Blockade Diary, by Lidiya Ginzburg

Blockade Diary cvr

The blockade is that of Leningrad (September 1941-January 1944), written by someone who lived through it, but despite the title it is not a day-by-day account of the privations suffered by its residents while besieged by German forces.  It is an impressionistic portrait, focusing on types – ‘siege man’, for instance – rather than individuals (though one suspects that there is a lot of Ginzburg herself in her male character ‘N’), showing how the population in aggregate managed in the most appalling circumstances in their city-wide prison camp.

Odessa-born Lidiya Ginzburg (1902-90), was from an unlucky generation, living through revolutions, Stalinist repression, war, more repression in which being Jewish was a disadvantage, and a stagnant society that finally imploded.  As a formalist writer her literary inclinations were at odds with the state-sanctioned socialist realism, making life even more difficult than it already was for the majority of her compatriots.  She had to wait for the 1980s for a substantial part of her output to be published.  There must be much more still to be translated, and it is surprising that in the 20 years since the publication of Blockade Diary only a small amount has appeared in English, generating little discussion.  Even this publication by The Harvill Press is an extract from a longer work, Behind the Lines, and the otherwise useful introduction by Aleksandr Kushner omits to explain why all the sections were not issued together.

Ginzburg’s tone in Blockade Diary is always measured and undramatic, with no sense of fury at the invaders devastating her country.  In fact the Germans are rarely mentioned; she focuses on everyday living and the grind of existence while in limbo, neither in the war like the soldiers at the front, nor out of it.  The guilt of being away from the combat zone wrestles with relief, a relief in turn tempered by knowing that the daily rations are sufficient for existing rather than living.  Hunger, exacerbated by intense cold during winter, was the real enemy, sapping the will to survive.  Unsurprisingly its ramifications take up a large amount of the book, as it took up a large amount of the time of those who experienced it.  The citizens were not always being bombarded, but they were always hungry, and it ground them down.  The population became obsessed by food and its procurement as malnutrition and disease took the weakest.

The book shows how constant attrition grinds the soul to the point where a person cannot summon enough emotional energy to feel dread, and horizons narrow to present sensations.  Ginzburg’s rhythms echo the monotony of life under siege.  It is a world of ration coupons, dreary anxiety-provoking queues forming early for the meagre provisions available, and ingenuity in stretching resources.  Even the intellectuals, of which there seem to be a fair few in the city still, generally talk about day-to-day subsistence in place of grander themes.  She describes people sleeping without getting undressed, trying to keep warm, and who would eventually choose to stay in their beds during air raids in preference to dragging themselves down to dank and inhospitable shelters.  It is a careful psychological study of the hollowing effects a long siege and constant privation can have on people.  Life ceases to be comradely, if it ever truly was – juggling her possessions and shopping in a shop, Ginzburg is worried that if she puts her gloves in her pocket they will be stolen, and when she finds a flat surface to pack her bag she looks round to make sure nobody is sneaking up on her.

While there is plentiful evidence here of low-level bureaucracy, there is little indication of the Stalinist state apparatus regulating society, perhaps an indication of self-censorship by the author.  Nor is there any indication of the significant murder rate and that some individuals were driven to cannibalism, though it is possible that other sections of the work from which Blockade Diary is extracted cover the latter stages of the siege and deal with such matters.  Reading this, one suspects that the national memory of the city’s ordeal has had some ragged edges smoothed off.  It all feels bloodless, and perhaps the victims of that terrible time would have been better served by passion, a scream of rage at the injustice.  There are three dates of composition: 1942, 1962 and 1983, and a distance of forty years can do a lot to edit rawness.  The resulting ‘documentary fiction’ is more literature than reportage.  Kushner attempts to head off the charge that Ginzburg has drained emotion from her account by declaiming:

‘Should we not reproach the author as heartless for being so coldly analytical?  Try if you dare, if you do not shrink from comparing the comfortable situation of the reader of these records, biscuit or chocolate in hand, perhaps, with the icy chill of the blockade and the hunger spasms, which tormented the author of these memoirs in the course of her selfless analytical labour.’

Who would be so callous as to take her to task from the peaceful comfort of one’s cosy armchair while munching a biscuit?  How can one criticise Ginzburg’s approach if one hasn’t lived through the privations she describes?  The answer to that is: easily, I would have thought, and it is a cheap way to disarm reasonable criticism to suggest that her dreadful experiences insulate her.  Analytical labour need not preclude more visceral moments in presenting a rounded portrait of the hell of Leningrad.  By employing generalised characters Ginzburg suggests that she is offering something with claims to universality, whereas there is no way that her approach can ever really capture a sense of the horror of being there, because it reduces points of identification for the reader.

The book’s most poignant moment is a letter included in one of the ‘Blockade Diary Addenda’, further extracts from Ginzburg’s notes which pad out this slim volume.  Written in June 1941 by 18-year-old Oleg to an unnamed woman just before he goes to the front, he tells her ‘I am going to have the opportunity of plunging into the vortex of life’.  Unsurprisingly Ginzburg tells us that Oleg was killed shortly afterwards.  That letter, full of hope, with its talk of Beethoven, Lermontov and Pushkin, says much in a few brief lines of the futility of war, and is all the more powerful for being inscribed with the name of an individual instead of the initial of one of Ginzburg’s ‘conventional composites’, as she so inappropriately terms them.

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