After the Siege of Leningrad, it has taken seven decades for these poems to be published. The blockade was horrific: at least 600,000 civilians had died by the time it was over on 27 January 1944. It’s no surprise the reality of 900 days of starvation, cold and artillery fire did not make it into print sooner. Surrealist rather than heroic, despairing rather than glorifying, these avant-garde poems didn’t fit the official Soviet narrative of World War II.
Written in the Dark, edited by Polina Barskova, brings together the work of five poets who were writing as the siege unfolded, published together in Russian and English for the first time by Ugly Duckling Presse. The poems suggest that hunger hit as soon as the siege started in September 1941:
This poem, and the one below, are by Pavel Zaltsman, translated by Charles Swank and Matvei Yankelevich. They capture the physical reality of the moment, which will haunt the eye-witness forever:
The next poet, Sergei Rudakov, widens the camera angle to show you a whole apartment and then a cityscape. He brings you right into the emptiness where all the people have – only just – gone:
Rudakov, translated by Anand Dibble and Matvei Yankalevich, was a soldier wounded in action, so he spent the winter of 1941-2 in Leningrad. Reading this feels starker, knowing he was killed in fighting in 1944:
Gennady Gor was evacuated during the siege and returned to Leningrad afterwards. Gor’s poems were translated by Ben Felker-Quinn, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Matvei Yanklevich. He shows that in a world where normal rules no longer apply, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t:
Reading these on a quiet winter afternoon, I was catapulted into the middle of the blockade. My only disappointment with this book is that all the poets are men. To balance that, take a look at Elena Martilla’s work. A St Petersburg native, she’s now 94, and made her sketches of the siege as she saw them. Her work is now on display in a new exhibition, Art and Endurance, at Darwin College, Cambridge, until the end of March.