A Tale Of Love-Letters!
“Only you and I will know
How you got me through.
Simply – you knew how to wait –
No one else but you.”
– Konstantin Simonov, ‘Wait for Me‘, 1941
Three heavy iron-trunks, around 50-years old… inside those, there are thousands of letters, notebooks, diaries, documents, and pictures, chained with cotton yarns and rubber bands. The pages have lost their original shade, and the contents have become hazy. However, postage stamps at the top of the letters are still clear: Pechora Gulag Camp!
Gulag (Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey or Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps)! It is all about Siberia and the Stalinist era! Yes… Orlando Figes – the British Historian and a Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London who is famous for his works on Russian and European history – leaned forward with his magnifying glass. The papers in the third trunk looked a little different… nearly 2000 letters, weighing about 37kg! Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova had written those to each other!
Lev Mishchenko & Svetlana Ivanova, 1936
Orlando discovered many treasures in the KGB archive after the fall of erstwhile Soviet Union. He portrayed a perfect picture of Soviet life in his publication ‘The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia‘. The historian took some time while searching the third trunk, as he thought that the letters written by Lev and Svetlana should be the most valuable document of Gulag!
In 2007, Orlando realised that the trunk contained the world’s largest and heaviest collection of love letters! Lev and Svetlana had been sending two letters per week to each other for eight years (from 1946 to 1954, mostly at the height of Stalinism). Svetlana had sent the first one in July 1946… sitting in Moscow, she wrote: “So here I am, not even knowing what I should write to you. That I miss you? But, you know that. I feel that I am living outside time, that’s I’m waiting for my life to start, as if this were an intermission. Whatever I do, it seems like I’m just killing time.” Lev replied: “You once asked whether it’s easier to live with or without hope. I can’t summon any kind of hope, but I feel calm without it…” He had written the final letter, too, in July 1954! And, all the letters are full of expressions on love!
The rules and regulations were very strict in Gulag. The Soviet State used to send people they suspected to the Siberian Gulag, during Stalin’s era. The prisoners had to live in a inhuman condition, there. They were allowed to send letters to their near and dear one, once in a month… and, those letters, too, were censored! As the Police used to read those letters, it was difficult for the prisoners to mention their personal experiences in the Gulag. However, officials of the Siberian detention and transit camps and prisons loved Lev a lot. So, they agreed to smuggle his letters written for Svetlana! Lev and Svetlana had not only sent at least two letters per week to one another, but also met quite often, breaking the rules. They kept all their letters with them as a symbol of love… those were only what they could take resort to. In this way, the two had created the world’s largest love letter series!
According to Orlando, it took a couple of years to translate so many letters in English, as Lev and Svetlana had used numerous symbols. Also, he had to meet their relatives, and visit the Gulag before preparing an authentic document that could be considered as an important document pertaining to history. Orlando portrayed a perfect picture of the daily life in Gulag on the basis of information received from the former prisoners. In 2013, the Briton published his ‘Just Send Me Word‘ (Penguin, pp. 352).
Lev met Svetlana for the first time at the University of Moscow on Entrance Examination day. Svetlana was chatting with one of Lev’s friends inside the campus. “It was not love at first sight: both agree on that. Lev was far too cautious to fall in love so easily. But Svetlana had already caught his attention,” wrote Orlando. Later, Lev started visiting Svetlana’s residence in Moscow.
The two families had opposite experiences as far as the Bolsheviks were concerned. Svetlana’s father Aleksandr Alekseevich, who was a scientist by profession, liked Lev, a student of science. Lev, too, fell in love with the Ivanov family. Lev, born on January 21, 1917, had no family. Within a month of his birth, the February Revolution started. Lev’s father was an Ukraine-based nationalist intellectual. As the Civil War broke out, the family moved to the Siberian town of Beryozovo. Soon after taking control of the town in 1919, the Bolsheviks started eliminating the Bourgeoisie and the Whites in opposition! They killed Lev’s mother first, and then his father! As he had been brought up by his grandmother and various female relatives, his upbringing had given him a gentleness and genuine respect for women…
June 1941… the Technical Assistant at the Lebedev Physical Institute was asked to join the Great Patriotic War, a term used in Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union to describe the conflict fought during the period from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945 along the many fronts of the Eastern Front of Second World War between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (mainly), as a soldier! Lev wrote that it was difficult for him to predict the future. He only knew that he would have to concentrate on his studies till he joined the war. However, he was shaken by the outbreak of the war, and what it meant for him, his life, his relationship with Sveta (as he called her)…
After receiving military training for two years, Lev joined the Red Army as a Junior Lieutenant and was assigned to lead a platoon of 30 soldiers. As he had neither confidence nor skills, he reached the front with a eight-member team. Unfortunately, the Nazi Forces captured them and sent them to a transit camp, named ‘Dulag‘, near Smolensk. Later, Lev found his place in a special prison in Katyn, where so many Russian scientists and engineers had been imprisoned. The Nazi Germans wanted to send Lev back to Moscow as a spy. However, Lev rejected the proposal, as he had no plan to betray his comrades. As a result, the Germans transferred him to a different prison. He made an attempt to flee, but failed. This time, the Germans took no risk, and sent Lev to the notorious prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag, in Leipzig. A few months later, the Soviet-US Joint Forces rescued him from Germany. As the Germans were all set to face defeat, the US offered citizenship to Lev, if he agreed to stay there as a nuclear scientist. Lev rejected this offer, too, as he wanted to return to his Homeland with a hope that Svetlana was still waiting for him.
Lev could not imagine what he would have to face in Moscow! Upon his return to Soviet Union, he found that the Joseph Stalin Administration was punishing those Red Army soldiers who had served as spies for the Germans. Lev, too, was punished as he could speak the German language and worked as a translator at German prisons. It was difficult for him to believe that the Soviet Government would label him as a “fascist collaborator”! Tricked into a confession, condemned to death, Lev’s sentence was commuted to 10 years, to be spent in Pechora, part of the notorious Vorkuta network of camps, 100 miles north of the Arctic circle. Then, he arrived at Pechora Gulag to serve the 10-year prison term! However, his technical skills and the kindness of the head of the laboratory Georgii Strelkov, an Old Bolshevik serving a long-term sentence, saved Lev from the exhausting work of hauling logs.
It was 1946, when everyone returned from the battle field… Svetlana had no information about Lev. She thought that she would never meet her man. Sleepless Svetlana was waiting for a tiny message: “I’m fine, you stay well.” Such a message could light up her world!
Lev Mishchenko at his Moscow home in 1995
July 12, 1946… Svetlana, finally, received the message from Lev’s aunty, Olga! In his letter to Olga, Lev asked his aunty about the ‘S‘ family, and also requested her not to disclose his whereabouts to Svetlana. “I am writing to you and not to her because I do not want to burden her. Let her live her life without me complicating it,” wrote Lev. However, Olga did not follow Lev’s instruction, and told Svetlana that he was still alive. On that day, Svetlana wrote the first of what would become the couple’s main channel of communication for the next decade, stating: “I know you will do all you can so that we can meet before another five years pass.” Lev’s response was immediate: “Sveta, Svet can you imagine what I’m feeling now? I can’t put a name to it or measure the happiness I feel.” He ended the letter with the passionate exhortation: “Don’t send anything except letters – letters – letters!”
The Gulag officials arranged some pencils and papers for Lev. As it was difficult for a prisoner to express her/his emotions openly, Lev started using codes in his letters. In fact, the two devised a special vocabulary of allusion. While the Gulag officials were dubbed “uncles” or “relatives”; the Gulag system was called “umbrellas”, the bribe money was termed “Vitamin D” (from the Russian word Deneg), and the Soviet Interior Ministry was dubbed as “MVD”!
Lev Mishchenko with his kids
Sitting in Gulag, Lev dreamed of visiting Moscow. In one letter, Svetlana wrote: “Moscow is not like that what you imagine!” In this way, they used to exchange their emotions through letters. Sometimes, Levi’s Sveta became a philosopher! And then again, she wrote: “Lev, forgive me for giving you advice and lecturing you on common truths while I sit here at home.” However, Lev’s survival depended on those letters. “I went to get the letters for our friends, and couldn’t help but feel a little envious, I didn’t expect anything for myself. And suddenly – there was my name, and, as if it was alive – your handwriting,” mentioned Lev in one of his letters.
The exchange of emotions between the two continued with the help of smugglers. Prisoners, who got time off for their good behaviour, used to help Lev by smuggling his letters to Svetlana. Once, Svetlana was eager to meet Lev at Gulag. He warned her, saying that 58-1B was a dangerous number! He was right… it was very difficult to meet the prisoners at Gulag. Although wives and relatives were allowed to meet prisoners, the concerned authorities did not entertain girlfriends. Still, Svetlana decided to visit the Gulag. Before leaving Moscow, she wrote to Lev: “I don’t have the ticket, but plenty of Vitamin D.” Yes, she offered bribe to Gulag officials in order to meet Lev. Later, Lev told Orlando: “It was only when we were left on our own, the two of us together, when we had nothing more to fear that we could act more freely, kiss and hug each other as much as we liked, and so on. But… more than that I will not say.” Meanwhile, Svetlana remembered: “That night we did not sleep at all.”
Sveta & Lev, 2002
They kept on sending letters to each other and counting the days! Orlando claimed that Svetlana used to compose her letters carefully. She prepared a draft first, and then correct and copy it in such a manner so that she got her thoughts down right. In one letter, she wrote: “My darling Lev, I received your letter of November 1-3 yesterday. Levi, I didn’t manage to express myself correctly and I don’t even now know the best way to say what I mean – only God forbid that I should want somebody (or something) to vanquish me inside you.” She continued: “When I wrote about victory, I meant our victory. Not victory over us, but victory over everything cruel that we’ve had to face, over the burdens that have made us stumble and caused us pain. I don’t want the pain to make you forget even for a moment all the good in the world – the earth and the sun and the water and, most importantly, people and relationships…” She further wrote: “I wanted to write a nice, humorous, cheerful letter and tell you that YOUR LETTER WAS LIKE A SONG TO MY EARS, but instead of that I’ve got angry with myself almost to the point of tears for my inarticulate mumblings. Well, what’s there to say about the weather? Only that it’s horrible.”
Stalin passed away on March 5, 1953. His death was a huge blow to the Soviet Union, as the Soviet people used to live under his shadow for nearly three decades! Like others, Lev’s aunty Olga considered Stalin as the teacher, the guide, the protector, the leader, and the supreme judge! The demise of such a figure triggered chaos not only in Moscow, but also in other parts of the nation, including Pechora. Some political prisoners were released during this period. However, Lev had to wait for another 16 months!
Joseph Stalin (Dec 18, 1878 – March 5, 1953)
As Svetlana was in a sanatorium at that time due to her father’s illness, Lev reached there. Although Sveta wanted to meet him at a private place, she had no other option. Svetlana’s father revealed that he had 30,000 Rubles in his account that would be sufficient for them to purchase a home. They got married immediately after Lev joined a factory as an engineer in 1954. His salary was 600 Rubles. Svetlana gave birth to their daughter Anastasia in 1955, and their son Nikita in 1957. In 1962, Lev recalled that Svetlana was so depressed during his imprisonment she wrote that she might be too old to have a child if and when he was released. When Orlando asked Svetlana what had made her fall in love with Lev, her answer was simple and sincere: “I knew he was my future from the start. When he was not there, I would look for him, and he would always appear by my side. That is love.”
Lev passed away on July 18, 2008, aged 91; and Svetlana followed him in January 2010. Today, they are lying together at the Golubinskaya Cemetery in Moscow. Long ago (in 1980), Pechora had been burnt down! Wild dogs roam in that wasteland, today. However, Lev and Svetlana’s love story has become immortal…
“Black and enduring separation
I share equally with you.
Why weep? Give me your hand,
Promise me you will come again.
You and I are like high mountains
And we cannot move closer.
Just send me word
At midnight sometime through the stars.”
– Anna Akhmatova, ‘In Dream‘ (1946)
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