The authors of these heartrending documents of memory are united by common fates – they were all from the aristocracy, and judging from their photographs they were beautiful. During the First World War they were sisters of mercy, subsequently managed to avoid the red terror, and in 1941 found themselves in the Siege of Leningrad.
The father of Tatyana Velikotnaya (1894-1942) and her sister Vera Berkhman (1888-1969) was a Russified Baltic Germany, an actual state councilor and a comrade of the chairman of the Petersburg district court. The sisters will never forget their summer life at the estate of Skokovo – horse-riding, music, home theatrical performances and painting. Both daughters were christened in the Orthodox faith and were deeply religious. Tatyana loved the poetry of the Silver Age, and in 1914 published a poetry collection, giving one copy to her second cousin Alexander Blok. In 1915, she graduated from the Imperial women’s pedagogical institute. In 1917, she married sub-lieutenant Nikolai Velikotny. In 1922, they had a son, Alexander. Tatyana taught Russian language and literature at school, and Nikolai taught physics and mathematics. The family miraculously avoided the repressions.
Tatyana Velikotnaya began to keep a diary when she realized that they would not survive. For her son Alexander who was fighting on the frontline, she wrote about the last days of her husband (in January 1942), about the pride and joy she felt when he was buried properly (usually the dead were collected by medical brigades and thrown in a common grave), and describes her last days, worrying that all of her thoughts are about food, but in fact when you read these notes, you can’t stop but being amazed how much she managed to read, and what serious books she read. She survived her husband by two months, but until her last days she endured hunger and illness with amazing humility.
Her sister Vera Berkhman received many medals in the First World War, including from the empress, for outstanding work and providing assistance to the injured in the battlefield. Medicine remained her vocation until the end of her life. Vera began keeping a diary in the summer of 1942, after her sister’s death – as if her sister had handed her the baton. But if Tatyana’s entries calmly and impartially record tragedy in real time, her sister’s texts are more reflective and emotional. Of course, this is connected to the horror which she, a medical worker, saw from day to day. It is the diary of Vera Berkhman, a deeply religious person, which most clearly shows the battle between good and evil, between light and darkness, that was taking place in people’s souls at that time.
Irina Zelenskaya (1895-1981) was born in Odessa, then lived in Minsk, where she experienced the First World War. She worked in a hospital, and then as an economist in Leningrad. Even during the siege she remained a very determined, selfless and principled person. She is astounded at how quickly “the masses reverted to a savage state and did not even fight much, simply perishing without complaint.” Zelenskaya’s diary is amazing in its precise depiction of events, the mass of details of siege life, and the psychological analysis of the behavior of the people around her, including herself.
It is horrifying to read this book. Not only the fastidiously described details of siege life are horrifying, which you cannot imagine anyway, no matter how hard you try, and the stages of dying from starvation, when your body ceases to obey you, and the last thing to stop functioning is your consciousness. The most horrifying thing is that the authors of these diaries not only look at what happens on the outside, describing bread cards, the siege ration, expeditions for water and the behavior of people around them, but also that they constantly describe what is happening in their own souls. Vera Berkhman in one entry is horrified that she has become heartless, that her tears have run out, and in another she feels an intolerable sense of guilt to the dead, for the fact that she has remained alive. “Why have I remained alive in an empty apartment, can it be that I, a skeleton, starved less than they did?... Why did I become a piece of wood, a clod, a stone – and if it weren’t for the blade of the sharpener, which sharpens my deep chambers inside me, I would sign this: “corpse”. As a deeply religious person, she strove to stand before the Creator filled with calm and pure love. She has rid herself of the slightest signs of obduracy and egoism. The blockade did not break her, it made her a different person. She won the battle against “becoming inhuman”, and succeeded in remaining herself.
Siege realities are present in all three diaries: ration cards, weakness from hunger, the horror of bombings, the pain of saying goodbye to close ones, a detailed description of every attempt to extend life, painful relations with friends have been turned into enemies by hunger. What is it like to read when your hands can’t hold a book, and to stop dropping it, you have to break the binding in half? What is it like to dream of an additional ration of 200 grams of bread, which turns out to be a myth, to wander through the entire city for a bowl of watery soup, to stand in line for food for hours, to see corpses on the street every day?
How did these women manage to endure? What did they do to preserve humanity in themselves, to save themselves from the spiritual numbness and passivity that many people succumbed to? In the Siege of Leningrad, everyone had their own recipe for survival. “I am increasingly convinced that only inner energy can save you, and I will not give up until the very last, as long as my body obeys my will,” Irina Zelenskaya wrote in her diary.
Human dignity is what worries these three women most of all, when they think about themselves and about everyone who died in the terrible siege winter. “All these people, almost everyone who died – right up until their death, until their last breath, they raised the banner of the spirit above the flesh.”
The main battle for Leningrad took place in the souls of the people of Leningrad. This is shown by the Siege Diaries. “The largest library in the world is probably the millions of books that were burnt in Leningrad stoves” – this is a line from a diary entry. Books were burnt. But diaries remained. They are the main source of knowledge, at first hand, about the siege.