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Just Send Me Word is an improbable but true prison love story

The story of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova, whose relationship survived the Second World War and the Gulag, is the stuff of unbelievable Hollywood melodramas.

Lev Mishchenko at his Moscow home in 1995. Tatyana Makeyeva / AFP
Lev Mishchenko at his Moscow home in 1995. Tatyana Makeyeva / AFP

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously dubbed the complex of prison camps that dotted the Stalin-era Soviet Union the "Gulag Archipelago". In the early 1950s, at their peak, the camps, which stretched across the vastness of the Soviet empire, held some 2.5 million prisoners, who toiled away in terrible conditions, working in mines, building bridges, dams and railroads.

The great Soviet infrastructure achievements - the Volga-Don canal; hydroelectric plants; and the extension of the Moscow metro - were made possible by the exploitation of Gulag labour. A world unto itself, with its own rules and hierarchies, the Gulag was a kind of counter-society, a "country within the country" immured in secrecy and darkness.

Solzhenitsyn's three-volume work, first published in the West in 1973, was a monumental step in reckoning with the social and moral consequences of the Soviet camp system, and there have been many notable accounts since. Just Send Me Word is a special addition to the literature of the Gulag.

The book bears the imprint of Orlando Figes, the British historian and a controversial figure in Russian studies, but this volume is propelled by the voices of its two extraordinary protagonists, Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova, whose relationship endured war and a long, cruel separation when Lev was sent away to a work camp in the Soviet Arctic in 1946. Imprisonment in the Gulag destroyed many relationships; theirs endured. The story of Lev and Svetlana is the stuff of Hollywood melodrama - except it's true.

Lev and Svetlana exchanged hundreds of letters, which together form the largest known collection of Gulag private correspondence. In 2007, the couple organised that material and gave it to Memorial, the Russian human rights organisation.

Figes has translated selections from their correspondence, and provided a fine, detailed context that situates their love affair in the grim repression of the Stalin era.

Figes is not merely an academic; his books - A People's Tragedy, a gripping account of the Russian Revolution, and Natasha's Dance, a cultural history of Russia - sell and he is an excellent stylist. But he has also behaved unprofessionally. He has been accused of sloppy research. More troubling, he hit back at two professional rivals in a series of anonymous reviews on Amazon in 2010. It led to humiliation: the historian denied his actions, was caught out, and then owned up to his bad deeds with a public apology.

That said, Just Send Me Word is unforgettable, a work of sadness intermingled with triumph. Figes doesn't lay it on thick or amp up the drama; he narrates the story with grace, but lets Lev and Svetlana speak for themselves in the long sections of letters that form the meat of the narrative. The bulk of the letters were smuggled through the camps, to evade censors, and are remarkably frank. Both correspondents were stunningly good writers, able to describe complex emotions with felicity and grace. They met at Moscow University - both studied physics - in 1935. War interrupted their union and forever changed the course of their relationship.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Lev witnessed the catastrophe the Wehrmacht visited on Russia firsthand. He was captured and, because he was fluent in German, put to work as a translator in Germany.

Lev's war had an epic quality to it: he escaped not once but twice, the second time into the hands of the US army. He was offered a chance to emigrate, but the lure of the familiar, Svetlana and family, proved too strong. He chose Russia. In doing so, he inadvertently sealed his doom. The Red Army accused him of spying for the Germans and tricked him into signing a confession of treason. A summary tribunal convicted of him of crimes against the motherland. He was sentenced to 10 years at the Pechora work camp.

By the time he arrived at Pechora - it took him three months to get there from Germany - Lev had not heard from Svetlana for years. He had little hopes he would. Life at the camp, which served as a wood-processing centre, was gruelling: temperatures could plunge to minus 20°C. Lev was assigned to a general labour team tasked with dragging timbers up a hill. It was back-breaking work. However, Lev's background in science made him an asset, and he began working inside a drying unit, which kept him out of the cold and gave him space to write. A letter to an aunt led to a miraculous development: a letter from Svetlana. Thus began an immense, epistolary saga that would bind the couple ever tighter.

For Lev, Svetlana was "Svetloe" or "Svet", a play on the Russian word for light. She called him by a pet name, "Levi". They devised a special vocabulary of allusion. interior ministry officials were dubbed "uncles" or "relatives"; the Gulag system was called "umbrellas", while bribe money was termed "vitamin D" (from the Russian word deneg). Svetlana became an anchor for Lev. She reproached him for self-pity when he worried his friends would not want to correspond with a prisoner: "Levi, you need to be kinder and go easier on people," she scolded. "The same goes for certain events and issues. Humiliation is to blame, as well as pride, Lev. Forgive me for giving you advice and lecturing you on common truths while I sit here at home."

Svetlana, who worked at a scientific institute researching tyre production, endured her own hardships in Moscow and struggled with depression. Yet the bursts of emotion and abiding love in these letters, against a backdrop of so much privation, left me in tears. Svetlana writes to Lev: "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." In another letter, an impassioned Lev declares: "Svet, the world is unquestionably good, but it's so much more beautiful when it is lit up by you that I wouldn't want - and never would want - to look at it without the illumination you bring to it. Do you really want me to enjoy the world in the dark, or at best in the half-light after you've gone away."

Such was Svetlana's dedication to Lev that she made several unauthorised visits to him while he was on the inside. She took incredible risks - her research was sensitive, and she could have easily been convicted of spying or worse - but managed to see Lev, even if the clandestine visits were brief. They were aided by a network of friends and free workers who mixed with the convicts at the camp (Figes remarks dryly that "nobody had thought to break into a labour camp before".) Lev finally gained his release in 1954 and married Svetlana shortly after.

It is too easy to say that this story had a happy ending. Many Gulag prisoners perished or went mad. Lev's survival was a near miracle. His own fortitude should be an inspiration to us all: "To cross out all the 'maybes' and give up the fight when you still have strength for it is the most terrible form of suicide. It's almost unbearable to watch it happening in others. Unjustified hope - salvation for the weak in spirit and intellect - irritates me. But the loss of hope is the paralysis, even the death, of the soul."

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.