Leningrad in Literature


From Tanya Savicheva’s diary

From Sign and Sight:

My  use of the word “hell” in relation to besieged Leningrad, and particularly the first siege in the winter of 1941-1942, is in no way metaphorical. If hell exists anywhere, then it must literally be that: eternal coldness, darkness, unrecognisable scraps of music and news emerging from loudspeakers, marching for hours on foot with the principle means of transport used under the siege, children’s ice-skates. Frozen corpses strewn on the roadside. And at home, the corpses of family members which could not be buried for days on end (of course the rest of the family would try to use up their ration cards).

Of course lots of literature was produced in hell! The majority of writers who stayed in the city (many of them were evacuated up country) were mobilised and put to work for military newspapers and radio. This was the only relevant medium to ordinary people under the siege. The radio not only broadcast news, music and speeches by Communist Party leaders, but also poems and reportage. A number of poets who read their poems out loud on the Leningrad radio became astonishingly popular. Take Olga Bergholz (1919-1975) who, as a young poet and loyal communist in the thirties, wreaked significant damage, accusing her colleagues in the press, for example, of being “enemies”. Naturally this did not prevent her from being imprisoned herself in 1938. Her husband, the poet Boris Kornilov was executed and during interrogation she lost her unborn child. In 1939 Bergholz was freed by the NKVD and rehabilitated, she joined the party and continued her career. During the siege, she was honoured like a saint for the enormous emotional strength of her poetry, which made her untouchable after the war. She was a heavy drinker and was famous throughout the city for her loose talk. Once she was invited as a guest of honour to the KGB headquarters in Liteinyi Prospect to give a poetry recital. She arrived, already drunk, and before she had even taken off her coat asked: “Come on you lot, show me where you’re torturing people these days!”

Like many other works that were penned during the blockade, you would hardly describe Bergholz’s poems as siege poetry. They are poems (as well as bits of prose) about the siege, texts which attempt to rationalise the incomprehensibility of the world and give people courage or at least deliver some sort of explanation. In this sense they resemble the poems of the radio poets calling on the people to persevere, and the quiet, desperate “private descriptions” of everyday life under the siege. Take, for example, a poem by Natalia Krandievskaya-Tolstaya (1888–1963), a poet and one-time wife of the famous Soviet novelist Alexi Tolstoy. It tells how people collected water in buckets from the rivers and canals: “Let us bind buckets to the children’s skates, / and fetch water / – behind the bridge is a steep hill, / be careful climbing it … (…) The snowstorm circles over the Neva, / in white feathers, in silver, / this was how we got our water / 200 years ago, in the days of Tsar Peter…” Here we see an attempt at rationalisation through historical reference. Such poems by Krandievskaya were not published during her lifetime, neither was her siege diary – these were considered too private, too unheroic.

Even more than poems perhaps, people were keeping diaries in the besieged Leningrad. It is as if by regularly writing their diary entries, people were attempting to bring a degree of order into hell, some meaning into time stood still. The siege diaries were cautiously published in the fifties and sixties, and used for “the people’s education”. One classic example is the diary of the schoolgirl Tanya Savicheva, the “Leningrad Anne Frank”, who became a symbol of the siege. Her descriptions indeed make a harrowing document: “Uncle Lyusha died on 10 May at four in the afternoon 1942. Mother died on 13 May at 7.30 in the morning 1942. The Savichevs are dead. They are all dead. Only Tanya is left.” She was taken out of Leningrad but died in 1944 from the knock-on effects of the siege.

“In the vortex of congealed time”, Oleg Yuriev, Sign and Sight