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Inside the lines.  Voices from the siege of Leningrad

photo from U of Pittsburg press


Editor's note: For eight years Cynthia Simmons, an associate professor of Slavic Studies at Boston College, and Nina Perlina, a professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Indiana University, have been collecting women's accounts of life under the Siege of Leningrad. A few Russian archivists have resisted sharing the memoirs they have acquired, but survivors themselves have been generous. "All I had to do was walk into a bookstore [in Russia] and ask for the latest books on the Siege," says Simmons, "and I'd be surrounded by old women saying 'I'm a survivor. Come to my house, I'll talk to you.'" For both authors, the interest is more than historical. Simmons had friends in Yugoslavia during the 1992 siege of Sarajevo. Perlina was a toddler in Leningrad when Hitler's forces blockaded the city; her mother was a doctor there. In their new book Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women's Diaries, Memoirs, and Documentary Prose, excerpted here, Simmons and Perlina have published Leningraders' personal stories, virtually all for the first time in English, some for the first time ever.

The siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941. With the Russian winter gathering, German planes struck the Badaev warehouses, where much of Leningrad's food reserves were stored, with incendiary bombs. The shelling of the city would continue for another 871 days, but the deprivations endured that first winter would be the worst. Roughly 100,000 people died before January.

Total deaths during the Siege reached at least one million. Children and the elderly went first; men--those who had not been drafted--succumbed more rapidly than women. From September through November 1941 the daily bread ration shrank four times, to a low of 125 grams (four ounces) for office workers and dependents, and 250 grams for factory workers. Leningrad had been a key center of munitions production, and though they lacked electricity, heat, and running water, Leningraders kept it a working city for the Siege's duration.

By January 1944, when the shelling stopped, Leningrad was a city largely held together by women. They made up 95 percent of the workers in light industry, and about 80 percent of all factory workers. They are now old women, and the Russians have a name for them: the blokadnitsy. Their accounts, drawn from Simmons and Perlina's book, follow.

22 June 1941, morning
I carried Lena out into the garden together with her colored rattles. The sun already ruled the sky completely.

A cry, the sound of broken dishes. The woman who owns our dacha ran past the house.

"Elena Iosifovna, war with the Germans! They just announced it on the radio!" she shouted, crying.

War! I am 34 years old. This is the fourth war of my life.

Elena Kochina, Blockade Diary
How agonizing the desire to eat was in the winter of 1941-1942. . . . In the city's empty streets there sometimes appeared trucks carrying the military. They were coming from the countryside and had pine and spruce branches with them. I would usually pull some tobacco out of my quilted jacket--if the truck stopped, I would offer it to the men in military overcoats: "Comrades! Have you got any twigs? Here is some tobacco for you!" The sailors of the Palace Embankment turned out be particularly generous. They once tossed me a heap of aromatic pine branches. I gnawed on them all the way home. I totally devoured their tender bark and needles.

Yes, in the spring of 1942, grass was as much our salvation as were glue and leather straps. Those had to be prepared and then cooked, which required time and. . . fuel. But grass, it was growing everywhere--in the streets, in empty lots. It even poked through cracks in the asphalt.

As soon as the sun warmed up our devastated and starving Leningrad, green sprouts immediately started forcing their way through all the cracks. There were no more dogs in the city--all of them had been eaten. Children, looking more like old men, were not running around trampling down the grass, and besides, there were so few of them left in the city. The grass kept growing.

In the morning, before setting out with two pails to fetch water from neighboring buildings, I could go with scissors and a basket to empty and deserted lots--abandoned trenches or rubble from buildings destroyed by bombs. Or I could simply walk to some quiet street (although by that time all the streets were quiet). In all those places it was easy to cut heaps of new spring chamomile--its fluffy and aromatic little leaves went so well with the tender feather grass, which usually grows in the shade, close to houses. In the past it was used as food for canaries. I made a delicious salad out of it to supplement the morning portion of our bread ration, which we received at 5:30 in the morning in a former bakery lit by two dim kerosene lamps. A portion of this grass and the remnants of the bread ration would be left for an evening meal.

And then there were the sticky little linden leaves of spring! You could eat them, or you could make soup out of them. And the sour leaves of barberries! And shepherd's purse! It says in science books that the latter helps to fight vitamin deficiency and scurvy. But there was not time for studying science books, whereas the feeling of hunger was always present. And my basket was filling up with all kinds of grasses.

How grateful I am to it, my dear, green, fresh, dewy grass! In the years since then, much has gradually disappeared from memory, but the memory of those bright spring mornings will never fade.

Vera Vladimirovna Miliutina, from her recollection "Vitamins, or Ode to Grass"

23 January 1942
My Dear Children Hansi, Olichka, Bubi, Arnolia,
I am writing you all one letter, and you can send it to each other by registered mail. I don't have the strength to write the same thing several times, don't be offended, I hope you'll understand why. On the 13th of January, at 7:00 in the morning, quietly, and without great suffering, your father passed away. This will be a huge shock and loss for you, especially for Bubi, which I wanted to keep from him while he's in the army and feeling poorly, judging from his letter: "The hope of seeing you all alive gives me the strength to keep on going." I'll leave it up to you to decide whether to tell him or not.

For the time being I will not mention Papa in my letters.

Your papa was sick and even psychologically disturbed, but for the last two days he was completely normal and especially affectionate toward me, calling me all the time "El'zunia, my dear," and agreeing with me about everything and doing everything the way I told him. He sensed his end and talked to me about it, but I kept hoping that my efforts would put him back on his feet again.

On the eve of the 12th, I sensed that he wouldn't survive. All night long he prayed, blessed me, you, the grandchildren, Misha, Zina, asked me to live with everyone in peace and harmony, to gather you all together and said, "I pray to the Lord God for you. The Lord has protected us up to now, and He won't leave you. He will hear my dying prayer." Then he fell asleep, coughed strongly, but couldn't clear his throat, phlegm was suffocating him. I raised him up often, he urinated frequently, and he lay uncomfortably all day the 12th. He was very calm, he didn't grumble as he usually did, didn't swear and asked to eat, but there was nothing to eat but one bowl of soup from the cafeteria and a piece of bread. He patiently bore his hunger and grew weaker by the minute and thus he died in my arms covered with my kisses. Two large tears flowed from his eyes, but he said nothing more.

All day the 13th, I sat at home not knowing what to do, where to go, what to busy myself with. On the 14th, I went to the clinic to register a [death] certificate, stood in line from 8:30 to 2:00. The 15th I went to the bank, stood in line from 7:00 A.M. On the 16th I went to the registry office. The 17th I went to get a coffin, but I didn't get a coffin since there were fistfights over them and you had to stand in line. I found a fellow in our building who made a coffin out of my material for 400 grams [12.8 ounces] of bread and 50 rubles cash.

The morning of the 19th Liusia, Olia, Marina, Artur, and I set off to bury the coffin. We put it on two children's sleds. Liusia and Olia pulled the sled, Artur and I walked. We arrived at the cemetery to find out that you can no longer bury anyone. Finally the brigade leader promised me to arrange everything by the 20th at 4:00 P.M. We turned the coffin over for storage in the morgue and went home. On the 20th, Olia and I went again to the cemetery, but that crook hadn't done anything. On the 21st I flew to the district municipal office and as you can't get anywhere without lying, I didn't say that I was the wife but said I was from the local trade union committee of the State Bank. In five minutes I had permission. On the 22nd Olia and I set out for the burial even though there was no one there to dig a grave for anyone. We ran around, searched, and in that way found some crook who dug a not very deep grave. While he was digging we went to get the coffin and at 5:00 P.M., after great hardship, worry, and effort, I buried papa. . . .

El'za Greinert, to her children and grandchildren

I heard it. Incredible! In the dark on the staircase landing of the building in which I lived, where I was standing [air-raid] watch, for a split second there penetrated the sound of wind instruments; then everything was swallowed by a deafening boom.

An aural hallucination--it's possible.

I didn't know why the sailors were here. . . . From the windows of the fifth floor I could clearly see into the windows of the low two-story apartment building across the way. In the room there were cots, an empty table, and dimly gleaming wind instruments. They didn't have the kind of little stove that people were using during the Siege, and therefore their window wasn't frozen over. . . .

At home they played a lot, sitting in their overcoats on the cots. Usually the clarinet would begin, establishing the melody, then it would be repeated by the two first trumpets, and then the trombone and flute joined in. The "drummer," when he was free, filled the role of conductor.

Every day, to spite the bombing, hunger, and severe cold, they sounded the marches of Dunaevskii, Solov'ev-Sedoi, the songs of Blanter and other Soviet composers. During these hours it seemed that one need only to gather one's strength, endure a week or two, and all would be like it was before the war. Music helped a person then.

In November we lost electricity in our apartments, the pipes froze, newspapers stopped, and mail.

We don't live by the calendar. We become aware of days and dates only by means of small square paper coupons with the number 125. That signifies a small piece of greenish-brown bread, half wood shavings.

Could these musicians really have had reserves of food?. . .They continued to play.

But the more the city became shrouded in silence, the weaker became the sounds of their music. First the bass fell silent, then the flute could no longer be heard, and, as if paralyzed by the cold, the tempo of the clarinet and trumpets became slower. . . .

At the end of November the bombardments ceased, and in the beginning of December, the radio fell silent.

It became completely dark and still.

Through the icy scab of the windows, crisscrossed with paper strips, there came some cautious sounds. But it was no longer a whole march or song: a lone trumpet uncertainly drew out a piece of the melody and broke off; sometimes they lost the rhythm and mistakenly hit the cymbal. Then it all died down.

At noon, which brought light, you could make out the supine figures. They hardly moved. Sailors' boots were visible from under the gray blankets--and some kind of rags on their necks and shriveled faces.

A lonely teapot stood frozen to the table.

The one who could still play lay on his back, he was so thin that you could only measure his length; not his volume. Alongside him on the cot lay his trumpet. Sometimes he would sit up and bring the instrument to his lips. It was the only thing that he could give to his comrades in place of heat, fire, and bread--it was nonetheless courage. Several began to stir, were delirious for a while, then again settled down on their cots.

Now they no longer went out. And once while the city was bearing the sharp intensity of a 40-degree freeze [-40 ˇF], two of them came out into the courtyard.

They spent a long time adjusting on a children's sled a tiny figure, swaddled in a Navy greatcoat.

The smallest, the weakest--he died first. Gasping from this light but so heavy burden, two figures bent like old men dragged themselves into the approaching twilight, pulling after themselves a sled.

The snow fell on and on, covering up the last traces of people fading from life.

Across from the entrance to the Philharmonic, by the square, there is a large lamppost.

With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he "sat"

1. without his knapsack
2. without his rags
3. in his underwear
4. naked
5. a skeleton with ripped-out entrails

They took him away in May.

Vera Sergeevna Kostrovitskaia, a dance teacher when the Siege began
Sleep, dear son, while there's no bombing.
And Mama, will you cook me some barley?
Now sleep, my dear son, I'll cook it.
But Mama, where is that barley I didn't eat,
before the war?
The little birds ate it all. Now sleep, my dear.
And where are the little birds now?
They've flown away to safety.
Let's fly away too.
When we get a letter from Papa, we'll fly
away too.
And does Papa like barley?
He does. Go to sleep, my dear.
Cook us a lot of barley.
I will, sweetheart.
Mama, do you like barley too?
Go to sleep, my dear.
Then cook lots and lots of barley.
I certainly will.
And Mama, will the war end soon?
It will end, it will end.

Antonina Emel'ianovna Maslovskaia, from Blokadnaia tetrad' (Blockade Notebook)

The long corridor [of the seventh surgical unit] is sunk in darkness. The moans of the wounded can be heard, cries: "Nurse, give me something to drink!" "The can!" (instead of a bedpan). At the end of the corridor by a table, wrapped in coats and blankets, sit two nurses on duty.

Both are diligently embroidering, by the light of an oil lamp. In hungry, cold, and dark Leningrad, to the roar of shelling and air-raid alarms, many Leningraders entertain themselves, if you can call it that, with cross-stitching. This activity distracted them from painful thoughts, worries, it soothed them a bit.

With a torch I made my rounds of 10 wards with 120-160 wounded. You stick your hand under the mat, not to take a pulse, but to reassure yourself that the wounded soldier is alive.

Under such conditions--cold, hunger, and darkness--one needed not only to survive, but to work, to accept the arriving wounded, make a diagnosis, dress them, take X-rays, perform minor and major operations, apply casts. And write up a brief, yet exhaustive, chart. When military action intensified, the flow of the wounded increased. The team on duty in the reception area of the dressing station sometimes didn't leave for days.

Everyone knew that our work would return the wounded to action, would help us achieve victory over the enemy.

Valentina Nikolaevna Gorokhova, a physician at Evacuation Hospital 1012

During the winter of 1941-42, all operations involving patrons [at the Saltykov-Shchedrin Public Library] were conducted by the light of lanterns, and when the kerosene ran out, we had to search for books on the shelves with a burning piece of wood in our hands.

And nevertheless the library never ceased functioning even for a day. During the war, the library served more than 41,000 patrons, discharging to them approximately 1,500,000 books, journals, and newspapers. We cite here a sample of the literature searches that were processed by the library:

The study of just and unjust wars
The Leningrad Komsomol in the Patriotic War
Leningrad scientists in the Patriotic War
Bogdan Khmel'nitskii [the Ukranian who led the anti-Polish uprising of 1648-54]
The history of the Kronstadt Fortress
The images of Suvorov, Kutuzov, and Aleksandr Nevskii in works of fiction
Illustrated materials on Suvorov's crossing of the Alps
Heroes of the Patriotic War of 1812
Brusilov's breakthrough [in World War I, an assault on the Austro-German line]
The representation of Germans in 19th-century classical literature
The honor of the officer and military education in works of fiction
Standards and behavioral norms of officers in the old army
Party work in the army (an historical purview)
Textbooks on tactics
Anti-aircraft cannons
The love of a Russian soldier for his regiment
Firefighting abroad
The hydrology of Lake Ladoga
The processing of soy
Edible wild plants
Scurvy and vitamin deficiency
Sanitation in a besieged city
The establishment and functioning of hospital bomb shelters
Shrapnel wounds
The treatment and cure of dystrophy [starvation]
Famine edema
Cold sterilization of surgical instruments
Secondary shock
Plaster casts in the treatment of wounds
Wounds and trauma to the hand
Traumatic fistula of the urinary tract
Russian and foreign literature on the restoration of architectural ensembles and monuments.

Lilia Solomonovna Frankfurt, librarian

Papa and I were walking down Zhukovskii Street. It was spring. Two girls had lain down on a sled. The sleds were piled up with dead bodies.

They were starting to drag the bodies out from the basements. Before, there had been a laundry in the building where we had had our clothes washed. Now the laundry was filled with corpses. And other buildings too. In spring the MPVO [volunteer civil defense corps] began to remove them.

So there it was, a big sled piled up with the dead, tied with ropes so the bodies wouldn't fall out. Heads, arms, legs were being dragged across the asphalt.

Later Father told me that he felt I needed to see all this. Other times he felt sorry for not taking me away, for allowing me to stay and see.

In our old Petersburg apartment we were a family of nine. After the war only four of us were left.

Natal'ia Vladimirovna Stroganova, age seven when the Siege began

At the end of February [1942], they continually announced on the radio: "We ask that all musicians remaining in Leningrad report to the Radio Committee for registration. The Symphony Orchestra is going to start performing again." When I took up my instrument, I saw that the valves were green; the pads were coming off. It was impossible to play it. I took it to be repaired to someone who lived far away. . . He had an armchair and lying on it were various pelts--like muffs or collars. I was embarrassed to look at them for too long. And when he agreed to fix my instrument and I asked, "What do I owe you?" he replied: "Bring me a little cat! I have eaten five. . . ."

When I arrived at the Radio House, I was horrified, because I had known all the musicians before the war. And here they were, some sooty, collars turned up, in their winter coats; on the collars of some there were even lice crawling. Well, I tried to wash and keep myself clean, but, who knows, maybe they were on me too, and I didn't see them.

[Karl] éliasberg conducted. Even though he was also dystrophic, he would ride from apartment to apartment, because he knew that people had taken to their beds. And he would say: "Come to work and there will be food. We have to get to work." And that's how he got the people together. Later they arranged for us to be fed. We ate in the Bol'shoi Drama Theater. For dinner they gave us an appetizer--a small handful of salad, a first course, a second course, and some bread. The portions were very small.

We had no strength at all, and the rehearsals were very short--40 minutes. The first concert was in the Pushkin Theater [on April 5, 1942]. And the theater is cold. It's 8ˇ [46ˇ F]. We played the Glazunov overture; then we played the waltz-chardash, then something from the Nutcracker, then someone sang a piece from the Maid from Orleans [Orleanskaia Deva], and Kastorskii sang Susanin. When we had finished the last piece, the audience began to applaud, and I'll tell you, in the concert hall there were only the ghosts of listeners, and on the stage, the ghosts of performers.

The men who played the brass instruments couldn't hold them in their hands--they were beginning to freeze. So they cut out the fingers of their gloves, and played that way. They were dressed in tailcoats over quilted jackets. That's how our men looked. Karl Il'ich [éliasberg] came out all starched, in tails. But when he started to conduct, his hands shook. And I had this feeling that he was a bird that had been shot, and any moment he would plummet. But at the concert his hands shook for just a while and then stopped.

When we had finished a piece, everyone started to applaud. But there was no sound, because everyone was wearing mittens. And if you looked at the crowd, you couldn't tell who was a man and who a woman. The women were all wrapped up, and the men were also covered in scarves and shawls. Some were wearing women's fur coats.

Kseniia Makianovna Matus, an oboist with the Leningrad Philharmonic

The numbers of births in clinics:

1941, 3rd quarter--654; 4th quarter--418
1942, 1st quarter--250; 2nd quarter--176; 3rd quarter--65; 4th--20
1943, 1st quarter--88; 2nd quarter--235; 3rd quarter--118; 4th--280
1944, 1st quarter--338. . . .

Reported by Dr. Yuliia Aronovna Mendeleva, director of the Leningrad Pediatric Institute

28 January 1944
I just can't realize that the Siege is over, that there are no shellings, blackouts, bombardments, that now it will always be quiet. Yesterday everyone was at the Field of Mars. They watched the first Leningrad salute. Out in the frost it was actually hot. Everyone unbuttoned their coats, no one was afraid of catching cold. It is impossible, of course, to describe the joy. Mainly it is hard to believe that it is now quiet. Wasn't it not so long ago that we pressed ourselves against the walls of the buildings and couldn't lift our heads?

Our life must now change. Leningraders have to begin to live in a completely different way. I don't know what it will be, but it will be completely different!

Evgeniia Vadimovna Shavrova, in her diary, the day after news reached the city by radio that the Siege had ended

Excerpted from Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women's Diaries, Memoirs, and Documentary Prose © 2002 by University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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