Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Just Send Me Word, a True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, By Orlando Figes- - Allen Lane- 352 pages -24 May 2012

“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 could not breathe. Yet time would pass, and I would pull myself together. We will get through this, Lev.”

Svetlana Ivanov

No, I do not see any grounds for pessimism. One must take history as she is. Mankind moves like some pilgrims: two steps forward, one step back. During the movement back, it seems to sceptics and pessimists that all is lost. Nothing is lost. Mankind has risen from the ape to the Comintern. It will rise from the Comintern to genuine socialism. The sentence of the commission shows once again that a correct idea is stronger than the most powerful police. In this conviction lies the indestructible foundation of revolutionary optimism.

Leon Trotsky

"We wanted nothing for ourselves, we all wanted just one thing: the world revolution and happiness for all. And if it were necessary to give up our lives to achieve this, then we would have done so without hesitating."

Nadezhda Joffe

There is a strong cultural tradition in Russia of recording memoirs as a form of political protest. Unfortunately, the memoirs of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov recorded by Orlando Figes’s 2012 book Just Send Me Word does not fall into this category.

Memoirs from this time can in the words of J.J. Plant “serve many purposes, personal, political and literary. For the survivors of the Stalin terror, it has been particularly important to set the record straight, to rescue and preserve the memories and knowledge which Stalin and his regime set out to expunge and to name the criminals and collaborators who thought the Stalinist regime would last forever”.[1]

Just Send Me Word is a narrative-based study that has become one of many of the “‘survivor of Stalinism memoirs” that they have in the words of the Marxist writer David North become a “literary genre”.

This not to say that Just Send Me Word has no merit. The book is well written and researched. The archive of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov should contain a goldmine if a historian mines it well. Figes appears to found what he looked for in that the book is mainly absent of any politics.

What kind of enemy was Lev Mishchenko? Mishchenko studied physics and was heavily influenced by quantum physics. Ordinarily would have been a death sentence straight away given Joseph Stalin’s ignorant hostility to bourgeois physics. Lev survived and served in the army during the war and was captured by the Nazis.

After the war he offered work in the US as a nuclear physicist He turned this down preferring to be with his girlfriend, Svetlana. It was a wrong decision given that he was arrested for “betraying his homeland”.

During his time in the gulag he exchanged more than 1,200 letters with Svetlana. These letters quite unbelievably have been preserved thus creating “the only known Gulag correspondence collection of such size and scope”.

Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov were part of the nightmare years of the late 1930s, during which Stalin oversaw the physical extermination of socialist intellectuals and workers in the USSR.

The flower of the October revolution, Left Oppositionists, intellectuals, workers and peasants died by the hundreds of thousands in conditions of back-breaking labour and deprivation. The political nature of the opposition to Stalinism is a problem for Figes. In the book this struggle is absent.

Why is this a problem for Figes. Is it because the scale of the crimes are so big that they are difficult to comprehend. The key to understanding Figes position appears on page 18 when Figes laments that “no one ever knew what this calculated policy of mass murder was about “. This is not true as there was an opposition to Stalin in the form of the Left Opposition.

Figes blames Stalin’s “Paranoic killing of potential enemies”. This is very vague and is not a satisfactory answer. If Figes elaborated he would be forced to explain that there was a socialist alternative to Stalinism in the form of the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky.

A point elaborated by Russian Marxist historian Vadim Rogovin who states ” Stalin’s repressive campaigns flowed from his fear not only of the peasantry but of the working class and above all, its revolutionary vanguard—the Left Opposition. The ever-growing wave of mass violence was directed not against enemies of the October Revolution, but against enemies that the Stalinist regime itself created: the peasantry resisting forced collectivisation and participants in the communist oppositions.[2]


Both Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov lives are a triumph of principle and human decency over repression caused by Stalinism.

As Helen Halyard states “The memoirs of survivors of the Stalin terror are central in shedding personal light on the process of the long civil war which Stalin waged against the revolution. They illuminate and add force to the historical research of writers such as Conquest and Rogovin. However, they do more than this. They can, at their best, demonstrate the survival of some tiny kernel of humanity in the face of the most immeasurable oppression”.

Both Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov had spirit they did not have a revolutionary spirit.

[2] Author’s introduction to Bolsheviks Against Stalinism 1928-1933: Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition
By Vadim Z. Rogovin-30 August 2019-