love in the gulag


It’s an instructive story – a reminder, among other things, of how the camp system eased from the late Forties – but above all it is a human one. Lev’s first letter to Svetlana’s family from Pechora – he dared not approach her directly for fear she would want no more to do with him – is heartbreaking in its need and delicacy. Hers in reply is blazingly brave and true. Neither is a great writer, Svetlana in particular tending towards what Figes admits is the ‘somewhat dry and spare’ language of the Soviet technical intelligentsia (her loneliness is that of a nucleus shorn of its electrons, and weeping means ‘losing a lot of H₂O’). But on both sides love shines through – in mutual reassurance and determined optimism, in the complicated, coded planning for their all-too-brief meetings, and in jokey chat about everyday life. From Svetlana, we hear of food shortages – ‘we don’t see any meat, but there are such things as vegetarians, and it’s said they often live to be a hundred’ – and her burgeoning career researching synthetic rubber. Lev speaks of breakdowns at the wood-combine, fellow prisoners in and out of the camp infirmary, and the otherworldly beauty of the far northern skies. She spares him her pain at her childlessness; he spares her his fear that some bureaucratic turn of the wheel will put him on a convoy to one of the ‘special regime’ logging camps upriver, from which no letters can be sent and few prisoners return.

more from Anna Reid at Literary Review here.