The politics of doing Soviet history have always been as fiendishly complicated as the history itself, just as much a swamp of ideological pretzel-twisting and naked personal ambition. Figes, a 52-year-old historian at the University of London, is both the author of prize-winning books on Russian history and the man who was famously exposed in 2010, posting on Amazon’s British site, under an assumed name, blistering reviews of his rivals’ works (“pretentious,” “rubbish”) and sycophantic assessments of his own (“beautiful and necessary”). Even more caddishly, Figes let his wife—a prominent lawyer—shoulder the blame for a week before finally fessing up. And in May, two American academics writing in The Nation said delays in translating Figes’s magnum opus, The Whisperers, into Russian were not politically motivated, as Figes had claimed, but due to errors and distortions in the text.
Small surprise, then, that Figes’s peers now assess his works with a gimlet eye, but the majority judgment so far is that it’s the first-rate narrative historian, and not the academic greasy pole climber, on display in Just Send Word. The extraordinary love story of Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, separated first by the war and then by Lev’s eight-year stretch in Pechora labour camp (1946 to 1954), is unveiled in 1,246 letters, none censored and every single one carefully preserved (647 from Lev and 599 from Svetlana), all delivered by sympathetic outside workers.
Figes uses them to tell two stories. One is of life in the camp and in postwar Moscow. Svetlana, determined to lessen Lev’s isolation, involved him in every aspect of her life—asking advice, telling him of the latest films, offering news of family and friends. The other story can only be called an epic of courage and hope personified. “We will get through this, Lev,” Svetlana wrote matter-of-factly in 1946. And so they did, marrying and living together until Lev’s 2008 death—Svetlana lived until 2010—as two ordinary Russians who overcame everything thrown at them by a murderous regime in murderous times.