A rich trove of letters tells the moving story of two young physics students in Stalin’s Russia whose love was severely tested while separated by exile in Siberia.
In this first publication of “the largest cache of Gulag letters ever found,” Figes (History/Birkbeck College, Univ. of London; The Crimean War, 2011, etc.) has sifted through more than 1,500 missives to uncover a story of two people who found a way to endure over eight years of the harshest isolation and repression. After meeting at Moscow University in 1935, Lev and Svetlana, or Sveta as she is called in the letters, became kindred spirits over their shared passion for poetry and learning. With the invasion of Russia by the Nazis in 1941, Lev was mobilized to the front; he was soon captured and spent the war as a POW. However, because he spoke German, he was enlisted as a translator. With the liberation by the Americans, Lev was urged to take a job as a physicist in the United States, but he refused, returning to Moscow to find Sveta. Upon arrival, he was accused of spying for the Germans and was sentenced to 10 years in the Arctic Gulag. News of Lev’s whereabouts finally reached Sveta and her family, and in an extraordinary letter dated Jul. 12, 1946, Sveta wrote to Lev for the first time at the labor camp: “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.” They managed to express a cautiously optimistic tone through the grim, lonely stretch of Lev’s incarceration, and were even able to meet secretly a few times. Their devotion to each other allowed them each to survive.
A heart-rending record of extraordinary human endurance.