I have just read a review of a new book on the victims of the Soviet Gulags, in which they conjectured as to why these horrors are so much less known than those of the Jewish Holocaust. The author suggested it was perhaps due to the size of the crimes, but I don’t buy that, at least not entirely.
It is more to do with the people involved. The Holocaust happened in Western Europe, a place meant to have been civilised. So the horrors are more horrific than when they happen in more alien places. They happened to a specific race, the Jews, who are all over the globe, so most of us know some of them; as a group, they are far from invisible. They are also very visible and noisy in the United States, where their skills in the media ensure we never forget what happened. The Nazi horrors were dealt with and many of the perpetrators punished, whereas in the Soviet system, there is no such resolution. And of course, what is happening in the middle east is part of the legacy of the Holocaust, so we are still being reminded of it.
That said, there hasn’t been a lot of good literature on the Soviet horrors, beyond Sozhenitsyn, so the new book by Orlando Figes, ‘Just Send me Word, a True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag’ looks like it might change this, by putting a human face on what happened. Figes accidentally found a huge cache of letters between Lev and Svetlana Mischenko covering their separation during World War II and then when he was in the gulag. Letters between individuals, especially a married couple, are invaluable in shining a light into the inner thoughts and feelings of people from the past, drawiing us into their stories and being able to understand a little about how they cope with such separation.
The following quote reminds me of one of my favourite but long neglected books, ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ by W H Hudson, in which the shepherd came home from work after his wife had died, expecting her to be there with supper waiting. He sat down and couldn’t move as the horror of his loss finally hit him.
One letter by Svetlana in October 1946 included:
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. 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 simultanesously: past, present and future.