Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad

Lena, c 1932: survivor

Literary Review

The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad
Edited by Valentin Kovalchuk, Aleksandr Rupasov & Aleksandr Chistikov. Translated by Amanda Love Darragh (Macmillan 390pp £16.99)

"Germany's siege of Leningrad was one of the Second World War's worst atrocities. Lasting two and a half years, it killed 700,000 to 800,000 people, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the city's entire civilian population. Atrocities on such a scale are best understood through individual accounts, and this diary, newly emerged from the archives, is one such. It was written by Lena Mukhina, a plain, prim sixteen-year-old living in the city centre with her adoptive mother and an older woman nicknamed Aka - possibly, according to the editors, a retired English governess.
Electricity was cut as power stations ran out of fuel, trams ground to a halt and water and sewage pipes froze. Amazingly, Lena's school stayed open: lessons continued in a shelter during air-raid warnings and through December she was still handing in essays and scolding herself for getting poor marks in algebra tests. She mentions in passing that the family are eating their pet cat; enough is left 'for two more meals'. The discretion is typical: for reasons of psychological self-defence or political caution she leaves out a great deal, never describing the ghastly physical appearance of the starving, or the sight of corpses on the streets, or muggings for food, or the obvious fact that some had much better access to food than others.
In the depths of the siege winter, many households disintegrated emotionally as well as physically. Lena's held together. Her mother continued to walk to her workplace daily, bringing home and sharing whatever she was given for 'lunch'. A windfall was sheets of carpenter's glue, which could be boiled up and turned into edible jelly. Aka queued at the bread shops, for hours at a time, in temperatures that dipped into the minus thirties. Both adults turned a blind eye when Lena hid the pathetic quantities of 'meat jelly' she brought home from school. By the end of the year, though, Aka was too weak to leave her bed. 'Aka', Lena records on 28 December,, 'is just an extra mouth to feed. I don't know how I can even bring myself to write such things. But my heart has turned to stone. The thought of it doesn't upset me at all... If she is going to die I hope it happens after the 1st, so we'll be able to get her ration card.' Aka obliges, dying on New Year's Day. A few weeks later Lena's mother follows suit: a one-line entry for 8 February reads, 'Mama died yesterday morning. I am all alone.' From then on, Lena fights as much against despair as against hunger: 'When I wake up in the morning, at first I can't believe that Mama has really died ... But then the awful reality sinks in. Mama has gone! Mama is no longer alive! ... I feel like howling, screaming, banging my head against the wall and biting myself! How am I going to live without Mama?'"

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