“Imagining Leningrad under Terror and Siege” by Jack McClelland

Imagining Leningrad under Terror and Siege

Essay by Jack McClelland

Art by Shivangi Sikri


In the 1930s and 40s, the city of St. Petersburg was transformed by the Soviet project ‘Leningrad,’ a new city which attempted to systematically erase St. Petersburg’s imperial past. These two decades also saw the northern city experience two of the most traumatic periods in Soviet history: the height of Stalinist Terror in 1937-38, and the Siege of Leningrad from 1941-44. By the 1950s the city had been surrounded and blockaded externally by fascists, terrorized internally by Stalin’s regime, and architecturally transformed to be unrecognizable from the earlier imperial imaginings of Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. Although the literature that imagined these horrific events would not circulate widely until Anna Akhmatova’s publishing of “Requiem” in 1963, a larger canon exists today, narrating a literary memory of Leningrad under terror and siege. Through the poetry of Akhmatova, the prose of her contemporary Lydia Chukovskaya, and first-hand accounts of the Siege, the Leningrad of the 1930s and 40s is remembered as a disempowered, terrorized, and silenced city.

While the literature of Leningrad certainly still carries some Petersburgian tones of mystery and confusion, most of these narratives are instilled with the underlying fear and terror commonly associated with the USSR of the 1930s and 40s. These common literary elements, most prominently visible in the works of Akhmatova and Chukovskaya, imagine a contrasting Leningradian space that is terrorized, disempowered, and shadowed by the new Moscow-centric Soviet ideal. Connecting first-hand accounts, secondary sources, and both fictional and poetic narratives of the period, I argue that the Leningrad of the 1930s and 40s carries its own distinct literary memory. Although this period carried literary and imaginative characteristics intersecting those of earlier Petersburg literature, the years of Leningrad under terror and siege should ultimately be framed as a relevant and independent period in the northern capital’s rich literary history.

I will begin with some background information on the Stalinist terror and Siege of Leningrad, focusing on the experiences of writers in this specific social climate. This will lay the foundation for understanding Akhmatova’s poetry and Chukovskaya’s prose within the context of the period they were writing in. After analyzing those two authors, I will discuss a collection of memoirs from the Siege and how they contribute to the literary memory of 1930s and 40s Leningrad. In conclusion, my analysis will highlight the literary construction of Leningrad as a terrorized space and suggest its implications for later Leningrad and post-Soviet Petersburg literature.

By the mid-1930s, the effects of Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’ could be seen across the USSR. In the introduction to Orlando Figes’ The Whispers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, he notes the complacency demanded of Soviet citizens, stating that many Soviets “internalized the system’s basic values,” and contributed to “the perpetuation of its crimes” (xxxiii). Figes goes on to argue, “Immersion in the Soviet system was a means of survival for most people,” and that for Soviet citizens, “Believing and collaborating in the Soviet project was a way to make sense of their suffering, which without this high purpose might reduce them to despair” (xxxv). In Lydia Chukovskaya’s The Akhmatova Journals published in 1993, the writer poetically describes the terror in Leningrad as, “The torture chamber, which had swallowed up physically whole quarters of the city, and spiritually all our conscious and unconscious thoughts” (6). The Leningrad texts of the 1930s display how Stalin’s terror was embodied by the city at large, not only in the transformed architectural cityscape (Chukovskaya Sofia Petrovna 48), but also in the indoctrinated city-dwellers who normalized terror into the larger social atmosphere.

In Helga Landauer’s, A Film About Anna Akhmatova, the Russian-American filmmaker uses an anthropological lens to reimagine Akhmatova’s Leningrad through matching black and white documentary footage of the city with a 1965 Akhmatova reading of her poem “Requiem”. The film shows masses of Soviet women waiting outside prison gates in a snowy Leningrad, while Akhmatova recites the opening lines of “Requiem,” giving voice to the women documented in the film. In an interview with Cerise Press, the filmmaker says of this sequence, “In a time of inconceivable horror and suppression, [Akhamtova], the poet, seemed to be the only person with the ability to offer a connection to something that may — however accidentally — look like truth” (Aart, Paoletti, & Landauer). “Requiem” not only provides a contemporary reader with a poetic account of Akhmatova’s particular experience during the Terror, but also serves as a document to evidence commonplace horrors of Leningrad in the 1930s. Artists like Akhmatova lived through Stalin’s terror without full complacency, and as discussed by Landauer, documented a system that silenced so many others.

A similar history has emerged from the Siege of Leningrad. In Catriona Kelly’s St. Petersburg: Shadow of the Past she discusses the inability to erase the Siege—or as she refers to it, the ‘Blockade’—from the city’s identity. Kelly writes, “People from Piter (the affectionate local name that effaces the difference between Leningrad and Petersburg) cannot visualise their own identity without the blockade,” (4). Literary scholars Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina discuss further the chaotic freedom of writing in during the Siege. They claim that female writers, “experienced an even greater sense of liberation due to their even more liminal status in war,” and that “Women at war were … ‘doubly’ free to write of their convictions and, even if unconsciously, of their lives” (Simmons & Perlina 18). While the Siege may have loosened Stalin’s psychological grip on the population of Leningrad, Stalin’s legacy had not disappeared completely, observable from the images of the Siege included in Simmons and Perlina’s book as well as in Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero”. Paired with Akhmatova’s earlier poetry and Chukovskaya’s prose from the 1930s, this Stalin-era literature remembers a traumatic period in Soviet history, and memorializes an important chapter in the rich literary history of Leningrad/Saint Petersburg.

Akhamtova’s “Requiem” stands out as it provides a voice to the silenced and terrorized Leningraders of the 1930s. What is perhaps most noticeable in “Requiem” is not a vivid scenery of Leningrad itself, but rather the eclipse of this city’s grandeur by the landscape of Moscow’s Kremlin. Prevalent throughout the poem are images of “Kremlin Towers” and the “Enormous Star,” which refers to the stars common throughout Soviet iconography, as well as those that symbolically sit atop the walls of the Moscow Kremlin (Akhmatova 103). The embodiment of the Stalinist terror is also evident in the line that reads, “You are my son, changed into nightmare,” (Akhmatova 107). Akhmatova’s imagining of Leningrad presents fear throughout the city’s landscape with the images of Soviet stars, and also engrained into the social and family structures of Soviet society through the image of the terrorized mother.

The latter image from “Requiem” also seems to speak to Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna, which tells of another Leningrad mother whose life is thrown into chaos by her son’s imprisonment. Chukovskaya’s prose is just as devastating as Akhmatova’s poetry; the former describes Leningrad in mundane language, with common descriptions like, “an ordinary building without any sort of sign on it” (48) that imagine the dulled cityscape. Chukovskaya’s protagonist is eventually driven mad by the vapid landscape of Leningrad, which provides no tangible explanation for the arrest of her son, who is, “an indomitable Bolshevik” (Chukovskaya 76). Sofia Petrovna presents Leningrad with the same obliqueness found in the city’s facades, making the absence of detail an important characteristic of the work. This lack of detail is also prominent in Chukovskaya’s The Akhmatova Journals, where simple journal notes such as “Yesterday I was at Anna Andreevna’s on business,” are met with corresponding footnotes reading, “Rumours were circulating implying that when N. N. Punin and Lyova were arrested A. A. wrote a letter to Stalin and handed it in at the Kremlin’s Kutafya tower, and both were released” (Chukovskaya 9). The silence throughout these texts speaks most vividly to the internalizing of Stalin’s terror and its subsequent creation of a self-censoring society.

Memories of the Siege of Leningrad continue these trends of silence, notable in Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero” which reads, “the night is fathomless, and it goes on and on—this Petersburg bacchanalia. In the black sky no star is seen” (153). While Akhmatova’s “Requiem” prominently highlights the role of the Kremlin star shadowing over Leningrad, the absence of such a light in the years of Siege also speaks to the isolation of the city. The sense of fear felt in “Poem without a Hero” is also coupled with the chaos of the city’s isolation in blockade. Diaries and memoirs from the Siege, collected and organized by Simmons and Perlina with a specific focus on the women survivors, also highlight the importance of individual memory in this period. One diary reads, “Of course everything I experienced then I will preserve in my memory forever. It can never be erased,” (Simmons and Perlina 42-43). Also prevalent in this collection are descriptions of the silence that encapsulated the city during those years, observable in, “At the end of November the bombardments ceased, and in the beginning of December the radio fell silent. It became completely dark and still” (Simmons and Perlina 49). The authors of these texts, although framed as everyday Soviet women, are truly essential contributors to the literary memory of this period. Their testimonies record the transformations and sufferings of Leningrad under siege and contribute greatly to the construction of a periodic literary memory.

The literary memory of Leningrad under terror and siege is personal and intimate, subverting the pro-Soviet metanarratives of the 1930s and 40s and giving readers a sense of the desire for private life prevalent in Stalin’s years of power. The landscape of the city was also strikingly altered in this period, as is described with the dulling of the cityscape of the 1930s by Chukovskaya. While there were certainly popular literatures in the period that glorified the city’s transformation away from imperial Petersburg, the individual testimonies of writers like Akhmatova, Chukovskaya, and others remember the heartbreaking realities of life in Leningrad then. Although these works were not published until the 1960s at the earliest, the memories of Leningrad under terror and siege undoubtedly had influence on later Soviet, as well as postmodern or ‘Post-Soviet’ Petersburg literature. By giving attention to this important literary period, we can reach a better understanding not only of the history embedded in Russia’s cultural capital, but also of the trauma and horrors ingrained in the landscape and literature of St. Petersburg today.

Works Cited

A Film About Anna Akhmatova. Directed by Helga Landauer, Performances by Anatoly Naiman, Anna Akhmatova, and Helga Landauer, DAS Films, 2008.

Aart, Greta, Paoletti, Claire, & Landauer, Helga. “In the Footsteps of Anna Akhmatova: Helga Olshvang Landauer’s Cinema as a Form of Poetry.” Cerise Press: A Journal of Literature, Arts, and Culture. Vol. 2, Issue 4, 2010, http://www.cerisepress.com/02/04/in-the-footsteps-of-anna-akhmatova-helga-olshvang-landauers-cinema-as-a-form-of-poetry/view-all.

Akhmatova, Anna. Poems of Akhmatova, translated by Stanley Kunitz, Little, Brown, and Company, 1973.

Chukovskaya, Lydia. Sofia Petrovna, Translated by Aline Werth, Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Chukovskaya, Lydia. The Akhmatova Journals: Volume I 1938-41, Translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.

Figes, Orlando. The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. Henry Holt and Company, 2007.

Kelly, Catriona. St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past. Yale University Press, 2014.

Simmons, Cynthia, and Perlina, Nina. Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women’s Diaries, Memoirs, and Documentary Prose. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.



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