There is still so much to be discovered. In 2007, Memorial received 1,500 letters tied in bundles inside one of three huge trunks delivered to its Moscow offices, making up the most extraordinary cache of letters to emerge in the past 20 years. The trunks contained an archive collected over eight decades by Lev and Sveta Mishchenko. Lev and Sveta met in the 1930s, when they were both students in the physics faculty of Moscow State University. Then war broke out. Lev joined the Soviet army but was captured by the Germans and held in a series of concentration camps, ending with Buchenwald. After the war, he was given the option to immigrate to the West and turned it down because he wanted to find Sveta again. But, like many other returning prisoners of war, he was arrested immediately on entering the country and sent to the Pechora labor camp. In 1946, he wrote to an aunt in Moscow asking if she knew what had happened to Sveta. Sveta herself wrote back. She had been waiting for him for five years. Over the next decade they maintained their relationship through a constant series of letters, writing each other two or three times a week. At the end of every day they wrote something down. Because the letters were sent secretly, smuggled in and out by voluntary workers and officials with normal postal rights, they are remarkably frank and uncensored. Lev's letters are the only major real-time record of daily life in the Gulag that has ever come to light. Filled with the most private thoughts and emotions, they let the reader get inside Lev's and Sveta's lives and watch their relationship unfold.
Unsurprisingly, many of the letters are difficult to interpret: The names of people were disguised, and there are euphemisms for the interior ministry ("uncles"), the Gulag ("umbrella"), and bribe money ("Vitamin D," from dengi, meaning money) in case the letters were intercepted. But my colleagues at Memorial and I had a chance to work with Lev and Sveta to unpack their meanings through video interviews before they passed away, within a few months of each other, in 2009. Later I worked in the archive of the labor camp, which explained many further details in Lev's letters and revealed others about life in the camps that he did not write about. I also carried out a dozen interviews with survivors of the camp who still lived in Pechora and could remember Sveta's five secret, illegal, and highly dangerous trips to visit Lev there. Nothing like these trips has ever been recorded in the history of the Gulag, but they are all documented in the letters. Lev and Sveta's correspondence will be published by Memorial. Their story will be the subject of my next book.