This was the most beautiful book that I've ever read. It's nonfiction, and tells the greatest love story since Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And this one has a happily ever after, but they had to earn it. It all takes place in Russia. This is the story of Svetlana and Lev. First they were separated when he became a soldier in WWII when the German's invaded. Then he got captured and was out of touch for about five years. The next thing Svetlana knew he was MIA. About a year later his Aunt Olga comes to see her with a letter from Lev! He's alive! But he's been sentenced to ten years in the gulag, Pechora as an enemy of the state under military heading, which is about as bad as it can can get for a political prisoner. Svetlana instantly writes to Lev, which starts a correspondence of 1246 letters back and forth between the two of them. She tries to support him, show him how much she loves him, and keep him in contact with the outside world in Moscow. He tries to raise her spirits (she has depression), show her he loves and misses her, and tries to convince her that life in the camps is not as bad as it really is. At first their letters go through censors, so Svetlana tells Lev - I love you, by saying something like, I have three words to tell you, two are pronouns, one's a verb. The verb is the most important. Finally they find a way around the censors and can speak more freely, but still codewords such as umbrella for gulag and initials for people continue in their letters. Lev feels closest to Svetlana when he is looking at the sky because it is the same sky that she sees. I think it is perfectly summed up in the poem at the front of the book which follows:
Black and enduring separation
I share equally with you.
Why weep? Give me your hand.
Promise me you will come again.
You and I are like high mountains
And we cannot move closer.
Just send me word
At midnight sometime through the stars.
Anna Akhmatova, 'In dream' (1946)
And while there are no wild passionate love letters, it is so fundamentally clear that the love these two have is rock solid and forever, the kind of love that could move mountains, the kind that you wish for your children, the kind these days that is too rare, and is sad all by itself. I am lucky myself to have found true love. After twenty seven years and two kids, a lot of trauma, he's still the love of my life and I can't see that changing. Maybe that's why this story resonated with me so much. Love isn't showy, it isn't flashy, it's quiet, it's comforting, it's solid, and it's always there.
The only thing Lev waxes lyrical about is nature; the aurora borealis, a beautiful sunset on trees, the beginning of spring. And yet when they show their love for one another, the words may not be lyrical, but their passionate love for one another comes shining through like a light in the dark. It is clear that they love each other and will wait for Lev's sentence to be over, if not longer, if need be. They would wait until the end of time if that is what it took.
The author, Orlando Figes, does a magnificent job of telling the story of Svetlana and Lev, from the the first day they met in college until the present. He turns those 1246 letters, plus some other research materials into a narrative that is quite easy to follow and gives a very good picture of Stalinist Russia in the '40s and '50s. He turned a pack of letters into the most beautiful book I've ever read. Mr. Figes, I want to thank you for doing such an incredible job of research and writing. You have put together a masterpiece! I also want to thank Goodreads First Reads where I won this book - I feel so fortunate that you picked me. A thousand times thank you. I can't think of a better book to win.
I would recommend this book to anyone who speaks English. There are so many life lessons here. There is so much history here. There is so much about love that has been forgotten. It is snapshot of life from a society alien to ours, yet people are people, alike in so many ways. This book should be on every bookshelf from California to Maine. This deserves to become a classic and win a prestigious award like the Nobel Peace Prize so that everyone will read it. JUST BUY IT AND READ IT! That's a direct order from someone who's read thousands of books and knows what they are talking about. This one is very special - you'll see.