St Petersburg Episode 17 Finding Leningrad in Literature



strategy hello and welcome to city breaks in Petersburg episode 17 finding Leningrad in literature for this very last episode on the lovely city of st. Petersburg I'm going to concentrate actually on the period when it was called Leningrad and focus on three authors who have a lot to tell us about what life was like then two Russian and one British and their Achmat over the early 20th century poet we've mentioned her already in the actual episode on Soviet Leningrad but today I'd like to look at some of her writing and then the British author Helen Dunmore who wrote two lovely novels the siege and betrayal set in Leningrad the first one during the period of the siege and the second one in 1950s Leningrad and then to finish off the Russian emigre author Sergey Lavrov who in 1986 published his collection of short stories the suitcase which was all about his life being a young man in Leningrad during the 1960s very quirky very amusing lots to learn from that so to start then Anna Akhmatova who of course was a young writer in st. Petersburg quĂ­ the revolution and who when the revolution came was very careful neither to welcome it nor to denounce it what she did know was that she very much wanted to stay in the city she wrote the following lines explaining this not for anything would we exchange our splendid city of glory and misfortune the glistening of broad rivers the sunless gloomy gardens and the barely audible voice of the muse but a short rundown of her writing life in the city will prove if proof were needed that it was really a very difficult place to be a creative writer the work was banned pretty early on and all through the 1920s she lived a life of poverty and real deprivation and terror her husband and her son were both arrested by the authorities her husband was actually executed by them a further blow in 1936 the state removed her Writers Union pension which was her only income she stayed in Leningrad during the siege at least at first she joined the fire Watchers she sewed sandbag but eventually she left for Moscow and didn't return until after the war in the 1940s things looked up a little bit publishers began to ask for her work again but she knew that they were keeping a close eye on her because there was a lady who helped in the house really sent there by the Soviet authorities to spy on her she caught her out one day by leaving her hair in one of her notebooks and sure enough as soon as she came back from her outing it had been moved she got into further trouble in 1946 because she had a long meeting with the American writer Isaiah Berlin which caused much more suspicion she knew her flat was bugged her work was publicly denounced in something called the protocol 172 a ration card was impounded she was arrested she was imprisoned in the 1960s when Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a murderer she did have a bit of a late flowering new popularity and in 1964 there was a celebration it having been 50 years since the publication of her first poems and in 1965 something that earlier on I think she wouldn't have dreamt of a 400-page collection of her poetry was published actually inside the Soviet Union and shortly before she died she was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford but despite all the difficulties the idea of her being resolutely Russian and fiercely loyal to Leningrad shines through a lot of her work so for example here she is imagining someone saying to her why don't you leave Russia and come and live here and she's imagining her answer this is what she writes come to me here and leave your remote in sinful country leave Russia behind forever peacefully with indifference I covered my ears with my hands so that such unworthy words would not sully my sad spirit much of her writing though is all about the terror of living where she did and knowing that she was being watched and knowing what terrible things the regime could do to her and her family for example in 1921 shortly after her former husband Gumi loaf had been executed in prison and also shortly after the death of her friend the poet Alexander block he died of a heart attack having been refused treatment specifically under Stalin's orders this is what she wrote about the fear that she felt all that tarah fingers all the things in the dark leads moonlight to the axe there's an ominous knock behind the wall a ghost a thief or a rat one of the most terrible aspects of her life story was the imprisonment of her son live he was in the quest to prison in leningrad for 17 long months she didn't really know whether he was dead or alive and her queueing up outside the prison and in the hope of seeing him or at least passing a message to him day after day for months on end he's described in the biography and her of all the rushes which was written about her by Elaine Feinstein here's a quotation with Lev in the quest to prison that Mattawa stood outside in the long queues in the hope of learning something about him or to beg the guard to take in a food parcel for him akima Sava did not ask for help but she attracted it from those who stood with her from time to time one of us managed to get Anna andreyevna out of the queue and to make her sit down even if it was only on a block of stone but she left the queue unwillingly she stood in silence the next day her feet was so badly swollen she had to take off her shoes and walk across the yard in her stocking feet Anna herself wrote about this in her poem Requiem in the preface to the poem she wrote in the terrible years of the yet soft terror I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad and here are a few lines from the poem itself lines thought to be known by heart by many Russians but here where I stood for 300 hours outside those gates that never opened to me in case in blissful death I might perhaps forget the rumbling of those black mariah's or how the hated door bangs shut against an old woman howling like an animal may the melting flakes of snow then flow over bronze eyelids as if they were tears and let a prisoner of ku somehow in the distance while the ships on the Navy sail quietly on she was haunted by the fact that her son and her ex-husband had a much more difficult life in the Soviet era than they would have done simply because of their connection to her she wrote for example I brought destruction on those I loved and one after another they died this is my sorrow I sound live near two he wrote if I were not her son but the son of an ordinary woman I would have been a blossoming Soviet professor he had tried to get a professorship at Leningrad University but his studies were interrupted very early on and he was thrown into prison much of what Anna wrote focused on the separation that was enforced on her in these few lines for example she says give me your hands listen carefully I warn you they're far away from me and don't let me know where you are this feeling of being watched over all the time and how none of them would be safe she even wrote to Stalin himself a very moving letter which she had delivered by hand to his secretary in the Kremlin to beg for him to do something to get her husband and son out of jail some of her poetry refers to the garden that they're sure emotive palace where she was sharing a communal flat with other people he's a little extract for example and I will wander here at night as an unlamented shade while like blossoming lilac the rays of starlight play in another poem she wrote about the tree that was just directly outside her bedroom window and wrote of it being quote a witness to everything in the world from dusk to dawn the old maple looks into the room and for seeing our separation stretches out to me as if to help its desiccated black and but the fear and dread is everywhere here's another one which mentions the sheer amount of gardens written in 1936 a little extract from it anyway at night I hear creaking what's there in the strange gloom the sharamitaro Linden's the roll call of the spirits of the house approaching cautiously like gurgling water misfortunes black whisper Nestle's warmly to my ear Requiem is probably her most famous poem began in 1935 during the arrest of her husband and her son but not finished until we think about 1940 here's a little extract from that for 17 months I've been crying out calling you home I flung myself at the hangman's feet you are my son and my horror everything is confused forever and it's not clear to me who is a beast now and who is a man and how long before the execution and there are only dusty flowers and the chinking of the sensor and trucks from somewhere to nowhere and staring me straight in the eyes and threatening impending death is an enormous star and then just to finish off a few lines from her other very famous poem poem without a hero here she is explaining how she wrote it really in memory of all those that she knew and although she didn't know who lost their lives in the siege of leningrad quote it came to me for the first time in the night of the 27th of december 1940 I didn't call it I didn't even expect it that cold dark day of my last Leningrad winter I dedicate this poem to the memory of the people who first heard it my friends and fellow citizens who perished in the siege of leningrad i hear their voices and remember them when I read the poem aloud and this secret course has become forever the justification of the poem for me Anna Akhmatova wrote all through those very difficult decades the twenties thirties forties she was respected by people who knew her work she was helped by very brave friends I think I mentioned in the previous episode her friend Lydia took off scare who used to come to her flat and chat about nothing so that the people that they knew were listening in on them wouldn't be alarmed while Anna wrote a few lines of her poem down for Lydia to memorize she was too scared to take the scrap of paper out of the flat in case she was stopped but she wouldn't memorize a few lines and go and write them down somewhere secret and then come back a few days later and remember the next few lines in anger of all the Russia's Elaine Feinstein gives lots of reasons why she thinks Anna's poems were so well loved firstly their very simplicity there were lots of groups of people who found something in her that they liked the liberals liked the fact that she was in opposition to Stalinism religious people saw her love of God in her poems but the Patriots liked her too because she was a very Russian poet and the Communists although they were very suspicious of her knew that she's never been actually outspokenly anti-soviet and that she had elected to stay in Leningrad for most of her life despite the difficulties biographer puts it like this Anna was born as the curtain began to fall on Imperial Russia and survived the worst horrors of the Soviet regime she came to stand as a symbol of resistance to the state and let's leave the last word on her legacy to the poet marina tsvetaeva who dedicated poems to Anna Akhmatova and who wrote the following about her muse of lament you are the most beautiful of all muses a crazy emanation of white knights and you have sent a black snowstorm all over Russia we are pierced with the arrow of your cries moving on to our second writer someone completely different Helen Dunmore the poet and novelist who set two of her novels in Leningrad the first one the siege is obviously set in the 1940s and then the second one betrayal is set ten years later and between them they tell you so much about life in the city in those days but I wouldn't say at all that's the only reason for reading them because they're so beautifully written but they really are a treat from start to finish so just as a taster let me open with the first few lines of the first chapter of the siege which starts like this quote June 1941 it's half past 10:00 in the evening but the light of day still glows through the lime leaves they are so green that they look like a hallucination of the summer everyone has almost given up expecting when you touch them they are fresh and tender it's like touching a baby's skin and another paragraph or two about the beauty of Leningrad just coming out of winter and into proper spring and summer but then it continues like this stressing how life was very difficult for the people in those days quote these are hard times you can't trust anyone not even yourself frightened men and women scuttling in the dusty wind Peters great buildings hang over them crushingly magnificent in times like these the roads are too wide how long it takes to fight your way across Peter squares and how visible you become yes you're a target and you don't know who's watching so many disappearances so much fear black vans cruise the streets you listen for the note of their engines and your heart pumps until it chokes you as the vans but it passes this time and halts at the doorway to another courtyard where you don't live you hear the van doors clang and the sweat of relief soaks you shamefully some other poor bastard is in that van this time it's the story of Anna Anna's mother had died when Anna was only 17 her mother was giving birth to her younger brother Kolya and so now Anna lives with her father and a little boy looking after both of them and it starts at the beginning of the siege and you get scenes such as Anna helping to dig the trenches which were dug all around the city in the hope of keeping out the Germans as so many citizens were forced to do there's a long description of children being evacuated away from the city in the hope of sending them somewhere safer there are even in the early pages a lot of descriptions of food and the difficulties of getting hold of produce players for example a long description of the sorts of the man who's in charge of supplying the city just fantasizing about how they would still be market stalls with buckwheat and lard and potatoes and all the usual things and how there would be quote fat sweet cabbages with their crisps parts heaped up like chrysanthemums Queen and bluish-purple with the first touch of frost prickling on their outer leaves and then gradually there are descriptions of queues and empty shelves and the problems of shopping little scenes such as somebody one day managing to buy a couple of onions and 50 grams of lard and going home happy knowing that tonight at least they'll be able to make some soup and have something to eat but things get more and more desperate and we see Pavlov who's in charge of supplying the city thinking about all the desperate ways he can come up with to get some sort of food how they can use the slaughterhouses byproducts how people will have to eat their pets and use wallpaper paste to eat and boil up leather articles and drink the juice there are desperate scenes and they're walking past the park for example and seeing dead bodies described as follows there are people sitting on benches slaved in snow planted like bulbs to wait for the spring they stay there day after day no one comes to take them away there is a description of a lair cutting up little bits of Callias schoolbag and boiling them and then giving them to Collier to chew so that any tiny little bit of nutrition that's in there can come out she knows he's not doing much good but she thinks it still does seem to comfort him there are terrible practical asides for example the fact that when Anna's father died it was close to the end of the month and one of her first thoughts was that if only he'd lasted to the beginning of the next month they could have had one more ration card for him and been able to use it it's a picture of the utter desperation that these people were living in and you get that – from quotations like the following people are eating rats and rats are eating people in apartments where the dead lie on the floor in puddles of ice then towards the end of the book there are descriptions of things being just ever so slightly better because food slowly is eventually beginning to arrive in the city but how everybody's marked by what's happened for example quote in streets in parks on bridges and along the water people are strolling they blink in the bright sunlight they are thin marked by sickness and weakness some lean on sticks although they are young and there's a description at the end of the book of the memorial to the victims of the Leningrad blockade on which work was begun about 15 years later and there are a few lines in which the author remembers some of the people for whom this memorial had been built quote the mummified babies who barely had time to emerge into the light before they were snuffed out the students who walked arm-in-arm through the summer gardens eating Eskimo ice cream the professor's the refugee peasants who fled to Leningrad pushing their possessions in handcarts hoping to save their lives the orchestra members who kept on practicing in fingerless gloves as the temperature in their rehearsal rooms sunk beyond zero writers lathe Turner's museum curators engineers street cleaners schoolchildren there are so many of them such an unearthly number that the mind also dissolves at the thought of it the memorial stone will swear that they will never be forgotten and this may be true I really can't recommend this book too highly I'll leave you with a quotation from the Sunday Telegraph reviewer who wrote that it was quote literary writing of the highest order set against the background of suffering so intimately reconstructed it is hard to believe that Dunmore was not there and her second novel set in Leningrad the betrayal is equally just a masterpiece of wonderful writing here's Anthony beaver for example on the subject he called it quote a beautifully written and deeply moving story about fear loss love and honesty amid the demented lies of Stalin's last days it set ten years later Anna by this time is married to Andray a young doctor that she met during the siege and they lived together with her younger brother Collier in the fear and dread of the Stalinist regime and Rey for example he's quoted as saying that he knows how to survive in this atmosphere quote don't take risks don't stand out be anonymous and average keep in step but it's not very far into the story before the idea of him not styling out becomes just impossible because one of the high ups in the Communist Party has a son who is very ill with cancer and this man refuses to have the doctor who's a specialist and is supposed to be treating him because this doctor is Jewish and insists that Andrey should treat his son which of course means that Andrei suddenly is very much in the eye of the regime that he's been trying to keep well away from Helen Dunmore puts it like this the fact that the Volkov has taken to Andrei is one of those things that even years of being careful can't protect you against a red tender swelling on a child's leg that's all it takes to destroy years of caution as the story develops it's very good on little details of the atmosphere of living in Leningrad at that time just little moments when for example the doorbell rings and somebody leaves their finger on the Bell and makes it what Helen dunwall describes as a long steady peal alla panics and says she doesn't think they should answer it and Andrei he looks at her and says don't be silly Anna he knows there's no escape if it is a caller they don't want in fact on that occasion it's the neighbor but as Helen Dunmore goes on to say they're still worried because his persons always complaining about them and they fear that he may well report them to the authorities so they don't feel safe even in their own house there are little moments of light relief though such as this one quote Sunday is bright but cool with a few high clouds scudding in a sky the color of a blackbirds egg perfect for cycling out to the Daha and a cooks porridge for everyone and packs bread tea and sausage her pan ears are full but then it goes on to describe how she's been around the city buying up things that she thinks she may well be able to exchange for other things that she wants more so she's collected some sardines and the school exercise book and some HB pencils and she's hoping to do some bargaining with it as her and Dunmore rights and there is never without her string bags and an eye for what can be bought in the city and exchanged for butter fresh milk seed potatoes or a piece of pork and you get glimpses to of the way in which the regime really forced its way into ordinary people's lives for example the way that many people were made to live in communal flats forced together with people that they didn't know and didn't want to live with quote they're crammed in three families to an apartment what if she had to share an apartment with the malevich's the thought makes her shudder but it could easily happen plenty of people have to live in a nest of voluntary spies with every word censored and every thought concealed or they live worn down by constant rouse about slivers of household soap and by accusations of bringing up their children like hooligans because they make the normal noise of children she's had a nursery mothers break down in tears after a vicious early-morning row over spending too long in the bathroom with the children and just as you're reading about them coping with the everyday the more horrific comes in and Ray gets a phone call telling him that he's now under suspicion and must cease work until he's been thoroughly investigated and from then on of course he has to worry about how this is all going to end there are descriptions of him lying awake at night listening out for cars one for example reads like this another car going fast down the empty street he listens as if the walls of the building are a skirt through which he's trying to catch a pulse it's coming closer he must have turned into their Street suddenly there is a sound of brakes not a screech but brakes being applied for it sounds too big to be just the car then a few lines later she writes he takes a deep breath his heart is pounding and his thoughts race the caretaker will open up and then they'll all climb the stairs to the apartment that's how it happens everybody knows the caretakers a witness to the arrest the next couple of pages described the sounds of these people being let into the building and coming up the stairs and andreas thoughts racing about what's he going to do and what he should tell alle and how he can advise her to stay safe and then they appear at the door alexia Andrey makarevich yes we have a warrant here for your arrest and then there's a description of them fanning out around the room and rummaging in all the drawers and emptying out all the contents on the floor it's described in such everyday detail that it's as if it really is happening and you're right there watching it very powerful I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending for you so let me just end with a couple of quotes from reviewers the independent on Sunday wrote that the book was quote magnificent brave tender a unique gift for immersing the reader in the taste smell and fear of a story and for the Sunday Times reviewer the betrayal is quote a powerful and touching novel of ordinary people in the grip of a terrible and sinister regime and a moving portrait of a love that will not be extinguished and then the final in the trio of authors that are chosen again completely different Sergei dove let off a Russian emigre writer who published in the 1980s a book about his life growing up in and being a young man in Leningrad in the 1960s the book came to pass a few years after he'd arrived in I think it was Canada or possibly the States and he found a suitcase at the back of his wardrobe was a suitcase that he'd brought with him when he left the USSR and in it he found a gathering of little objects all of which reminded him about some aspect of life in the city and so he wrote a collection of short stories one about each of them which are really little glimpses of what life was like in the 1960s under the Soviet regime but it if you had dissident leanings and were a little bit liable to be accused of being against the regime even in the forward you get a flavor so he's describing how he was finally going to be allowed to leave Leningrad and he was discussing this with the authorities and discovered that he was only allowed to take three suitcases with him and he decided to query this and then the official replied to him if you're dissatisfied with something write a complaint I'm satisfied I said after prison everything satisfied me well then don't make trouble then he goes on to explain that a week later he was doing his packing and he realized that in fact everything he had that he wanted to take with him fit it into one suitcase anyway which is quite a nice comment on the fact that an author a published author and worker in his mid thirties I'm leaving the country had really very little that he could take with him and he describes how he had already given away all his banned books because he knew he wouldn't be able to take those with him and as for his manuscripts he posted them in secret out to the west long before he ever left so just to give you a flavour of the stories a quick summary there's one called the Finnish crepe socks which describes how he first got into the idea of being a black market racketeer his first project in fact went badly wrong more about that in a minute but it's quite amusing Lee written and then there's another one called a decent double-breasted suit which shows him as a journalist in their newspaper office being asked to keep an eye on a Swedish stranger who's come to work there and getting into trouble with the KGB when he gets a little bit too friendly with this foreigner there's a third one called Ferdinand Alicia's jacket which describes how a family friend had been on a visit to Paris and come back with a gift for him Jews a very chatty old jacket which he said used to belong to the painter Fairmount Lachey and how he treasured this jacket because it conjured up art and the Paris that he felt at the time he'd never visit and just felt it was a really special garment there's another story called a poplin shirt the shirt is actually only mentioned in the very last lines of the story the story is really about his relationship with his wife and how they met and how in the early days they had fallen in love with each other really spotting in each other and mutual repressed critter some of Soviet ways but how as they grew older they developed different reactions to how to deal with it and that it was that drove them apart but the shirt which came out in this suitcase still reminds him of the wife that he left behind and then there's another one called the winter hat which is apparently all that was left of a drunken night out with his brother a sort of alcohol fueled the evening of fighting in which just in passing comes mention of a colleague who committed suicide so you get this picture of people trying to carry on and just forget their sorrows and get some enjoyment out of life but actually around them other people for whom it was all too much who ended their lives and scattered through all the stories you get these tiny little glimpses of Soviet life which all build up into a picture so for example there's a comment in one story that reads like this there's a monument to Lenin in every city in every regional center commissions of that sort are inexhaustible an experienced sculptor can do Lenin blind that his blindfolded and talking about when he was small a throwaway line that tells you a lot quote when I was a child manali live eats again Rick owner did everything distractedly living in fear of arrest we're never told why it's just yet another person living their life under a cloud knowing that for some reason or other they were going to get into trouble with the authorities in another story there's a mention of some of his literary friends once there were many literary celebrities in Leningrad such as coronet you cough ski nikolai elena cough because a Shenko danielle comes and so on after the war their number decreased sharply some was shot for one reason or another others moved to Moscow and that matter of fact aside is all you get really in the story although there are notes at the end of the book that tells us the fate of some of these people so Elena cough was shot during one of Stalin's purges and Daniel comms died in a psychiatric ward somewhere where he'd been put after having been arrested for treason so all through those his idea that nobody could say what they wanted nobody could write what they wanted and then the journalist who features in the decent double-breasted suit also has trouble finding anything he could possibly write about and he put it like this everything around us was not for publication I don't know where Soviet journalists got their story ideas all my projects were unrealizable all my conversations were not for the phone all my acquaintances were suspicious and it describes how on this particular day in the end he finds something that he can write about because he's sent to interview one of the examples of a quote heroine mother so a woman with lots of children are you doing what the Russian state wanted her to do which is produced lots of offspring and he points out that quote material like that will always get through there are lots of descriptions of how easy it is to get into trouble so in the decent double-breasted suit for example the journalist pays a little bit too much attention to this rather unusual man who comes to work in the office who's Swedish turns out they have some interests in common they like both like Picasso they're both interested in Benjamin Britten and so they arranged to meet after work one day and the very next morning the journalist is called into the editor's office and Ezer a KGB man waiting for him there who wants to know everything the conversation goes like this do you know Arthur too and Strome yes we met yesterday did he ask you any suspicious questions I don't think so he didn't ask me any questions at all I don't think I can't remember any not one I don't think so how did you strike up an acquaintance rather where and how did you meet I was in the typing pool he came in and asked ah he asked then he did ask questions what did he ask if it's not a secret he asked where the toilet was the major wrote it down and said I suggest you be more precise and you just know that it is gonna go on and on until they Winkle out every detail and he ends up in terrible trouble but much of it is amusing is written with irony in a sort of wry asides on life in these circumstances I particularly liked the finished crepes socks story which tells the story of how the author met one friend who was already working in the black market and decides to go into business with him and work on some scams and see if he can get some money made and so they get a whole consignment of Finnish socks I think it's 240 of these pairs of these things and they're all pea-green but they're thinking how well they've done and how they'll be able to sell them on the black market and make a nice profit but unfortunately no sooner have they got them that they find in the one of the shops in the town there's actually a whole lot of Soviet crept socks have come into the store and are being sold cheaply and so of course is going to be no market for there's he's quite amusing on what effect this had so he says for 20 years I paraded around in P colored socks I gave them to all my friends about Christmas ornaments in them dusted with them stuck them into the cracks of window frames and still the number of those lousy socks barely diminished and then when it came to actually leaving he couldn't resist putting two or three pairs in his suitcase just to remind him as he puts it off his criminal youth then there's another paragraph which quite matter-of-factly details some of the things that happened next how he got better in the black market in made a little bit of money but how his life didn't go totally without trouble so this is what he writes quote I paid off my debts bought myself some decent clothes changed departments at college met the girl I eventually married went to the Baltics for a month when Reimer and Fred were arrested began my feeble literary attempts became a father got into trouble with the authorities lost my job spent a month in Cali AVO prison and right at the end of the story he remembers two of the young men that he'd been friends with and what happened to them also a comment on life in Soviet society I think Fred served his two years and then was killed in a motorcycle accident on his chit set rhyme are served one year and now works as a dispatcher in a meatpacking plant never are you tempted to want to live in 1960s Soviet to Leningrad but many times are you amused by the way he describes what it was like so there we have it three very different authors all of whom I can thoroughly recommend and that in fact brings us to the end of the very last episode in the sand Petersburg series in some ways it's a strange place to end Soviet Leningrad but I think if you visit San Petersburg today you're very aware of all the different sorts of history that there are so it's absolutely an ex imperial capital with all those splendid buildings and that great opulence and mad waste of money on marble and jewels and Imperial apartments but also perhaps slightly less obvious but still definitely there is this really quite recent past the Soviet era still in living memory for of course some of the older city dwellers and perhaps actually it's that juxtaposition that makes it such a fascinating city to visit anyway I hope you enjoyed our virtual visit perhaps being inspired to go on an actual visit and so for the moment it just remains for me to try my Russian out one last time or one last time for now anyway because we're off to Toulouse next although I'm quite tempted by Moscow in a few series time perhaps anyway for the moment thank you very much for listening spasibo and goodbye in Russian one last time da svidaniya you

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