Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of seven books, which have been translated into 27 languages. Orlando Figes’s latest book is ‘Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag’. Just Send Me Word is a true love story based on 1,246 letters smuggled in and out of the Pechora labour camp between 1946 and 1955. The letters were exchanged between Lev Mishchenko, a prisoner in Pechora, and Svetlana Ivanova, his girlfriend in Moscow.
Russian Art & Culture Editor Theodora Clarke meets historian Orlando Figes to discuss his latest book ‘Just Send Me Word’.
Theodora Clarke: Let’s talk about your latest book. How did the concept of Just Send Me Word come about?
Orlando Figes: By accident! I went to Moscow to make a radio programme about a previous project I’d done and we stumbled on these three trunks in the doorway of the research office there. They told me about the archive, we opened up one of the trunks and found all these letters. We didn’t know how many there were at that point. There turned out to be 1,246 letters that had been smuggled in and out of this labour camp Pechora, in the far north of Russia. They were between Lev Mishchenko who had been a prisoner there from 1946-65 and his girlfriend, from university, Svetlana Ivanov who was based in Moscow. It was clearly a really important archive and at that stage they were still alive in their early nineties.
I met them the next year and made interviews with them on film. This was done in the hope that we could raise some money for a documentary and use that money to transcribe the letters. It was important to get them transcribed quickly. Also there were so many things in the letters that you couldn’t really work out, such as initials for names and so on. Although they were uncensored letters, because they had been smuggled, there were still a lot of meanings that were unclear. There were euphemisms partly to protect people if the smugglers of the letters were caught. I wanted to be able to go back to the couple with the transcription and ask them some detail about them. Unfortunately no film money came through. So I invested myself and eventually we got an academic grant which enabled us to make the transcription over two years. By then unfortunately, both Lev and Svetlana had passed away. We had the letters though and I think we managed to unpick most, if not all, of the meanings.
TC: Are they the first instance of personal letters out of a gulag? Is that what makes the story of these two individuals so important?
OF: We have smaller archival collections but the next biggest collection contains just over one hundred letters or less and over a shorter period of time. What’s remarkable about this correspondence is not just its volume, 1246 letters both in and out and from sides of the correspondence, but that it is a complete run. That is extraordinary and very rare. It’s one thing for a prisoner to keep letters as their treasures. But, for someone outside of the gulag, to keep letters from a prisoner especially someone in Svetlana’s situation- she was a researcher in an area of industrial physics in the rubber industry which was a military secret- was highly dangerous. It’s unusual that we have both sides of the correspondence and so much of it. It is also unusual in that it’s uncensored. I don’t think we have any other collections of letters where we know they are uncensored. Nearly all letters from the gulag have the censor stamp on them; these didn’t.
Letters therefore are a really important resource for historians of the gulag. I think they are the only major real time record of daily life in the gulag. We have lots of memoir accounts written later but Lev’s letters give us a daily account of what it was like to be in a camp. The psychological aspects of it are revealed in quite a new way.
TC: I noticed that all of your books are very much focused on archives. How important are primary sources for the historian?
OF: Archives are exceptionally important and these letters in particular were really well written. It was a real pleasure to work on this book because it was a very contained archive, giving a microcosmic view of something which could reflect on much broader themes. But it wasn’t just the letters themselves. If I’d only had those letters I don’t think I could have written the book. One could have published the letters as extracts with commentary but that wouldn’t have made a very good book. What was really a breakthrough in writing Just Send Me Word were two things. Firstly, going to Pechora and talking to people, getting a sense of the camp, a detailed map of the installations which could then help make sense of so much that was in the letters. Then, more importantly perhaps, getting hold of the archive of the labour camp itself. It’s the party archive of this wood combine, which was a prison zone of about 1500 prisoners and 500 free workers. It’s the free workers that give us the key to the smuggling of the letters. Within that party archive we have a lot of documentation about the guards, the security and the economy of the camp. I also worked with the archive of the broader gulag administration of Pechora; the wood combine where Lev was a prisoner was part of a complex of gulag territory about the size of the United Kingdom.
TC: I heard that the Memorial Offices were raided and that much of your research there was seized in 2008. Have you encountered challenges researching this period of Soviet history in Russia?
OF: Directly no. I think the raid on the Memorial Offices in December 2008 came at a moment of heightened ideological struggle over the politics of memory of the Stalin period. I think that moment has probably passed. I don’t think it was connected with my work in any direct way. Part of the work I did with the St Petersburg branch was taken, but so were a lot of other things. On this project I think I was extremely fortunate to get hold of the archive of the labour camp. There are still restrictions on archival access and as you say books on the Stalin terror, or the gulag generally…There’s not censorship of these themes but, at the same time, there is no attempt to air the subjects in the mass media in Russia. It is a subject that is passed over.
TC: I notice you have been doing some teaching in Russia on Russian history.
OF: Yes, I’m very engaged with that at the moment. It’s a major issue because the text books used in most schools and some universities are really quite outdated. Although they were renewed in the nineties, to some extent they remain essentially a sort of sanitised version of Soviet history. The Terror is passed over in a paragraph or two. It is present in many textbooks as something directed against Bolsheviks, not a mass terror that affected the whole population. Any attempt to work from the Terror to a discussion of the nature of the regime itself is not welcomed. Any attempt to question the legitimacy of the Soviet system itself is not welcomed. The problem for many universities is how to renew courses and get access to new resources, especially when the political structures of their universities are quite ossified. The deans of some universities have been in place since the Brezhnev years! That’s a problem. They don’t have access to textbooks that could open up new methodologies, new approaches and give them new information. I think the key must be the internet. There must be accessed to resources on the web as well as getting books out there.
TC: You’ve written several books now about Russia. What was it that drew you to the subject of Russian history in particular?
OF: I’m afraid it’s nothing to my credit! There is no Russian background to my family, there’s no good intellectual reason for it! When I was a student at Cambridge my main interest was German Jewish intellectual history but I had a supervisor, Norman Stone. He suggested to me that if I wanted to do a PhD, I should do something empirical and useful. I think that’s very good advice and the best to give someone looking to do a PhD; do something that is empirically based. I took his advice, got a grant from Trinity College to study Russian and went off to Russia in 1984 for a British Council year abroad. I ended up spending more than two years abroad. There I started work on my PhD which was about the peasantry of Volga during the revolutionary period.
TC: Your other book on life in Stalinist Russia The Whisperers makes for extraordinary reading. I read that a third of the people you interviewed actually died during the process research.
OF: Yes and I should think that nearly all of them have passed away by now. We got these recordings from the last generation that could be interviewed who had lived through the Stalin period as young adults and teenagers. These were people born in the early 1920s, very few of them are alive still.
TC: There has been a lot of controversy about the use of oral testimony and some historians disagree about its use. What is your opinion?
OF: Of course oral testimony has its pitfalls, as does any source based research. Interviewing people many years later, as we did, about painful memories is always going to be a very difficult negotiation with the subjects themselves. There are additional layer of complexity involved. What oral history can do is give you access to viewpoints, memories and understandings that no other source can give you. They can also give you the texture of a period which other sources can’t give you. It can be very useful and revealing when you can work in the margins between oral history and written documentation.
We could interview a family, work with related documentation on the subject matter and then have an opportunity to go back to them and ask questions. We did manage this on some occasions. When you work in these margins it can be very revealing. I’m a great supporter of oral history and I think increasingly I notice in my own PhD students that they want to use oral history. I think it can be a very rich scene provided you don’t rely on it exclusively.
To the critics of oral history I would let them reflect on their own sources. We’ve tended to have a fetish of the archival document as something reliable, objective and definitive. If you can give an archival source to your evidence it looks pretty convincing. This is something I think that developed, particularly in Russian history, because access to archives was so difficult. But what is an archival document? It’s often no more than something written up in the basis of hearsay. It’s often a lie or a version put across by a bureaucrat. It’s often got its own back story which can cast doubt on the testimony that is written. I think any historian that works with Soviet documents has problems to overcome.
TC: Recently there has been a shift away from more dry academic textbooks to focus on the human aspects of the story by historians such as yourself and Antony Beevor.
OF: That’s always been my approach as a historian. I’ve always been interested in the human side, in understanding history from the level of the individual human, rather than in terms of class and ideology. That is how much how Russian/Soviet history was written when I started out, in what was still the Cold War. Sovietologists were very much part of that Marxist school. I think now that this approach to history is commonplace and mainstream. However, when I started out it wasn’t new, but it was a type of historical narrative that had fallen out of fashion because of the domination of academic history. In the Russian/Soviet field history was influenced by schools of interpretation informed by the politics of the Cold War.
If there’s been one common theme in all my writing about Russia it’s been an attempt to move it on from Cold War ideologies. The history of the Revolution was written with a view to explain working class consciousness, as if that was relevant to what happened in 1917. Frankly it wasn’t. Those academics are still there and are still quite influential. I think that’s part of the problem of Russian and Soviet history now; it’s very out of date. That’s partly because of the legacy of where it’s all come from. However, there are new people coming through who are still looking at Russia and the Soviet experiment in new ways.
TC: There was a recent production at the National Theatre based on the Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov. What was your involvement with that?
OF: That was a play by Rupert Wicombe who wrote a script based on my work. It was a good production and it could be useful for schools, particularly I think for school audiences. Theatre is very accessible and can help kids of 16 or so to think about the complexities of the Soviet system. Simonov was a very interesting character whose story can illuminate some of the complex issues about collaboration, moral compromise and belief under the Soviet system. He was a poet who came from an aristocratic background on his mother’s side who reinvented himself as a proletarian writer in the 1930s. He became world famous during the war, partly for his war correspondence, but more famously for his poem Wait For Me. He then rose to meteoric heights in the Soviet literary establishment and was involved in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the late 1940s. In a way that betrayed some of his friends and I think he regretted it and was even remorseful about that in later years. His biography played a major part of The Whisperers and I think it’s an interesting subject to introduce to schools. One of the things that pleased me most is that The Whisperers has also fostered two school pilot projects. Using new teaching methods they are introducing GCSE and AS Level students to the human interests and issues of living in the Soviet Union.
TC: I read that Tolstoy was your favourite author and I know you were consultant on the new Joe Wright film Anna Karenina. Can you tell us more about your involvement in that?
OF: Joe contacted me a couple of years ago because he said that he’d been very influenced by Natasha’s Dance in his conception of Anna Karenina. As you know, the film is set in a theatre. I think what Joe was thinking about was a passage in Natasha’s Dance where I wrote about the ways in which the European aristocracy acted out its European manners as if on a stage. They were quite self-conscious. They had to act European and then look at themselves to judge how far they were acting European. There were all these dualities in Russian aristocratic everyday culture. For example, the areas in which they performed European rituals such as speaking in French. Then the more informal areas of their life where they could be more Russian, such as their religious life or life at their country estates. So there were all these dualities which were to some extent artificers of European manners that were important in the early nineteenth century. By the time of the 1870s, when Anna Karenina was set, the aristocracy was a more mature synthesis of European and Russian manners. Joe was interested in this idea and I think it really works in the film. I think it was a way of telescoping this vast canvas of Anna Karenina which does, after all, reflect on virtually every aspect of Russian life in the 1870s. I think the film is a triumph. So my part was a very tiny in the film; it gave Joe this idea and helped formulate this idea. Then I then went along to talk to the cast about Tolstoy and his world and to answer all sorts of questions they had which was wonderful. I also looked over the script for accuracy and then I turned up for the cast party – so what more could you ask for!
TC: What are your plans now after Send Me Word?
OF: I’m writing a concise history of the Russian Revolution over one hundred years. It obviously draws from The People’s Tragedy and The Whisperers and that’s partly because the former book is used in a lot of schools. However, it’s too big to be a text book. So I thought it would be a good idea to do a compressed version of my view of the Revolution. It’s also an essay on the Revolution as a hundred year arc that begins in 1881, when I begin The People’s Tragedy, and ends in 1991. It’s an attempt to see the whole of Russian/Soviet history in those years as one revolutionary arc. It’s an essay that I hope the general reader might want to pick up. In some ways it’s my sign off on Russia. I don’t know what I’ll do after. I think I’ve said what I want to say about Russia. I’m sure I’ll continue to be involved in Russian history but it will be in the broader European context. The work I did on Crimea, where I wrote about Russian in a European and more global context, will be more like the sort of interests I pursue in any future book that involves Russia.
TC: When is that scheduled for publication?
OF: I don’t know as I’m still writing it! But hopefully it will come out next year.
Interview conducted 14 September 2012. All content ©Russian Art and Culture
Just Send Me Word is currently available in bookshops and from Amazon.
For more information on Orlando’s work visit http://www.orlandofiges.com/