By Natasha Rubanova, PhD Student in Comparative Literature and Germanic Studies
More than 70 years after the end of the catastrophe of the Second World War, the theme of the Leningrad blockade—an almost three-year long siege of the city whose citizens were subjected to a slow and torturous death from starvation—remains in the shade. The prevalence of the trumpet-tongued official narrative keeps individual private voices quiet. Even today there is no clear answer to the question how we should approach this collective trauma caused by a calamity that left many of its survivors wordless, while others who found words to speak about it, are often intentionally keeping those memories in a desk drawer. How do we give voice to private stories that reveal a faithful picture of intellectual life and every-day routine in the besieged city? How do we sift through the Soviet state’s official narrative of triumph and try to comprehend the actual experiences of the victims?
We see an astonishing burst of interest in the siege today, on the part of institutions in Russia as well as in popular culture. Even though some contemporary artistic reflections attempt to present a non-trivial perspective on the disaster (the film Prazdnik directed by Aleksei Krasovski, for instance), the official treatment of the tragedy demonstrates what Catriona Kelly called “the forging of nostalgia into the actual construction of the present.” What is very alarming regarding the official, state perspective on the siege is the fact that it often ignores the experience of war as a personal woe, a traumatizing and dehumanizing event. The human trauma of the war becomes the “second bottom,” the underwater part of the iceberg, unfamiliar and inaccessible to those who did not experience it.
“Why is so much conversation about the siege happening today and how can we as researchers use this conversation for our purposes?” This thought-provoking question was posed by Polina Barskova (Hampshire College), one of the participants of the symposium “Surviving, Remembering, and Forgetting the Siege of Leningrad,” that took place at IU on October 3, 2019, and was organized by CAHI, REEI, The Russian Studies Workshop, the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture, and Design, and the Department of History. The symposium brought together scholars and researchers who have been exploring the voices of the siege. In fifteen-minute talks, the participants presented their archival discoveries and the condensed results of their research projects.
Lisa Kirschenbaum of West Chester University, an Olga Berggoltz scholar (among her other research interests), spoke about the act of creating memory as a survival strategy employed by a group of Leningrad librarians. She focused on the way the besieged Leningraders digested the official narrative of the siege and endowed it with personal meaning. Kirschenbaum believes that the Soviet state’s official plot and heroic representations helped the victims make sense of what was happening and eventually became part of many Leningraders’ coping with the trauma of the blockade. Could this be a key to understanding how the myth of a triumphal surviving through the siege became so deeply ingrained into both the state-told and private memory?
Emily Van Buskirk (Rutgers University) presented her work on the archive of Lydia Ginzburg, a writer and philologist, who survived the siege and documented her memories in prose. Van Buskirk’s archival discovery of previously unpublished prose by Ginzburg has led the researcher to consider the intersection of fictional and documentary writing that reflects on the trauma of the siege. In her book Lydia Ginzburg’s Prose: Reality in Search of Literature (Princeton University Press, 2016), Van Buskirk addresses Ginzburg’s search for a representation of a new self, finding the language of a psychological novel powerless in the task of creating a post-trauma identity, and re-considering her own understanding of writing. In this work, Ginzburg attempts fragmentary narratives on the border of fiction and autobiography that are hard to place into a definitive category or genre.
Following Van Buskirk’s discussion of the well known Lydia Ginzburg, Polina Barskova presented work on lesser-known poetic voices of the blockade. Barskova’s book on the culture of the besieged city, Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2017) examines the relationship between the Leningraders and their city by analyzing cultural representations of spatiality that emerged en masse during the siege. At the outset of her presentation, Barskova emphasized the perpetual duality of the mythologized narrative of the disaster. For example, the official poetic voice of the blockade, the voice of the poet Olga Berggoltz, often sounded over other, lesser known or completely unknown and silent poetic voices.
One such quiet siege figure is Gennady Gor, known in the Soviet literary world as a not particularly popular science fiction author. Gor’s notebooks, which contained penetrating and powerful poetry about the siege, were found by his children after his death. Gor, who had belonged to the Russian avant-garde artists’ circle OBERIU in the 1920s, creates a painfully truthful image of the fragmentation of self – the partitioning of the malnourished body and the gradual decomposition of the psyche, resulting in the inability to produce adequate speech and the inability to write:
With a shock wave in my ears,
A cold moon in my soul,
I am a shot to insanity. I am both check
And mate to myself. I am mute. Now I
Am nothing and running toward nothing.
Now I am no one’s and rushing to no one.
A shock wave in my mouth,
A cold moon in my dark,
A leg in my corner, an arm in my ditch,
The eyes that fell out of my sockets,
A finger forgotten in one of the clinics,
An unneeded moon in my dark (Gor 34).
Translated by Ben Felker-Quinn, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Matvei Yankelevich.
The above poem by Gor, along with poetry by four other previously unknown siege voices, were discovered, selected, and published by Barskova in the book entitled, Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016). In the introduction to the collection, Barskova explains that these unpublished poems often “[depict] the blockadnik not as a stoic hero, but as an ‘unintentional hero’—someone whose humanity is constantly being tried and who at times becomes exhausted” (Gor 19).
Unintentional heroes lived in the fantastic reality of the city under siege, the surreal that became real and habitual. Another Leningrad survivor and chronicler, philologist Ol’ga Freidenberg, in her retrospective reflections speaks about the experience of living in the prison-like conditions of the enclosed city. She transfers the siege trauma to the entirety of the Soviet experience:
“It becomes clear to me that the whole blockade was the passport of the Soviet regime. You suddenly open the door and see man in his unadorned natural state. Everything experienced in the blockade was a typical expression of Stalin’s deliberate deprivation and repression, the hunting down of man. But that was an abridged libretto. Before and after the blockade – it’s the same prison method, played out slowly… I write these lines almost in the dark. History casts my light. I am freezing. This is not even a blockade, not a siege. This is an ordinary Soviet day.”
Incidentally, Freidenberg’s account of the siege is an extraordinary and yet an unpublished phenomenon that was presented by Irina Paperno (UCLA Berkeley), in a separate talk organized by the IU Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures a day after this symposium. What is unique about this representation is the perspective of the scholar, and anthropologically meticulous descriptions of the events and the scenery. Freidenberg’s chronicle, already digitized, has not yet been made accessible to a wider audience (as Paperno clarified, the previous lack of publication might be explained by the philologist’s harsh critique of her colleagues at Leningrad University). Unlike Gor, though, Freidenberg saw the work on her chronicle as one of her primary tasks, and hoped for the publication of her writings. Yet, her account of the siege remains largely unread. Other, lesser known writings of Freidenberg presenting the unofficial view on the disaster, though partially published, have also not yet gained the scholarly and public interest they deserve. It seems that there is some invisible barrier preventing those voices from being heard. Could it be the barrier of indifference towards our own past?
Freidenberg, Ol’ga Mikhailovna. Probeg zhizni (34 notebooks and typescript). Present location: Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution, Box/Folder 155-158.
Gor, Gennadiĭ, et al. Written In the Dark : Five Poets In the Siege of Leningrad. First edition. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016.
Kelly, Catriona. “Neo-nostalgic Perspective on the Past: the Politics of Memory in the (post)Soviet Russia.” International Memorial Society, 6 June 2019. Lecture. HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3SzSJQVtaw”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3SzSJQVtaw
Holiday (Prazdnik). Directed by Aleksei Krasovski, performances by Alena Babenko, Anfisa Chernykh, Asya Chistiakova, Pavel Tabakov, Timofei Tribuntsev, Ian Tsapnik, 2019, HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npERkyInJss”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npERkyInJss.