Traces of the Past

Nancy K. Miller, Orlando Figes


How do a historian and a literary critic recreate the pasts of people they have never met, with little more than papers and a few objects to go on? Orlando Figes and Nancy K. Miller shared the challenges of building a picture of ordinary lives, with their Jewish Book Week audience, in a discussion of his new collection of letters home from the Gulag and her American family chronicle.

Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag and What they Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past offer examples of the quest to reconstruct lives otherwise lost to history from the poignant traces they have left behind. Figes’s book is based on 1,246 letters smuggled in and out of the Pechora labour camp between 1946 and 1955, to and from a prisoner and his girlfriend in Moscow.

Miller’s prize-winning story reaches back to the world of pogroms and mass emigration at the turn of the 20th century. Her quest began with the discovery of a tiny family archive including an unexplained land deed, a postcard from Argentina and a box containing unidentified locks of hair.

Nancy K. Miller

Nancy K. Miller is distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author or editor of more than a dozen books. What They Saved won the 2012 Jewish Journal Book Prize.

Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes is the author of numerous award-winning books on Russian history, including Natasha’s Dance, A People’s Tragedy, The Whisperers, Crimea, Just Send Me Word, Peasant Russia, Civil War and Revolutionary Russia. Figes was the historical consultant on both the 2012 film Anna Karenina and the Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation of War & Peace. He is currently Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, and his books have been translated into 32 languages.

Henrietta Foster

Henrietta Foster is a freelance producer and director, working regularly with Newsnight. She has made TV documentaries for the BBC and is writing a book about Hungarian Jews.