Poetry after the Siege of Leningrad

Montage, ekphrasis, allegory

The theme of war should be named as one of the most urgent and, ironically, productive, for contemporary Russian poetry. We find its various incarnations in the works of such striking and dissimilar poets as Elena Fanailova, Mariia Stepanova, and Stanislav Lvovsky. These poets are primarily preoccupied by the new wars of Russian empire such as the Chechnya campaigns as well as by the unmediated, continuous wars of memory — among which the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany still remains one of the hottest spots both culturally and politically, producing new interpretations and representations.

After one of my recent talks in the US about the culture of the Siege, I was approached by a polite elderly gentleman who asked me a question that at first struck me with its absurdity and then with its absurd sharpness — “has the Siege of Leningrad ended?” he asked. The Siege of Leningrad, a calamity that claimed up to two million lives, one of the most dramatic and controversial military events of the last century, was lifted in January 1944 — and yet, in many ominous ways it is still going on, and morphing, producing new meanings in the imagination of Russians. It has been exhaustively described and discussed, yet it remains a troubling, problematic episode of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany: on par with Stalin’s labor camps, the Siege remains one of the most problematic zones of Soviet history.  

In history and memory of the Siege, categories of dramatic historical magnitude emerge from juxtaposed narratives: order (both allegedly imposed from Moscow and established by the local Party hierarchy) and chaos (the rise of criminal activity of all kinds, from the black market to cannibalism) turned the Siege of Leningrad into a zone of societal repression and taboo, shielded for half a century from sober historical examination or artistic readdressing by the official terms, heroism and stoicism, that obscured grim reality like a funeral shroud. Sociologist Lev Gudkov claims that late Soviet society was glued together by the myth of the victorious war and victorious nation, and that this still remains the case today.[1] Any confrontation or deconstruction of this account elicits radically negative reactions from the majority of Russians. As one young pro-Putin critic puts it in his response to publication of the texts I discuss below: “You won’t resurrect your dead. In the case of two million blokadniki [Siege victims and witnesses] — you can’t understand them, you can’t hear them. But you can pray for them, ask for forgiveness and keep your silence.”[2] Any attempt at frank dialogue with the national past(s) is apt to be received with antagonism, denial, or both, and a quasi-Heideggerian notion of silence turns into an instrument for the control of national memory. One of my interviewees expressed this view sardonically, thus summing up the opinion prevailing in Russia today: “Don’t dare to touch their wounds, since they don’t have any wounds anyway.”

Yet precisely out of spite, inspired by their disagreement with the politics of silence, contemporary Russian poets choose to write about the Siege; the most interesting of these attempts aim at bringing the modern reader closer to the experience and subjectivity of blokadniki: how did they conceive of their situation? What did they feel, see, and hear? What language(s) were coined in that experience, and, crucially, how can these languages be transposed or translated into today’s poetics?

In the present essay I look at the several contemporary poetic texts dedicated to the Siege, analyzing various takes on the task of such a historical gesture as well as the formal qualities adopted by today’s poets for their post-Siege contemplations. The latest publication, Sergei Zavialov’s montage-text “Christmas Fast,” appeared in the leading journal New Literary Review and is directly connected to such phenomena of historical data as the Siege archive, the mass of unprocessed source materials (diaries, letters, works of fiction) still awaiting archiving, publication, reading, interpretation. Zavialov’s quest for an adequate form is inventive, insistent, sometimes humbling, sometimes frustrating — everything that such a complicated search for diction might involve. His piece presents a panoramic montage of various Siege languages. In a bold dialogue-play with the urgency and necessity of authenticity, he reproduces and recombines various layers of the Siege logomorphic machine: 

He said:

                   Alimentary dystrophy is a pathological process, which from the
clinical perspective should be interpreted as a nosological unit. Yakov
Rappoport suggested that this illness has gastrogenic origin. Building on
the contemporary ideas about the diverse functions of the mucous
membrane of the stomach and its role in the nervous and humoral
regulation of the vital processes, the author sees disturbance of the
stomach’s mucous membrane to be the crucial link in the pathogeny of the
alimentary dystrophy.

 She said:

 I am lying here sick. And they: gobble gobble gobble gobble.

 You said:

 Oh, how splendid was the snowfall at dusk,

 The snowflakes that blur the outlines of space.

 Disappearance of lines, fading of shadows, numbing of sounds.

 They said:

                   Yesterday night fragments of the Southern front sector of the
Soviet army under General Kharitnov’s command breached the
fortifications of the Nazi Army and occupied Rostov. General Kleist’s
group is fully annihilated with more than 5,000 dead.

 And then we sang:

 We remember his death,

 We proclaim his resurrection,

 We await his coming in glory.

 Jesus, Lamb of God: have mercy on us.

 Jesus, bearer of our sins: have mercy on us.

Jesus, redeemer, redeemer of the world: give us your peace.[3]  

This striking collage-medley combines discourses of religious hymns, food rations, personal diaries, official communiqués about the glory of Soviet weaponry, and echoes of underground Siege poetry never intended for publication. From this combination a peculiar double effect emerges that blurs in a reader’s mind sensations of “presentness” (as in being “there” and “then”) and estrangement. From a retrospective point of view, radically different ways of Siege sense-making both contradict and highlight each other. This effect of multiglossia, an orchestrated chaos convincingly reproduced by Zavialov, figures in many Siege diaries. The dialogue-defying confidence of official propaganda’s language is contrasted acutely with the sublime diction of poetry that Siege subjects use as “spiritual crutches” and with the aphatic decay of Siege subjects’ consciousness from hunger, disease, and mental decline. The corruption of language in a situation of historical trauma becomes an inevitable stumbling block for anyone who engages the Siege archive: the effect of suffering on language is difficult to ignore. One can observe in the documents how hunger devours the tissues of speech as it does muscle, one grammatical category after another: gender, time, and number fade from view.

How do we sense that Zavialov’s writing is poetry? He builds his text whimsically, brutally, and yet, rigorously, through parallelisms and repetitions that engender new connections, sounding out allusions as in an echo chamber. His task is to approach the meaning and sound of a Siege liturgy. Importantly, Zavialov never imposes the form of religious harmony from outside of the historical process, retrospectively, but rather locates and develops it within the Siege existence where, as various sources demonstrate, intensity of religious practice rose dramatically. Churches functioned in the city even during the months of winter when bakeries, hospitals, and morgues “froze” in stillness.

In his attempt to find ekphrastic expression for the trauma of the Siege, Zavialov follows the Siege figurations of Elena Shvarts, often called one of the central poetic voices of the Soviet underground since the 1970s. Not long before her untimely death in 2010, Shvarts authored the cycle Portrait of the Siege through Genre, Nature-Morte, and Landscape,[4]which attempts to work with this historical material, not via discursive accumulation and sound poetry as Zavialov does, but as vision:

A twilight of rubbish splashes into the window.
The boy hunches up: he has no patience.
The boy checks the boiling pot, its gurgling sounds:
What do we have today? We have a cat!
When she asked, he said “Rabbit.”
When she ate, he laughed. Wildly, madly.
He died soon. And you on the air
Sketch with the charcoal nature morte (yes, indeed!).
A candle, a fragment of carpenter’s glue,
A bread ration, a handful of lentils.
Rembrandt! I want to live; I want to pray.
Even if turning into ice, into salt, into stone.
(“Nature Morte”)

In order to comprehend Shvarts’s imagery, it is crucial to position the event of the Siege not only within the history of “Soviet Petersburg” (Leningrad, that is) but within its aesthetic mythologies. A city of paradoxes since its conception, it combined two categories of (self-)description — “danger” and “beauty.” Within this paradigm, the Siege became the radical, nightmarish expression of this aesthetic oxymoron.

Many thousands of visual images of the besieged city were created during the Siege in every possible style and technique. Most of these strikingly daring works collect dust to this day in small historical archives of Petersburg. Studying them, one is struck by a reconceptualization of traditional genres’ meaning and significance.

For example, in the Siege diary of Tatiana Glebova, disciple of Pavel Filonov — a paradoxical and proud bearer of the traditions of Russian avant-garde — we read about her seeing new meaning in famous Flemish still lifes in the Hermitage, opulent and glimmering. Through hunger and despair, Glebova finds new meaning and new spirituality in the sensual shapes and colors of food — Shvarts addresses this longing with tragic irony. Her nature morte is one of authenticity rather than of fantasy, of painful lack rather than of dreams and white lies inducing only madness, but, principally, it’s of creative transcendence — the survivor needs only air to conjure up, to organize her somber composition. And Rembrandt appears here for good reason, omnipresent in both writing and as an influence on images that depict the Siege period: the master of the fat shadow and meager light materially existed in the city mostly in his imaginary and mnemonic manifestations. For example, while famous Rembrandts (Danae, Prodigal Son, Saskia as Flora, et al.) had been evacuated from the Hermitage in October 1941, in the winters that followed Hermitage tour guides receiving food from a sympathetic sailor or other visitor would repay this kindness by describing in florid detail the absent paintings, all the while gesturing towards their empty frames.

The dead and empty nature of the Siege existence induced visions that Shvarts sensed and reframed acutely. Shvarts’s quest to represent the Siege as an historical and aesthetic visual event, as a spectacular urban catastrophe, is strongly rooted in the sensibilities of the Siege artists: one of the most interesting creative outcomes, or products of this disaster, to use the distancing notion of Maurice Blanchot, were the hybrid diaries in which artists who had never written expressively before the Siege (and writers who had never sketched) would use the “alternate” artistic mode in order to reconstruct a creative psyche shattered by trauma. Many witnesses of their city’s undoing choose to transgress the border between the visual and the discursive, hoping thereby to preserve their impressions within the dialogic ekphrastic system where the meaning of one’s own trauma can be captured only through the voice of the other or the other voice, i.e., a sign system. (The phenomenon of the compensatory Siege account was exercised widely by the witnesses: ekphrastic diaries by Akeksandr Nikol’skii, Igor’ Chaiko, and Yakov Rubanchik have become crucial bodies of documentation of the Siege tragedy.) Compensatory language operates through detaileddescription of an evasive symbolic subject (i.e., the lighting of the besieged city), pervaded with traumatic associations. For Shvarts, ekphrastic writing again becomes a tool to register the surface terror of the Siege, to define this time and do so aesthetically.

One should note that in terms of reception, both Shvarts’s and Zavialov’s projects went largely unnoticed by the general reading audience. Recently, however, the following peculiar text, a revisionist Siege interpretation by Vitaly Pukhanov, turned into a media event in the Russian blogosphere:

In Leningrad, on Marata Street
In 1943
Somebody ate a plate of soup.
Thus the order of things was broken.

Two cars of militia men emerged:
You shouldn’t eat!
You’ve broken the rules!
We don’t eat meat here.

We are here in defense.
We are here counting the days of war.
We have no interest anymore
For some cat or some crow.

Terrific hunger — the murderer
Defends Leningrad today.
Terrific city — the grave-digger
Scares the enemy away.

Leningrad is disappearing
From the enemy’s vision.
Where’s the Hermitage? Where’s the Summer Garden?
Welcome to a different dimension.

Neither awake, nor dreaming
Can you be here alive?
We will win
Because we won’t eat! 

At the end of time,
Our flesh will turn into stone.
Our enemy will remember
Our transfiguration.[5]

Pukhanov’s text was one of the hottest themes in the blogosphere that week — an uncommon level of buzz for Russian poetry today. Comments were extraordinarily mixed. Some derided the poet for opening the “sacred wounds of history,” while others congratulated him, with equal ardor, on finally allowing Russian poetic diction to distance itself from the historical masquerade of sentimentality, shame, and mnemonic paralysis. Two central factors that disturbed readers the most were the poem’s form (a rhythmic pattern used usually by nursery rhymes) and its uneasy, absurdist allegorical construction of self-induced hunger. Pukhanov uses the allegory for his epistemological purposes: rather than attempt to reenter the event, he toys with it according to the rules of his provocatively ahistorical game. Reading this witty, paradoxical poem of self-induced, self-preserving cathartic experience, one learns things about Siege mythology today (a value in itself) rather than about the Siege as a historical phenomenon. And yet I see this provocation as a healthy gesture: in order to heal the wounds of Siege shame, one should treat them with an attention and humility that cannot exclude that purifying horrific laughter often evident in the texts of blokadniki themselves. These three very different ways to depict the Siege — Zavialov’s quasi-archival montage, Sharts’s morbidly beautiful spectacle as well as Pukhanov’s grotesque allegory — strike me as a very hopeful tendency towards breaking the silence and daring to look back, to speak about and to the historical trauma at the times when the state is trying again to avert its gaze from the many wounds of all kinds that it has inflicted.



1. Lev Gudkov, “Pamiat’ o voine I massovaia identichnost’ rossiian,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas (2005), 40–41.

2. Vadim Levental, “Vospalenia I izverzhenia,” Sol’ (September 27, 2010).

3. Sergey Zavialov, “Rozhdestvenskii Post,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie102(2010).

4. Elena Shvarts,“Portret blokady cherz zhanr, natiurmort i peizazh,” Dikopis’ poslednego vremeni (Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii Fond, 2001).

5. Vitalii Pukhanov, “Kak-to utrom na rassvete,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie96 (2009).