A lover's loyalty

A relationship that endured amid war and torture

By Andrew Rosemarine, August 3, 2012
Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes

A life-enhancing history of the triumph of hope over persecution, Just Send Me Word, by Orlando Figes (Allen Lane, £20) is a must for all romantics and indeed students of Stalin. It carries the sub-title, A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, which captures a grim reality, but its spirit glows gloriously.

Lev and Sveta fall in love in 1936. They are both physics students in the Moscow University, and go on to do well. On June 22 1941, Operation Barbarossa explodes. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, his voice shaking with fear, announces over the radio that German forces have invaded.

Lev volunteers for the front, and is captured. Many fellow prisoners die from typhus. The Nazis give him a meagre 200g of bread per day and later send him to Buchenwald. A loyal Russian, Lev repeatedly rejects their inducements to join their forces and spy for them in return for better supplies.

When US troops liberate him, he is so hungry, that he eats 12 meals a day.They offer him a new life in America as a physicist but he refuses — everything he loves is in Moscow, including Sveta.

His jubilation at being repatriated turns immediately into a surrealist nightmare — the Soviet Secret Police interrogate him, for Stalin distrusts all Russian soldiers imprisoned by the Germans. Under acute sleep-deprivation, he admits to interpreting orders for them. Though he has been a loyal Russian all his life, the Communists sentence him to death for helping Hitler!

But Comrade Stalin is merciful, and commutes many such cases to 10 years’ hard labour in the Pechora Gulag, to boost his economy. Temperatures as low as minus 49 degrees Celsius, back-breaking timber work, mosquitoes so fearsome that Menachem Begin will describe them later as more effective than the prison guards with their rifles. Will Lev survive? Can he escape? Will he ever see Sveta again?

Figes, a considerable scholar of Communist Russia, evokes a heart-rending vision of the individual pitted against two totalitarian systems.

Last updated: 12:18pm, August 3 2012