even heard of the Gulag before. They were Russian prison camps where the prisoners are used for labour under the Stalinist regime. There were many such camps in Russia. The prisoners lived in appalling conditions and had poor diet and ill health. Their labour was used to build many of the “great” structures of the Soviet society.
This an extraordinary story made even more fascinating because it is true. Lev and Sveta met at the Physics Faculty of Moscow University in the 1930s. Their story spans decades and despite their separation due to the Second World War and Lev’s imprisonment as an enemy of the state, they remained constant. Lev was convicted as an enemy of the state because he had spoken German when he was held as a prisoner of war by the Nazis. He was released from the German camp only to be arrested, convicted of collaboration and sent to the Gulag camp in Perchora.
What I really loved about this book was the beauty of the letters which Lev and Sveta wrote to each other. Their styles of writing are so different and though they do not gush with statement of love, they are full of understated emotion and constancy. Lev was imprisoned for eight years and all of the letters they wrote survived. There are over 1000 letters which are now part of the Memorial archive. Most letters from prisoners were destroyed by the people who received them as just by having contact with a convicted “enemy” they too could have been seen as guilty by association.
I found this book enthralling and emotional. It has made me open to reading more historical non-fiction and very keen to learn more about the experience of every day Russians under Stalin. Though I haven’t told you very much about it, this book comes with my highest recommendation. It’s hard to put into words the experience of reading this book – it can only be said that it moved me and gave me a window into another world. Like all the best books do.