Just Send Me Word

A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag

Orlando Figes

Metropolitan Books

Just Send Me Word
Lev saw Svetlana first. He noticed her at once in the crowd of students waiting to be called to the entrance exam in the tree-lined courtyard of Moscow University. She was standing by the doorway to the Physics Faculty with a friend of Lev's who waved him over and introduced her as a classmate from his former school. They exchanged only a few words before the doors of the faculty were opened and they joined the throng of students on the staircase to the hall where the exam would be held.
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. She was of medium height, slim with thick brown hair, high cheekbones, a pointed chin, and blue eyes shining with a sad intelligence. She was one of only a half dozen women to gain admission to the faculty, the best for physics in the Soviet Union, along with Lev and thirty other men in September 1935. In a dark wool shirt, short grey skirt and black suede shoes, the same clothes she had worn as a schoolgirl, Svetlana stood out in this masculine environment. She had a lovely voice (she would sing in the university choir) which added to her physical attractiveness. She was popular, vivacious, occasionally flirtatious and known for her sharp tongue. Svetlana had no shortage of male admirers, but there was something special about Lev. He was neither tall nor powerfully built - he was slightly smaller than she was - nor as confident of his good looks as other young men of his age. He wore the same old shirt - the top button fastened but without a tie in the Russian style - in all the photos of him at the time. He was still more of a boy than a man in appearance. But he had a kind and gentle face with soft blue eyes and a full mouth, like a girl's.
During that first term, Lev and Sveta (as he began to call her) saweach other frequently.1 They sat together in lectures, nodded to each other in the library, and moved in the same circle of budding physicists and engineers who ate together in the canteen or met in the student club near the entrance to the library where some would come for a cigarette, others just to stretch their legs and chat.
Later, Lev and Sveta would go out in a group of friends to the theatre or the cinema; and then he would walk her home, taking the romantic route along the garden boulevards from Pushkin Square to the Pokrovsky Barracks near Sveta's house, where couples promenaded in the evening. In the student circles of the 1930s the conventions of courtship continued to be ruled by notions of romantic chivalry, notwithstanding the liberalization of sexual behaviour in some quarters after 1917. At Moscow University romances were serious and chaste, usually beginning when a couple separatedfrom their wider group of friends and he started to walk her home in the evenings. It was a chance to talk more intimately together, perhaps exchanging favourite lines of poetry, the accepted medium for conversations about love, a chance for them to kiss before they parted at her house.
Lev knew that he was not alone in liking Sveta. He often saw her walking with Georgii Liakhov (the friend who had introduced him to Sveta) in the Aleksandr Gardens by the Kremlin Wall. Lev was too reserved to ask Georgii about his relations with Sveta, but one day Georgii said, 'Svetlana's such a lovely girl, but she's so intelligent, so terribly intelligent.' He said it in a way that made it clear to Lev that Georgii was intimidated by her intellect. As Lev would soon find out, Sveta could be moody, critical of others and impatient with people not as clever as herself.
Slowly, Lev and Sveta drew closer. They were brought together by a 'profound sympathy', recalls Lev. Sitting in his living room more than seventy years later, he smiles at the memory of that first emotional connection. He thinks carefully before choosing his next words: 'It was not that we fell madly in love with each other, but there was a deep and permanent affinity.'
Eventually they came to see themselves as a couple: 'Everybody knew that Svetlana was my girl because I didn't visit anybody else.'There was a moment when it became obvious to both of them. One afternoon, as they were walking in the quiet residential streets near Sveta's house on Kazarmennyi Pereulok (Barracks Lane), she took his hand and said, 'Let's go that way, I'll introduce you to my friends.' They went to see her closest friends from school, Irina Krauze, who was studying French at the Institute of Foreign Languages, and Aleksandra ('Shura' or 'Shurka') Chernomordik, who was studying medicine. Lev recognized this as a mark of Sveta's trust in him, as a sign of her affection, that she let him meet her childhood friends.
Soon Lev was invited to Sveta's home. The Ivanov family had a private apartment with two large rooms and a kitchen - an almost unknown luxury in Stalin's Moscow, where communal apartments housing a family per room with one shared kitchen and toilet were the norm. Sveta and her younger sister, Tanya, lived in one room with their parents, the girls sleeping on a sofa that unfolded into a bed. Their brother, Yaroslav ('Yara'), lived with his wife, Elena, in the other room, where there was a large wardrobe, a glass-fronted cabinet for books and a grand piano used by the whole family. With its high ceilings and antique furniture, the Ivanov home was a tiny island of the intelligentsia in the proletarian capital.
Sveta's father, Aleksandr Alekseevich, was a tall, bearded man in his mid-fifties with sad, attentive eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. A veteran Bolshevik, he had joined the revolutionary movement as a student at Kazan University in 1902, had been expelled and imprisoned, and then had re-enrolled in the Physics Faculty of St Petersburg University, where he had worked with the great Russian chemist Sergei Lebedev in the development of synthetic rubber before the First World War. After the October Revolution of 1917, Aleksandr had played a leading part in organizing the Soviet production of rubber. But he left the Party in 1921, officially for reasons of ill-health, although in reality he had become disillusioned with the Bolshevik dictatorship. During the next decade he went on two extended work trips to the West, before moving with his family to Moscow in 1930. This was the height of the Five Year Plan to industrialize the SovietUnion and the first great wave of Stalin's terror against 'bourgeois specialists', when many of Aleksandr's oldest friends and colleagues were rounded up as 'spies' or 'saboteurs' and shot or sent to labour camps. Aleksandr's foreign trips made him politically vulnerable, but somehow he survived and went on working for the cause of Soviet industry, rising to become the deputy director of the Resin Research Institute. In a household dominated by the ethos of the technical intelligentsia, all the children were brought up to study engineering or science: Yara went to the Moscow Machine-Building Institute, Tanya studied meteorology, and Sveta attended the Physics Faculty.
Aleksandr welcomed Lev into his home. He enjoyed the presence of another scientist. Sveta's mother was more distant and reserved. A plump, slow-moving woman in her mid-fifties who wore mittens to cover up a hand disease, Anastasia Erofeevna was a Russian-language teacher in the Moscow Institute of the Economy, and had the stern demeanour of a pedagogue. She would screw up her eyes and peer at Lev through her thick-rimmed spectacles. For a long time he was scared of her, but towards the end of Sveta's and his first year at the university an incident occurred that altered everything. Sveta had borrowed Lev's notes for a lecture she had missed. When he came to pick them up before the first exam, Anastasia told him that she thought his notes were very good. It was not much - a small, unexpected compliment - but the softness of her voice was understood by Lev as a signal of acceptance by Anastasia, the gatekeeper of Sveta's family. 'I took it as a lawful pass into their home,' recalled Lev. 'I began to visit them more frequently, without feeling shy.' After their exams, in the long, hot summer of 1936, Lev would come for Sveta every evening and take her to Sokolniki Park to teach her how to ride a bicycle.
For Lev acceptance by Sveta's family was always an important part of their relationship. He had no immediate family of his own. Lev was born in Moscow on 21 January 1917 - days before the cataclysm of the February Revolution changed the world for ever. His mother, Valentina Alekseevna, the daughter of a minor provincialofficial, had been brought up by two aunts in Moscow following the loss of both her parents at an early age. She was a teacher in one of the city's schools when she met Lev's father, Gleb Fedorovich Mishchenko, a graduate of the Physics Faculty of Moscow University who was then studying at the Railway Institute to become an engineer. Mishchenko was a Ukrainian name. Gleb's father, Fedor, had been a prominent figure in the nationalist Ukrainian intelligentsia, a professor of philology at Kiev University and a translator of ancient Greek texts into Russian. After the October Revolution, Lev's parents moved to a small Siberian town in the Tobolsk region called Beryozovo, which Gleb had got to know from surveying expeditions as a railway engineer. A place of exile since the eighteenth century, Beryozovo was far away from the Bolshevik regime and in a relatively wealthy agricultural area, so it seemed a good location to sit out the Civil War (1917-21), which brought terror and economic ruin to Moscow. The family lived with Valentina's aunt in a rented room in the house of a large peasant family. Gleb found a job as a schoolteacher and meteorologist, Valentina worked as a teacher too, and Lev was brought up by her aunt, Lydia Konstantinovna, whom he called his 'grandmother'. She told him fairy tales and taught him the Lord's Prayer, which he remembered all his life.
The Bolsheviks arrived in Beryozovo in the autumn of 1919. They began arresting 'bourgeois' hostages deemed to have collaborated with the Whites, the counter-revolutionary forces that had occupied the region during the Civil War. One day they took Lev's parents. Lev, four, went with his grandmother to see them in the local jail. Gleb had been placed in a large cell with nine other prisoners. Lev was allowed to go into the cell and sit with his father while the guard stood with his rifle by the door. 'Is that uncle a hunter?' Lev asked his father, who replied: 'The uncle is protecting us.' Lev and his grandmother found his mother in an isolation cell. He went to see her twice. On the last occasion she gave him a bowl of sour cream and sugar which she had bought with her prisoner's allowance to make his visit memorable.
Not long afterwards, Lev was taken to the hospital, where hismother was dying. She had been shot in the chest, probably by a prison guard. Lev was in the doorway of the ward when a nurse passed him with a strange red and palpitating object in her hands. Frightened by the sight, Lev refused to go into the ward when his grandmother told him to say goodbye, but from the doorway he watched her go up to the bed and kiss his mother on the head.
The funeral took place in the town's main church. Lev went with his grandmother. Sitting on a stool in front of the open coffin, he was too low down to look inside and see his mother's face. But behind the coffin he could see the painted faces of the colourful iconostasis, and in the candlelight he recognized the icon of the Mother of God directly above the coffin's head. He remembers thinking that the face of the Mother of God looked like his own mother's. Lev's father, released from prison for the funeral and accompanied by a guard, appeared by his side. 'He's come to say goodbye,' Lev heard a woman say. After standing by the coffin for a while, Lev's father was led away. Lev later visited his mother's grave in the cemetery outside the church. The mound of freshly dug earth was black against the snow and on top of it somebody had placed a wooden cross.
A few days later, Lev's grandmother took him to a second funeral in the same church. This time there were ten coffins lined up in a row in front of the iconostasis, each containing a murdered victim of the Bolsheviks. One of them was Lev's father. The prisoners in his cell must have all been shot at the same time. Where they were buried is unknown.
In the dry summer of 1921, when famine swept through rural Russia, Lev went back to Moscow with his grandmother. The Bolsheviks had temporarily called a halt to their class war against the 'bourgeoisie', and for the remnants of Moscow's middle class it was once again possible to make a living. Lev's grandmother had worked for twenty years as a midwife in Lefortovo, a district of small traders and merchants, and she and Lev now moved there to live with a distant relative. For a year they occupied the corner of a room - a bed and cot behind a curtain - while she did odd nursing jobs. In1922 Lev was taken in by his 'Aunt Katya' (Valentina's sister), who lived with her second husband in a communal apartment on Granovsky Street, a stone's throw from the Kremlin. He stayed there until 1924, when he moved to the apartment of his mother's aunt, Elizaveta Konstantinovna, a former headteacher at a girls' high school, who lived on Malaia Nikitskaia Street. 'Almost every day, Aunt Katya came to visit us,' recalled Lev, 'so I grew up in a sphere of constant female influence and care.'
The love of these three women - none of whom had children of their own - could not have made up for the loss of his mother. Yet it produced in Lev a deep respect, even reverence, for women in general. This maternal love was supplemented by the moral and material support of three of his parents' closest friends, who all sent money to his grandmother on a regular basis: Lev's godmother, a doctor in Erevan, the Armenian capital; Sergei Rzhevkin ('Uncle Seryozha'), a professor of acoustics at Moscow University; and Nikita Mel'nikov ('Uncle Nikita'), a veteran Menshevik,2 linguist, engineer and schoolteacher, whom Lev called a 'second father'.
Lev went to a mixed-sex school in a former girls' gymnasium in Bolshaia Nikitskaia Street (single-sex schools had been abolished in Soviet Russia in 1918). Housed in a classical nineteenth-century mansion with two wings, the school still retained much of its intelligentsia ethos when Lev started there. Many of its staff had been teaching in the school before 1917. Lev's German teacher was its former head; the teacher of the infants was the cousin of a famous Ukrainian composer; and his Russian teacher was related to the writer Mikhail Bulgakov. But in the early 1930s, when Lev was a teenager, the school shifted to a polytechnic curriculum with an engineering focus linked to Moscow's factories. Industrial technicians would lecture at the school with practical instruction and experiments to prepare the children for apprenticeships in the factories.
Sveta's school in Vuzovsky Lane was not far from Lev's. What would they have made of one another if they had met then? Theycame from very different backgrounds - Lev from the old world of the Moscow middle class, where the Orthodox values of his grandmother had influenced his upbringing, Sveta from the more progressive world of the technical intelligentsia. Yet they shared many basic values and interests. Both were mature for their age, serious, clever, independent in their thinking, with open and inquiring intellects shaped more by their own experience than by propaganda or social convention. That independence was to stand them in good stead. In a letter of 1949 Sveta would recall what she was like at the age of eleven - at a time when the campaign against religion was at its height in Soviet schools:
It seems to me that I was more grown up than the other children at my school ... Back then I was very worried about the issue of God and religion. Our neighbours were believers and Yara used to tease their children. But I stepped in, standing up for freedom of religion. And I solved the issue I had with God for myself - I concluded that without him we still can't understand eternity or creation, and that since I couldn't see the point of him it meant that he's not needed (not by me, that is, though he might be needed by others who do believe in Him).
Both Lev and Sveta were by this age the conscientious products of an ethos of hard work and responsibility. In Sveta's case it was the outcome of her upbringing in the Ivanov family, where she was put in charge of her younger sister, Tanya, as well as many household chores, while in Lev's it was neccessitated by his economic circumstances. He had to work his way through school to supplement his grandmother's small pension.
In 1932, when he was just fifteen, Lev had a night job working on the construction of the first Moscow Metro line, between Gorky Park and Sokolniki. He measured out the route across the streets and joined the digging teams made up largely of peasant migrants, who in those years were flooding into Moscow to avoid being forced by the Bolsheviks into collective farms. Lev became aware ofcollectivization's terrible consequences the following summer. As a cleaner on a rabbit-breeding farm he got to know a fellow worker who had arrived from the famine-stricken Ukrainian countryside. The man wrote sad poems about 'abandoned village homes, people dying, and corpses piled behind a fence'. Lev was struck by the poems' emotional power but was put off by their sensational subject matter. 'Why do you make up such terrifying scenes?' he asked the worker, who told him: 'I haven't made them up. That is my village. There is a famine there and no one has the strength to bury those who've died.' Lev was shocked. He had never really questioned Soviet power and its policies before. He had joined the Komomsol, the Communist Youth League, and believed in the Party. But the worker's words sowed a seed of doubt. Later that year Lev went to a collective farm near Moscow on a school trip organized by his biology teacher, a Bolshevik enthusiast, who used one of the abandoned houses on the farm to put on a play about the 'struggle against vermin'. The house had belonged to the village priest and his family, who had evidently been evicted during the collectivization of the village. Inside the house were the burnt remains of the priest's books, including a bible in ancient Greek, a language read by Lev's grandfather but no longer needed under the Soviet regime.
When he started at the university, in 1935, Lev was living with his grandmother (then aged eighty-two) in a communal apartment on Leningrad Prospekt in north-west Moscow. His eccentric 'Aunt Olga'3 also had a room in the apartment and lived there with her husband. Lev and his grandmother occupied a narrow, dark room: there was a single bed for him on one side and a trunk on the other, on which his grandmother made herself a makeshift bed by resting her feet on a stool. By the window at the end was a desk and, above Lev's bed, a small glass-fronted cabinet where he kept his collection of chemical appliances and his books, mainly maths and physicsbooks, though also classic works of Russian literature. When Sveta came to visit she would sit with Lev on his bed and talk. Aunt Olga kept a beady eye on their movements in the apartment's corridor. A strict church-goer, she disapproved of Sveta's visiting and made it clear to Lev that she thought something was going on. Lev would say, 'She's just my friend from the university,' but Olga would stand in the hallway by his door anyway, listening for 'evidence'.
The one place that Lev and Sveta could really be free was in the countryside. Every summer Sveta's family rented a large dacha in Boriskovo, a settlement on the Istra River 70 kilometres north-west of Moscow. Lev would visit them, sometimes cycling from Moscow, sometimes travelling by train to Manikhino, an hour's walk from Boriskovo. Lev and Sveta would spend the whole day in the woods, lying by the river, reading poetry, until darkness came and he had to leave to catch the last train or start on his long cycle back.
On 31 July 1936 Lev came out by train. There was a heatwave and he was sweaty after walking from Manikhino, so before turning up at Sveta's house he decided to have a quick swim in the river near Boriskovo. Stripping down to his underpants, Lev dived in. A poor swimmer, he stuck close to the riverbank, but the strong current carried him away and he began to go under. Catching sight of a fisherman on the riverbank, Lev cried out to him, 'I'm drowning, help!' The fisherman did nothing. Lev went under again and came up a second time, once more calling for help - before going under yet again. Too weak to save himself, Lev thought how stupid it would be to die so near to Sveta's house. Then he lost consciousness. When he came to he was sitting on the bank beside the fisherman. Struggling to catch his breath, Lev caught only a glimpse of his rescuer, who was standing behind him and telling off the fisherman for not jumping in to help him. The man left before he had a chance to find out who he was and thank him properly. Lev spent the day with Sveta and her family. In the evening Sveta and her sister, Tanya, walked Lev to the edge of the village to say goodbye and see him off to the station. In the village Lev recognized the man who had saved him; he was with an elderly gentleman and twowomen. Lev thanked the man and asked his name. The older man replied: 'I am Professor Sintsov and this is my son-in-law, the engineer Bespalov, and these women are our wives.' Thanking them again, Lev went on to the station, where the public radio system was playing Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Listening to David Oistrakh play the beautiful violin solo, he was overcome by a powerful sense of being alive. Everything around him seemed more intense and vivid than before. He had been saved! He loved Svetlana! And through the music he now felt that joy.
Life was full of precarious joys. In 1935 Stalin had announced that life was 'getting better and gayer'. There were more consumer goods to buy, vodka, caviar, more dance-halls and jolly films to keep the people laughing and sustain their belief in the bright and radiant future that would come when Communism had been built. Meanwhile arrest lists were being prepared by Stalin's political police, the NKVD.
At least 1.3 million 'enemies of the people' were arrested - and more than half of them were later shot - during the Great Terror of 1937-8. No one ever knew what this calculated policy of mass murder was about - whether it was Stalin's paranoiac killing of potential enemies, a war on 'social aliens' or, most likely, a preventive cull of 'unreliables' in the event of war at a time of heightened international tension. The terror reverberated throughout society. Every area of life was affected. Neighbours, colleagues, friends and relatives could be labelled 'spies' or 'Fascists' overnight.
The world of Soviet physics was particularly vulnerable, partly because of its practical importance for the military and partly because it was divided ideologically. The Physics Faculty at Moscow University was the centre of this split. On one side stood a group of brilliant young researchers such as Yury Rumer and Boris Gessen, who championed the physics of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg; on the other, an older group of teachers who denounced the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics as 'idealist' and incompatible with dialectical materialism, the 'scientific' foundation of Marxism-Leninism. The ideological split was reinforced politically,the materialists accusing the followers of quantum mechanics of being 'unpatriotic' (i.e., potential 'spies') because they had been influenced by Western science and had travelled abroad. In August 1936, just before the start of Lev and Sveta's second year, Gessen was arrested on charges of belonging to a 'counter-revolutionary terrorist organization'; he was later shot. In 1937 Rumer was expelled from the university.
Students were expected to be vigilant. In the Komsomol they confronted fellow students whose relatives had been arrested, demanding their expulsion from the university if they failed to renounce those family members. Many were expelled from other faculties, but fewer from Physics, where there was a strong esprit de corps among the students. It was this communal spirit that saved Lev himself, following an incident in 1937.
Military training was compulsory for full-time students at Moscow University. They were obliged to join a reserve corps of officers that could be mobilized in time of war. In the Physics Faculty the students were prepared for command posts in the infantry. The training involved two summer camps near Vladimir. At the first camp, in July 1937, the main instructor had been recently promoted to the junior command of a regiment made up of non-university students. He enjoyed drilling the elite physicists by forcing them to run 200 metres, and then march an equal distance, repeated interminably. It was not in Lev's character to hold his tongue when he saw petty bullying by people in positions of authority. Eventually he exclaimed, 'We have idiots for commanders!' The remark was audible enough to be heard by the instructor, who reported Lev to the authorities. The matter went up to the Divisional Party Committee of the Moscow Military District, which expelled Lev from the Komsomol 'for counter-revolutionary Trotskyist agitation against the commanding ranks of the Workers-Peasants' Red Army'. The following September Lev returned to university. Fearing that there might be further consequences, he appealed to the Divisional Party Committee to revoke his expulsion from the Komsomol. He was called to the headquarters of the Military District, where thecommittee heard his version of events, repealed the expulsion and instead gave him a 'strict reprimand' (strogii vygovor) for 'un-Komsomol-like behaviour'. It was a lucky escape. Later Lev would discover that it was largely due to the courageousness of three friends from the Physics Faculty who had written an appeal to the committee and signed it with their own names. Lev was so well liked by the other students in his faculty that they were willing to take such risks in his defence. Their declaration of solidarity could easily have backfired and led to their own arrests, since a group of three was already enough to qualify as an 'organization' in the eyes of the authorities.
The episode brought Lev and Sveta together. Their relationship had cooled in the middle of their second year at university and they had not seen each other for a while. It was Sveta who had made the break, suddenly withdrawing from their circle of friends. Lev did not understand. Since the previous summer they had seen each other every day, and she had even asked him for his photograph. Many of their friends were getting married, and Lev must have hoped that they might soon be married too. Then, without warning, she had moved away. Looking back on this period, Sveta put it down to her 'black moods' - the depression from which she would suffer for much of her life. 'How many times,' she would later write to Lev, 'have I reproached myself for spoiling things between us and - God knows why - tormenting you.'
Once she saw he was in trouble, Sveta came back to Lev. For the next three years they were inseparable. Lev would meet her on her way to the university in the mornings. He would wait for her at the end of lectures, take her back to Leningrad Prospekt and cook for her or go with her to the theatre or the cinema and then walk her home. Poetry was an important element of their relationship. They would read together, send each other poems and introduce each other to new poetry. Akhmatova and Blok were Sveta's favourite poets, but she also liked a poem by Elena Ryvina which she recited to Lev one evening on a walk through Moscow's streets. The poem spoke of fleeting happiness:
The glow of your cigarette first fades, then burns afresh. We pass along Rossi's4 street, where the lamps burn in vain.
Our rare encounter is shorter than a step, a moment, a breath. Why, dear architect, is your street so short?
Sometimes, if Lev had to work late and could not see Sveta, he would pass by her house at night. On one of these occasions he left this note:
Svetka! I came to see how you are and to remind you that tomorrow, which is the 29th, we would like to see you at our place. I decided not to just barge into your apartment because it's late - half past eleven - and two of your windows are already dark, and two others are dim; I might wake everybody and give them a fright. Come and see me if you're free. Greetings to your mother and to Tanya.
In January 1940, Lev's grandmother died. Sveta was by Lev's side when they buried her in the Vagankovskoe cemetery.
The next month, Lev became a technical assistant at the Lebedev Physics Institute (known in Russian as FIAN). He was still in his final year at university but he had been recommended by Naum Grigorov, a friend from the Physics Faculty who had just started at FIAN, and this was a chance to break into research. Named for Pyotr Lebedev, the Russian physicist who first measured the pressure exerted by light reflected or absorbed by a material body, FIAN was one of the world's leading centres of atomic physics, and in the vanguard of its research programme was the cosmic rays project, inwhich Lev became involved. Because he was studying during the day, Lev often worked the evening shift in the laboratory. Sveta would stay late in the library and then walk the 3 kilometres from the Physics Faculty to FIAN on Miussky Square. She would sit on a bench in the courtyard and wait for Lev, who usually appeared at about eight o'clock to walk her home. On one occasion Lev was so exhausted that he fell asleep in the laboratory and did not wake up until after nine. Sveta was still waiting for him on the bench. She laughed when he told her he had been asleep.
That summer Lev went on a scientific expedition to Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus. High up in the mountains FIAN had a research base where Lev's group could study the effects of cosmic rays closer to their entry point into the earth's atmosphere. Lev spent three months at the base. 'We climbed up and reached our shelter quite quickly yesterday,' he wrote to Sveta. 'I feel splendid, I've got a ferocious appetite and a host of unforgettable memories.'Sveta, meanwhile, was on summer leave from the university and was working at the Lenin Library, which was then being built in a modern concrete block near the Kremlin. 'Do you know, there's a lovely square in front of the library now, and it's all been planted with shrubs and flowers,' she wrote to Lev. 'Who's going to give me a bouquet of flowers for my birthday?' Lev was due to return from the Caucasus on 1 September, ten days before Sveta would turn twenty-three, and he always gave her flowers on her birthday. Until then she would have to make do with letters.
3 August 1940
My first impulse when I got home today was to ask if any letters had come for me, but they all began to tease me about you, so I pretended that it was Irina's postcard I was waiting for. But then Tanya said - with so much emphasis - that there was no postcard from Irina that I knew there must be something from you, so I followed her from room to room (all the doors are still left open in our house so you can go round the rooms for as long as you like)5 begging her to give me your letter. Mama eventually took pity on me and gave it to me.
Sveta wrote to Lev with her news. She had been offered a permanent job at the library.
They won't find anybody better than me. I know the layout of the rooms, the cupboards in the rooms and the shelves ... I know the periodicals inside out, and with my knowledge of the Roman alphabet I can work out the month, year, name and price of any journal in any language except Chinese ... I have a head on my shoulders which may not be filled with the finest brains but is not filled with cotton wool either ... Vera Ivanovna said that I'd be group manager in a year. If I wanted to stay at the library my whole life, this would be a good start to a career. But I don't want to spend my whole life there so ... on Monday I'll say no.
Lev, don't worry about my health. I told you that either my mood depends on my condition or my condition depends on my mood. At any rate, you'll be able to see from my handwriting that I'm calm and untroubled, which means that I'm not in any pain or ill with anything. Mama says that I have tuberculosis. Her reason - my weight loss. But you know, with the kind of diet I've had it would be difficult to expect anything else, and I don't have any other symptoms.
In June 1941, Lev was due to go with his FIAN colleagues on a second expedition to Mount Elbrus. On the morning of Sunday 22 June his team was at the institute, finishing its preparations for the trip. Lev was in excellent spirits. He had just passed his final exams at the university and had been told by the faculty committee assigning jobs to graduates that he was one of just four students chosen to go on to FIAN for research on the cosmic rays project. Sveta had returned to the Physics Faculty, now a year behind, and they were happy together. Lev and his colleagues were packing the final pieces of equipment when the leader of their team came in. 'We're not going anywhere,' he said. 'Have you heard the radio?' At noon that day there had been a special broadcast by Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister. 'Today, at 4 o'clock in the morning,' he had announced in a trembling voice, 'German forces descended on our country, attacked our frontiers in many places, and bombed our cities - Zhitomir, Kiev, Sevastopol, Kaunas and others.'
The German assault was so powerful and swift that it took the Soviet forces completely by surprise. Stalin had ignored intelligence reports of German preparations for an invasion, and the Soviet defences were in total disarray. They were easily overrun by the nineteen Panzer divisions and fifteen motorized infantry divisionsthat spearheaded the German invasion force. The Soviet air fleet lost over 1,200 aircraft during the first morning of the war, most of them destroyed by German bombers while they were parked on the ground. Within hours German special forces had advanced deep into Soviet territory and were cutting telephone lines and seizing bridges in preparation for the main attack.
That afternoon the Komsomol of Moscow University called a meeting in the auditorium and unanimously passed a resolution to mobilize the entire student body for the defence of the country. Everybody wanted to sign up. By the end of June, more than a thousand students and teachers had enrolled in the 8th (Krasnopresnenskaia) Volunteer Artillery Division, including around fifty from the Physics Faculty. Lev was among them. 'There's a fair amount of confusion here at the moment,' he wrote to Sveta's family from the assembly point on 6 July, 'so I can't tell you anything definite about our prospects. The only thing that's more or less known is that we are going to be living and studying here until we're called up for military service by the draft board.'
Lev was shaken by the outbreak of the war. For the first few days he could not conceive what it would mean. His research, his life in Moscow, his relationship with Sveta - everything was now up in the air. 'We are at war,' he kept saying to himself in disbelief.
Although he had volunteered to go to the front, Lev was worried about taking a position of responsibility. Stalin's terror had left the Soviet forces desperately short of officers, and novices like Lev were being called upon to lead men into battle. After only two years of military training, Lev had reached the rank of junior lieutenant, which meant he could be placed in charge of a platoon of thirty men, but he had no confidence in his tactical abilities. In the end he was given the command of a smaller supply unit made up of six students and two older men from the university. He felt happier about being in a unit of students, inexperienced people like himself, who, he thought, would be more forgiving than a soldier from the working class if he made a mistake.
Lev's unit was to move supplies from the Moscow stores to acommunications battalion at the front. There were two truck-drivers, two labourers, a cook, an accountant and a storeman under his command. As they drove towards the front, they saw scenes of chaos that belied the propaganda of the Soviet press. In Moscow it had been reported that the Soviet forces were repelling the Germans, but Lev found them retreating in chaos: the woods were full of soldiers and civilians, and the roads blocked with refugees fleeing east towards Moscow. Untold thousands had been killed. By 13 July Lev had reached the forests near Smolensk, a city under siege by the Germans.
Svetik, we're living in the woods and I'm doing household chores ... I'm supposed to feed everybody here, including the most high-ranking officials, who don't so much ask for what they want to eat as just shout for it ... There are some advantages - relative freedom during trips to stores. Sveta, there's absolutely nowhere for you to write to me - nobody here knows where we'll be from one day to the next. The only way of getting news from you is to call in and see you at home during one of our trips. I don't know when that will be.
On these journeys between Moscow and the front Lev would carry letters for the soldiers and their relatives. He would also see Sveta and her family in between his visits to the army warehouses. There was one trip in July when he missed Sveta but saw her parents, who 'fed and watered' him, as he put it in a letter that he left for her; and a second visit in early September, when Sveta had returned to the university. For Lev the connection to her family was almost as important as the time he spent with her; it made him feel that he belonged. On one of these last trips Sveta's father gave him a piece of paper on which he had written the addresses of four close friends and relatives in various cities of the Soviet Union: these were the people to whom he should turn for help in locating Sveta and her family if they were evacuated from Moscow while he was absent at the front. Although he had never said as much, the paper made it clear that Sveta's father saw Lev as a son.
There was one last visit to Moscow. Lev knew it was his final chance to see Sveta, because they had warned him at the supply depot that nothing more would be issued to his battalion. Telling his drivers that he would meet them later, Lev ran from the depot to Sveta's house. She was unlikely to be there - it was the middle of the day - but he went in any case to say goodbye to somebody. Perhaps Sveta's mother or her sister would be home. Lev knocked on the door. It was opened by Sveta's mother, Anastasia. Stepping inside the entrance corridor, Lev explained that he was in Moscow only for a few more hours and that he would then be leaving for the front. He wanted to say thank you and goodbye. Lev did not know whether he should kiss her; she had never shown much warmth or emotion. He made a bow and moved towards the door. But Anastasia stopped him. 'Wait,' she said. 'Let me kiss you.' She embraced Lev. He kissed her hand and left.
Copyright © 2012 Orlando Figes All rights reserved. Published simultaneously in the United Kingdom by Allen Lane, London.