Polina Barskova

from “Eastrangement”


The Leningrad blockade is unfinished and infinite, it is not buried, the final word on it has not been said, but even so, what a multitude, what an absurd quantity of words it has produced! You could fill rooms, storage lockers of memory with the diaries alone… I’ve asked friends who are just as devoted to the subject, Where do I go, where do I find it, where is it now?

And my friend told me: The blockade is underground, it lives, it goes on under our feet, look for it there. My friend, my Cheshire cat: a sad, wry, colorful fairy out of Kosheverova’s Cinderella, perhaps the most important film about the horrors of mid-century Leningrad (Shvarts quivers, Ranevskaia bares her teeth, the aging Zheimo sparkles). My fairy, showing me the next fruit, the next crossroad, in our ancient fairy tale, said: “Beneath the earth, it is hidden in a cave beneath the earth, there you shall find it.”

Go to Akhmatova’s courtyard. Go to the courtyard of Berggolts.

In the courtyard of Fountain House, where during the first weeks of the blockade Akhmatova for some reason still held out, they discovered gaps. I read about these gaps in a dozen blockade diaries but saw them for the first time that day in the museum in a photograph and felt terrified: A gap is an entrance to the underground, a living person goes underground to wait out death, but also to spend time in its company.

Having pried open and visited these gaps, Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova drew one step closer to her Leningrad horror. The gap was a test of nerves, a rehearsal. From there we proceeded to the next courtyard, the next blockade writer, the one who refused to evacuate, wanting to see everything with her own eyes, to taste/know it with her own mouth, and, it must be said, she tasted and knew.

To me, one of the most horrifying episodes in Berggolts’s fascinating diary was her false pregnancy: Berggolts (by this time having lost three children) believed she was pregnant from her blockade affair with Georgy “the Matador” Makogonenko.

Like most of her notions this was a fiction, but a deeply symbolic one: Berggolts, obsessed and shaken by the blockade, was not pregnant but sick with dystrophy, that is, she was pregnant with the blockade. We know all this from her blockade diary—one of the most vivid works we have from that vivid time.

Berggolts’s diary, read together with her poetry meant for publication and her programs for blockade radio, constitutes possibly the fullest and most revealing body of writing about the psychological type (which type? Soviet, blockade, erased?) of an underground blockade person, whose poems and other rousing texts were broadcast almost every day on the radio to the world and to the city. Well aware of the value and danger of her diary, Olga Fedorovna Berggolts hid it, buried it in the earth, each time she grew convinced they were coming for her. And they should have: The fact that they didn’t touch her during Moscow’s assault on blockade memory in 1946 can only be explained fatalistically—as a lapse on the part of the secret police, or one of their caprices.