Allen Lane, £20

Just Send Me Word, a True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, By Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes puts a personal scandal behind him to write a riveting tale of the Communist terror

The gulag has never won the public profile of the Nazi concentration camps. Some 18 million people passed through the Soviet Union's labour camps. Millions died. But, for Russians and foreigners alike, there is no gulag equivalent of Auschwitz, no Russian shrine where pilgrims flock to be awed by man's inhumanity.

I have visited several Russian camps where prisoners once felled trees, hewed coal and built railways. In most places, the physical traces have all but vanished. Often all that remains are graves dotted in neat rows across the tundra, and sometimes a mound marking a collapsed barracks.

Without sites to remind visitors of the gulag's extent, it is becoming ever easier to forget it even existed. This amnesia has much to do with Russia's ambivalent relationship to its past. With a former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, returned to the Kremlin, it is not surprising that officials are laggardly in publicising the crimes of the security services.

I have long wondered if it is the scale of the crimes that is the problem. Are they so vast that they are impossible to picture, and thus understand? Although Russian writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn have striven heroically to describe the experiences of the prisoners, the story they tell has almost been too enormous to comprehend. From the perspective of a Hollywood producer, the gulag story lacks individuals for us to sympathise with: a Primo Levi, an Anne Frank or even an Oskar Schindler.

Orlando Figes's Just Send Me Word may well be the book to change that. For the first time, we have a true story from the gulag that could be made into a mainstream film. Figes literally tripped over the book's source material while in Moscow on a research trip. The three trunks containing the source material were blocking a doorway in the offices of the Moscow charity Memorial. Intrigued, he asked what was in them and learned that they contained almost a decade's worth of letters between Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, a couple separated first by the Second World, then by Lev's imprisonment in the Far North between 1946 and 1954.

In an example of the kind of love that most of us can only dream of, Lev and Svetlana remained faithful throughout their ordeal, despite the massive risks they were running. The hundreds of letters, smuggled though the barbed wire by sympathetic guards and preserved by Svetlana, are a unique record of how the horrors of Stalin's reign affected two ordinary Russians and how their love for each other kept them alive.

Even before Lev's arrest, their lives were not easy. Lev lost his parents after the revolution. He studied physics at a time when believing in quantum explanations could be enough to have you shot. He was drafted into the army, captured by the Germans, and fed into the Nazi prisoner-of-war system. Svetlana was evacuated to Central Asia, and had no idea whether Lev was even alive.

Lev only won liberation when the Americans swept through Germany. He turned down their offer to work as a nuclear physicist in the US. He wanted to get home to Svetlana. It was a decision he paid for with his freedom. Lev, like most returning POWs, was sentenced to a decade in the camps for betraying his homeland (having been captured).

At first, though he longed for his lost lover, he decided not to write to her. He had not heard from her for five years. Perhaps she had married another. But, in a moment of weakness, he wrote to his aunt asking for news. She wasted no time in alerting Svetlana.

Figes is one of the great modern narrative historians, a fact that was slightly obscured in 2010 when a scandal erupted over his posting anonymous reviews of his rivals' books on Amazon. These letters give him ample opportunity to remind any remaining doubters of his talents, however, and sometimes they are so moving that he quotes them in full, with minimal commentary. "I would only need to see that you are there when I wake up in the morning and then, in the evening, to tell you everything that had happened in the day, to look into your eyes and hold you close to me," wrote Svetlana in October 1946. "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)."

The letters detail Lev's friendships, Svetlana's career, the small kindnesses that made life possible; the cruelty and incompetence of bureaucrats that made life hard. Svetlana, indomitable and formidable in equal measure, insisted on coming to see him several times without official permission: acts both insanely dangerous and wildly romantic.

They gave each other enough hope to keep going until Stalin died in 1953. The initial amnesty that followed his death was not wide enough to cover Lev, causing him to worry that he would not survive to make it home. He survived his last Arctic winter, however, finally winning release in July 1954. He dashed south without even waiting to obtain the proper passport from the police.

They married in September 1955, two decades after they first met. "I wouldn't recommend you marry him," the woman at the registry office told Svetlana, who just smiled. They lived happily ever after, surviving long enough to meet Figes and tell him their story in their own words. They are buried side by side.

These letters summon up a world of pettiness, brutality, ignorance and fear, both more touching and more comprehensible than a grand historical narrative can ever be.They give insights into people at their worst – in Lev's words: "in 999 instances out of a 1,000, the common principles of decency lead the average person to ruin or starvation in the struggle to survive" – but also show people at their best. They describe how love evaded every barrier erected against it and defied Joseph Stalin.

They give real-time, uncensored colour and life to the gulag, a world that has previously been mostly described in statistics, reminiscences and official reports. In the early 1950s, at its peak, the gulag contained more than 2.5 million people, two percent of the Soviet Union's entire labour force. That is the kind of vast statistic that dulls comprehension.

The letters between Svetlana and Lev remind us that those prisoners were human, and so were their guards and their families. Svetlana and Lev did not mean to create a lasting memorial to the victims of the gulag, but that is what they have done, and Figes has achieved something extraordinary in allowing them to do it.

Oliver Bullough is the author of 'Let Our Fame Be Great: journeys among the defiant people of the Caucasus'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game