Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes

From the Preface to Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, by Orlando Figes:

Three old trunks had just been delivered. They were sitting in a doorway, blocking people’s way into the busy room where members of the public and historical researchers were received in the Moscow offices of Memorial. … Noticing my interest in the trunks, they told me they contained the biggest private archive given to Memorial in its twenty years of existence. It belonged to Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, a couple who had met as students in the 1930s, only to be separated by the war of 1941-5 and Lev’s subsequent imprisonment in the Gulag. …
We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs. The most valuable section of the archive was in the third and smallest of the trunks, a brown plywood case with leather trim and three metal locks that clicked open easily. We couldn’t say how many letters it contained – we guessed perhaps 2,000 – only how much the case weighed (37 kilograms). They were all love letters Lev and Svetlana had exchanged while he was a prisoner in Pechora, one of Stalin’s most notorious labour camps in the far north of Russia. The first was by Svetlana in July 1946, the last by Lev in July 1954. They were writing to each other at least twice a week. This was by far the largest cache of Gulag letters ever found. But what made them so remarkable was not just their quantity; it was the fact that nobody had censored them. They were smuggled in and out of the labour camp by voluntary workers and officials who sympathized with Lev. Rumours about the smuggling of letters were part of the Gulag’s rich folklore but nobody had ever imagined an illegal postbag of this size. …
As I leafed through the letters, my excitement grew. Lev’s were rich in details of the labour camp. They were possibly the only major contemporary record of daily life in the Gulag that would ever come to light. Many memoirs of the labour camps by former prisoners had appeared, but nothing to compare with these uncensored letters, composed at the time inside the barbed-wire zone. Written to explain to his sole intended reader what he was going through, Lev’s letters became, over the years, increasingly revealing about conditions in the camp. Svetlana’s letters were meant to support him in the camp, to give him hope, but, as I soon realized, they also told the story of her own struggle to keep her love for him alive.
Perhaps 20 million people, mostly men, endured Stalin’s labour camps. Prisoners, on average, were allowed to write and receive letters once a month, but all their correspondence was censored. It was difficult to maintain an intimate connection when all communication was first read by the police. An eight- or ten-year sentence almost always meant the breakings of relationships: girlfriends, wives or husbands, whole families, were lost by prisoners. Lev and Svetlana were exceptional. Not only did they find a way to write and even meet illegally – an extraordinary breach of Gulag rules that invited severe punishment – but they kept every precious letter (putting them at even greater risk) as a record of their love story.
There turned out to be almost 1,500 letters in that smallest trunk. … These letters are the documentary basis of Just Send Me Word, which also draws from the rich archive in the other trunks, from extensive interviews with Lev and Svetlana, their relatives and their friends, from the writings of other prisoners in Pechora, from visits to the town and interviews with its inhabitants and from the archives of the labour camp itself.

Does the book live up to the promise of its preface? Yes. Yes, it does.

(Cross-posted to The Frumious Consortium.)

Right on schedule

Last night, I noted that staged takeovers of local government buildings in eastern Ukraine are

one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another).

This morning, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports:

RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service quotes local media as saying around 100 pro-Russians attempting to surround a government administration building in the southern city of Mykolaiv were thwarted after police moved in late last night. There were several injuries in the ensuing clashes, which also pitted the pro-Moscow ranks against members of a pro-Ukrainian group. (From their liveblog 0923, 8 April 2014. Here’s the original report in Ukrainian.)

Mykolaiv is a city of about a half million people, a major shipbuilding center about halfway between the Crimea and Odessa, along the main road between the two.


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Let’s hope the police and local authorities in Kherson are equally loyal to Ukraine, and equally alert.

Odessa, of course, is the real prize of the southwest, and not just for the nightlife or the film nostalgia. Odessa is also just a good day’s bicycle ride from breakaway Transnistria. These lands were conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, somewhat after the American Revolution broke but before the French. The Crimean Khanate had left them sparsely settled, and homesteading in “New Russia,” as the region was known, was a major development of the 19th century. Before World War II, it was a significant area of Jewish settlement. In short, the pretexts are there, if Russian forces want to meddle.

The second act of Ukraine’s test has only just begun.

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

Once upon a time, there was a lovely newspaper known as the International Herald Tribune. Each year on baseball’s opening day, the paper would publish its late sports editor Dick Roraback’s poem recalling what it was like to be Over Here when the season was starting Over There.

Its language is sliding toward the archaic, its references even more so — although while Forbes and Griffith have been gone for decades, the Nats are back and playing their 10th season — but since the international edition of the New York Times (the Hairy Trib’s successor) won’t be putting any rhymes on its sports page today, we might as well.

Under the fold, “The Crack of the Bat.”
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The Extraordinary Aside

Bond contracts and diplomatic notes aren’t the only places where the casual asides can be more rewarding than the main text.

NASA announced yesterday that its Kepler space telescope has helped scientists identify an exoplanet clearly positioned in an orbit that would allow it to have liquid water on its surface.

Twice before astronomers have announced planets found in that zone, but neither was as promising. One was disputed; the other is on the hot edge of the zone. Kepler 22-B is the smallest and the best positioned of the more than 500 planets found to orbit stars beyond our solar system to have liquid water on its surface — among the ingredients necessary for life on Earth.

Good news of course, and with its mass size estimated at 2.4 times Earth’s, it’s the closest match yet to our own. But did you see what the author did right after the word “of”? Mentioned that, just by the by, humanity has now found more than 500 planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system. Five. Hundred.

Moreover, “With the discovery, the Kepler space telescope has now located 2,326 potential planets during its first 16 months of operation.” I’ve written about this before, but it never ceases to amaze. This is what living in the future is like.

ps Six years ago, the smallest confirmed exoplanet had a mass size of about seven times Earth’s. The intervening years have tripled the precision of humanity’s detection capabilities.

Science Fiction?

“What do I think about the legacy of Atatürk, General? Let it go. I don’t care. The age of Atatürk is over.”
Guests stiffen around the table, breath subtly indrawn; social gasps. This is heresy. People have been shot down in the streets of Istanbul for less. Adnan commands every eye.
“Atatürk was father of the nation, unquestionably. No Atatürk, no Turkey. But, at some point every child has to leave his father. You have to stand on your own two feet and find out if you’re a man. We’re like the kids that go on about how great their dads are; my dad’s the strongest, the best wrestler, the fastest driver, the biggest moustache. And when someone squares up to us, or calls us a name or even looks at us squinty, we run back shouting ‘I’ll get my dad, I’ll get my dad!’ At some point; we have to grow up. If you’ll pardon the expression, the balls have to drop. We talk the talk mighty fine; great nation, proud people, global union of the noble Turkic races, all that stuff. There’s no one like us for talking ourselves up. And then the EU says, All right, prove it. The door’s open, in you come; sit down, be one of us. Move out of the family home; move in with the other guys. Step out from the shadow of the Father of the Nation.
“And do you know what the European Union shows us about ourselves? We’re all those things we say we are. They weren’t lies, they weren’t boasts. We’re good. We’re big. We’re a powerhouse. We’ve got an economy that goes all the way to the South China Sea. We’ve got energy and ideas and talent – look at the stuff that’s coming out of those tin-shed business parks in the nano sector and the synthetic biology start-ups. Turkish. All Turkish. That’s the legacy of Atatürk. It doesn’t matter if the Kurds have their own Parliament or the French make everyone stand in Taksim Square and apologize to the Armenians. We’re the legacy of Atatürk. Turkey is the people. Atatürk’s done his job. He can crumble into dust now. The kid’s come right. The kid’s come very right. That’s why I believe the EU’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us because it’s finally taught us how to be Turks.”

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, pp. 175-76

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

From the BBC

In 1971 Manoli [Pagador], who was 23 at the time and not long married, gave birth to what she was told was a healthy baby boy, but he was immediately taken away for what were called routine tests.

Nine interminable hours passed. “Then, a nun, who was also a nurse, coldly informed me that my baby had died,” she says.

They would not let her have her son’s body, nor would they tell her when the funeral would be.

Did she not think to question the hospital staff?

“Doctors, nuns?” she says, almost in horror. “I couldn’t accuse them of lying. This was Franco’s Spain. A dictatorship. …”

“The scale of the baby trafficking was unknown until this year, when two men – Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, childhood friends from a seaside town near Barcelona – discovered that they had been bought from a nun. “

The scandal is closely linked to the Catholic Church, which under Franco assumed a prominent role in Spain’s social services including hospitals, schools and children’s homes.

Nuns and priests compiled waiting lists of would-be adoptive parents, while doctors were said to have lied to mothers about the fate of their children.

The name of one doctor, Dr Eduardo Vela, has come up in a number of victim investigations.
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In 1981, Civil Registry sources indicate that 70% of births at Dr Vela’s San Ramon clinic in Madrid were registered as “mother unknown”.

He refused to give the BBC an interview. But, by coincidence, I had recently given birth at a clinic he founded, so I was able to book an appointment with him.

We met at his private practice in his home in Madrid. The man painted as a monster in the Spanish media was old and smiley, but his smile soon disappeared when I confessed to being a journalist.

Dr Vela grabbed a metal crucifix which had been standing on his desk. He moved towards me brandishing it in my face. “Do you know what this is, Katya?” he said. “I have always acted in his name. Always for the good of the children and to protect the mothers. Enough.”

Babies’ graves have been dug up across the country for DNA-testing. Some have revealed nothing but a pile of stones, while others have contained adult remains.

Are these crimes limited to Spain?

Flight of Fancy

If there are, famously and waggishly, only two places in France — Paris and the provinces — what of other European countries? In the common imagination, the literary tradition, in culture as a whole, and of course for a fanciful exercise like this, in gross stereotype. For the UK, which I do not know very well, maybe there’s London, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Germany seems much trickier to me, perhaps because I do know it well. Berlin of course, and Bavaria, and then? German Suburbia? In the case of Germany, The Past, and specifically that part of the past from 1933 to 1945, looms largest in the world’s imagination. But I am not sure whether that fits with this scheme. Russia, fittingly, has more: Moscow, St Petersburg, the Caucasus, Siberia, the Gulag, the Provincial City, the Rural Provinces and maybe the Far East. Smaller countries, I will rashly opine, waver between one and two: the Capital City and Everywhere Else or just the Capital. What do you think?

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Review in brief: Encounters between Russia and the peoples of the Northern Caucasus have not been happy ones, and have generally ended badly for the smaller nations involved. From the Nogai driven into the Black Sea in the 1700s to the Circassians mostly slaughtered or removed to the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s to the Chechens, who fought for 30 years in the 1800s, were deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944 and subjected to two wars since 1994, the overall picture is bleak. The individual stories are full of spirit and life, and Bullough goes to great lengths to find people and paints deft portraits. He’s a better reporter than analyst, but overall Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus is a splendid book.