The following are some translated excerpts of a diary historians found in a Russian state archive two decades ago. Lena Mukhina, a 16 year-old schoolgirl, describes the last few weeks of peaceful life in Leningrad, the beginning of the war in the Soviet Union and the first year of the ensuing blockade of the city, which lasted 872 days, causing hundreds of thousands of people to starve to death.
The diary was originally published in Russian on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Leningrad siege. Its publication in French, by Robert Laffont, is forthcoming in October 2013. The English publisher is yet to be confirmed.
— Galina Stepanova
"Consider you lost a day when you didn’t discover anything new, didn’t learn something useful!"
"Every person can become deft, strong and steadfast. There is only one essential requirement – will power!"
"Will power conquers anything. A willful person is a persistent and a determined person."
"A person isn’t born brave, strong and deft."
"One persistently learns to become it with the same determination one learns to read and write."
22 May 1941 – 25 May 1942
Today is May 22nd
I went to bed at 5 am; I was studying for a literature exam all night. Today I got up at 10 o’clock and crammed more horrid literature until quarter to one. At quarter to one I went to school.
I saw Emma, Tamara, Rosa and Misha Ilyashev standing next to the entrance – so pleased to have already passed and wishing us to sail through it too. I greeted Lusya Karpova and Vova. The bell for the lesson hadn’t rung yet. We waited in the auditorium. All the boys from our group were from our class except Vovka Klyachko. I asked Vova whether he had enough time to revise everything. He said that he hadn’t. I would have liked to have said something else to him, but he was off to join the boys.
The bell rang; we walked up the stairs and piled into the classroom. Everyone was very anxious, but I was calm as I was sure I was going to fail – all the biographical details and dates were muddled in my head. Besides, I hadn’t even had the time to read some of it. It has to be said that I was less worried for myself than for the others.
Lusya and I sat at the last desk from the back. Lenya and Yanya sat in front of us, and Vovka was in the middle. They started calling us up to the front to answer. I was thinking more about Vovka than about the exam. It’s not that I was worried about him; not really, I would have even liked him to fail. What I wanted was to communicate with him, to talk to him, to feel his gaze on me and simply to be as close to him as possible. If he fails, he will be sad and down, and how I like seeing him that way. When he is down, he seems to be so close to me; I want to put my hand on his shoulder, to comfort him, so he would look into my eyes smiling tenderly and gratefully. Now he was so very close too. His elbow was leaning on our desk; it was just a stretch of a hand away. No, but I couldn’t… he is too far away, there are girls sitting behind us, they would catch my movement, and his friends are next to him. They will notice, make something up in their heads and nothing will feel right anymore, not right at all. What won’t feel right? I don’t know myself. I sat leaning forward propped up on my elbows so no one would notice me watching Vova. No, I wasn’t watching him; I was just looking at him. I enjoy, really enjoy, looking at his back, his hair, his ears, his nose and his facial expression. Vova sat half turned looking at Dimka passing his oral and occasionally had an exchange either with Yanya or with Lenya. If only he would turn around and look in my direction just once! Why does he speak and exchange looks with Yan’ka and Lenya, and with me he behaves as if I didn’t exist. But I am far from being their match – Vova isn’t a girl and I am not a boy. And then, what am I - an exception? He doesn’t exchange glances with the other girls either. For a moment I stared at the desk, lost in my thoughts. When I looked up at him again though, no, I cannot… what was I afraid of? He is darling Vovka, very much the way he was back at the theatre, in the same suit, and his smile is the same. My shyness suddenly lifted and I thought, without a hint of embarrassment at these thoughts, that he is the one I love most of all. I moved Lusia’s notebook with the literature exam syllabus closer to myself and wrote on the cover: “I hope you get a top mark”. Nudging him in the elbow, I pushed the note closer to him. He turned around immediately and, I think, he was pleased because he radiated with joy and wished me the same in return. I muttered something incomprehensible and shook my head somehow; what I wanted to communicate was that I was sure of failing.
Then I got called up to the front for my turn to answer and sat in the second row without once turning around to look at the guys behind, so I didn’t see Vovka and did not know whether he was concerned about my fate. As I sat there, I knew that behind me there were people who hadn’t been called up yet and Vovka was among them. I really wanted Vova to be thinking about me right then, to be concerned. Maybe that is how it was. Really, I don’t know. His turn came soon, and he sat in front of me.
I got an awful set of questions. I did not know the answers either to the first or to the second one. I decided to wait a little and choose another question paper. There was nothing else I could do. Vova sat there all hunched up - he must have been worried. He was fidgeting with and tearing up the sheet of paper he had just written on. Then he began to ruffle his hair, then froze being thoughtful again and started to write. He turned around a couple of times and at one such moment our eyes met. He looked at me somewhat helplessly, and I at him questioningly. Do you know? He shook his head hesitantly. Then he returned to writing something again…
I picked another question paper. Immediately after glancing over it I understood that all was not lost:
Themes in Pushkin’s lyric poetry.
The structure of “A Hero of our Time”.
I knew the answer to the second question well, to the third one too, and had to try to recall the first one. Now I knew that I would pass the literature exam. Vova was ready to offer his answer sitting at the very edge of the desk. I was looking at him intently. I was straining terribly trying to recall Pushkin’s lyric poetry. Yet I noticed that Vova was concerned about me. He must have noticed that I was attempting my second question paper, with a terribly sad look on my face. And, now, this is what is horrible: when I get what I want and somebody starts paying attention to me, I try to be as invisible as I can; I become afraid that people around us will notice. It’s so stupid, isn’t it? But that’s how it is. Vova managed to ask, looking me straight in the eye (when he speaks, he always looks you straight in the eye, which is something I cannot do) whether I knew the answers. I nodded my head affirmatively and he visibly relaxed.
After Grishka, it was his turn to answer. He spoke clearly, distinctly and quickly. They wouldn’t let him finish saying all he had to say and dismissed him without asking further questions. I went up to offer my answer. Vova left the classroom. Right at that moment, I stopped thinking about him, I don’t know whether he showed concern and peeped through the door to see me answering. Maybe he was too pleased and forgot about me, and went to look for his friends. Well, he wouldn’t have spent a whole lifetime thinking about me, would he?
So. Two tests out of the way, thank goodness.
Today. Twiddled my thumbs all day. Found inner peace. There are three more days ahead - I’ll make it. It’s always like this: when I decide to rest a little, afterwards it’s hard to pull my socks up again. The day passes without you noticing. I listened to German Ballads on the radio; I love ballads a lot. After the radio show, I took Pushkin and read all the ballads in one go. Isn’t it good that evil spirits aren’t real? If they were, we wouldn’t have any peace at all.
It’s around 10 o’clock. I promised mum to go to bed at 9. She could arrive any minute now. And it will turn out that I didn’t keep my word. This would be a blow to my pride. Anyway, I am feeling pangs of conscience. Yet it’s impossible to wrap this up. I’m so in the flow.
I decided to keep my diary neater. I know, I myself will be curious one day. Goodness, Aka came into the room and I am not in bed yet. “You know you promised. You have to be1 in bed.” “Yes, yes, yes, - I say – in a moment.” Meanwhile I keep writing (Aka left the room). In my diary, I want to write about all my worries - every single one of them as Pechorin did. It’s fascinating to read a diary like his. Though I committed a terrible offense. I am writing in mother’s address book; she could get very cross. Well, I will try to persuade her somehow, and in the meantime, why don’t I put everything where it belongs.
23 May 1941
Dammit, nobody woke me up. I woke up at 10 o’clock. Yet again, I didn’t do my stretches. I listened to Amunson’s Youth,2 a children’s radio show. What a determined person he was. When he wanted something he went and got it. If I were a boy, I would probably aspire to be like Roald, but I have never read about a girl who would work as much on herself. And, it is terrifying to begin on your own.
I would like Vova to dream about becoming a Polar traveler, an explorer, a mountaineer. But I don’t think he is interested in this kind of thing; he doesn’t want crevasses to ‘rack’ his brains. Actually, I should probably ask him. Though when could I? Maybe I could visit his dacha3 with him; he and I will have the time to talk there. Talk about stuff to do with ninth grade, about his future and about mine. Given that he wants to talk to me, of course. Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps he doesn’t like me at all. No, that’s not possible. He must like me a little bit, even if it’s a teeny tiny little bit.
Well, it’s time for books now. Time to cram German.
It’s already 10 in the evening. Taking up the pen again. I was at Lusia Karpova’s house. Found out our test results. Vova, Grisha, Misha Ilyashev, Leva, Lenya, Yanya, Emma, Tamara, Lusia, Beba, Zoya, Rosa – excellent. Dimka, Misha Tsipkin and some others – good. The rest of us – satisfactory: Kira, I, Lusia, Lida Klementyeva, Lida Solovyeva, Yasya Barkan…
I accomplished very little today. It was only in the evening that I began to work as I should. Learned chapter 4. Lusia and I went for a walk in the orchard today. Lots of kids outside. It’s like an anthill. But Vika isn’t here.
I keep getting the feeling that something is missing. I feel emptiness inside. I went for a walk with Lusia, went to her house, and still, something doesn’t fit. Lusia’s company doesn’t satisfy me. But I don’t have anyone else. I feel it especially poignantly during these days of preparation. It is better for me to revise together with another person. Especially German. Lusia wants to revise on her own. And, in any case, Lusia isn’t a good match for me, I’ve known this for a long time. I am deeply jealous of my classmates. Emma studies with Tamara, Rosa with Beba, Lusia also does with someone. And the other girls figured something out too. And the boys in our class are always in touch with one another. For example, Vovka studies on his own, this is the way he wants it, but when he gets fed up with it, he is immediately surrounded by his buddies. And it’s not just Vovka, it’s the case for all of them. Whereas I am all alone; I have neither a good girlfriend, nor a buddy.
Sometimes my mother wants me to give her a kiss, to share a tender moment, but I wallow in sadness because I have gloomy thoughts in my head. I want to burst into tears, to scream. I pull myself together in appearance, but inside I can’t. I feel that something is missing all the time. When mother isn’t home, I want her to come; and when she is at home, I am desperate not to see or hear her. I’ve had enough of them. Of mum and of Aka, both.
I want new faces, new meetings, and novelty. Something new. But it’s not there – and I’m at a loss. I want to run to some far, very far-away place not to see or hear anyone. Not a single soul. No. I am walking over, I want to go see my best friend, who loves me, and to tell her about my sorrows. That’s it, that’s it. I shall feel better then.
I don’t have anyone though. I am alone and I cannot tell anyone about it. If I tell mother, she’ll kiss me, she’ll caress me and say: “What can we do about it?” She thinks that I don’t have girlfriends because I am better than all of them and they aren’t as good. Silly, she doesn’t understand many things. A great deal of things. I am most ordinary and I am no different from them. I have more thoughts in my head, that’s all. But that’s not an advantage – in fact, it’s a flaw. Thinking all the time, and above all, analysing every step I make and taking it apart piece by piece, isn’t it a flaw? If I even thought a tiny bit less, if I were more happy-go-lucky, I would find it easier to live.
Well, it’s time to go to bed.
28 May 1941
I passed the German test. Everything is well. We got 13 ‘excellent’ grades. Vova got ‘good’. No idea why. His answer was hardly good enough for a ‘satisfactory’ grade. He had a very easy set of questions. Tomorrow I have to pass algebra. Soon, very soon, I will be free. And I have a lot of plans.
We are not going to the dacha this year - no money. It doesn’t matter though, it’s even better this way; it has been so long since I spent a summer in the city. I’ll be sure to work. I’ll also buy myself some clothes. I am already 16 years old and I don’t have anything decent or ‘fashionable’ to wear. Beside that, I am going to study German every day starting from the 7th of June – I want to be a good student in 9th grade, to never be told I am ‘weak’. I am also ashamed to be lagging as a C grade student in chemistry. I used to see Anna Nikiforovna and her Ad’ka very often…4 I absolutely have to be an excellent student in chemistry next year. At the end of 9th grade there are chemistry exams. So I have to be a good chemistry student throughout the year and pass the tests with excellence. And to do this…5
30 May 1941
The weather is good. Despite it, my heart aches. It is mother’s birthday today, and we have nothing. Mum went to work to earn a little bit of money. At least we are not starving but it’s not much fun. We are constantly living off other people’s money. Mother keeps borrowing and borrowing. I am ashamed to appear in front of the neighbours in our apartment – we owe all of them money. We’ve never lived like this before.
Yesterday, we took the algebra exam. Vova – good, me – excellent, Lusia – satisfactory. Don’t know about the others. I spent the whole evening on the 28th at Vovka’s. We: Vova, Dima and I were solving equations and algebra questions but mostly we were chatting. Vovka has a lot of wit. We get on better than we did in winter now. He always says hello to me as if I were his buddy. And I find it very pleasant. Anyway, the more often we spend time together, that is, at his house, the less I think about my love for him. But if I don’t see him for a long time, I begin to love him again.
We wanted to get together and visit him some day this summer. But we changed our minds - it’s unnecessary, better not to see him for the whole summer. Then, when we meet again in autumn, I will greet him like I would an old friend, and feel as if we got even closer. I’ll have to make sure to ask him to take a portrait picture before we part for the summer, and to ask him to take another one as soon as we meet in autumn. It will be interesting for both of us to see how he changes over an entire summer. I also want to get Dimka’s photo from him, he promised it to me, and one from Misha Ilyashev, as well as from Emma, Lusia Ivanova, Tamara Artemyeva and Beba – although these photos are going to be harder to get.
Tomorrow, it’s geometry. After that, there will only be two exams left: anatomy and physics. I am not worried about anatomy, but I am seriously terrified of the physics exam. Only two days to revise physics. That’s very little. The other downside is that our group has to arrive at the physics exam at 9 in the morning. At this hour, the physics teacher is very awake and very demanding. The second group has it better. He gets tired and sleepy by then. Then it’s easy to give your answer.
Vovka is a nice boy, truly. If only he could be our class rep in 9th grade. No, these are mere fantasies. He might not even want to think about it now. Well, it’s his business.
This is exactly where I feel in my own element – with Vovka’s family. Every time I go to his home, I feel so upbeat, so well – negotiating the river of life becomes as easy as crossing a knee-deep stream.
When our algebra revision session finished, everyone gathered around Vera Nikitichna. Vova and the other boys stood by the window. I went over to the blackboard, leaned against it, and called Vova. He turned around swiftly, and came up to me, accompanied by Lenya.
All the boys left school together. I was walking with Vova, then with Yanya and I said: “Vovka, why did you struggle so much in your German oral?” Vova didn’t answer. Yanya answered for him: “Why do you think that? He got a good grade, didn’t he?”
It’s not about the grade - his answer wasn’t so good.
Why, was your answer good?
That’s a different matter. I am talking about Vovka, in this case, not about myself.
Lenochka, you wouldn’t be speaking this way, if you had seen him before the tests. Vovka was a dying Hamlet.
I went to the garden just now and met Genya Nikolayev on the way. We said hello to each other. Spoke a little bit. Though, I have always been a fool and I remain one. I could have asked him about so many things. Yet, being a fool, I rushed into saying goodbye after exchanging two-three words. While he, smiling openly, asked:
Well, how are you in general? How are your grades?
Like a fool, I reeled off an answer hurriedly. I didn’t even shake his hand to say goodbye. Then, I ran off without as much as a glance in his direction. He must have turned around and thought: “What a funny one.” What a fool I am, a pure idiot. I met Genya and I couldn’t talk to him properly. If I meet him somewhere again, I will apologise for my awkwardness and ask him, how he is doing and what his plans are for the summer. There are many things I could ask him about. I could also finally ask him for his photograph.
2 June 1941
I got an ‘excellent’ mark in anatomy. Almost everyone got ‘excellent’.
The weather is horrible today. It was hailing then huge flakes of snow began to fall. The cold wind is utterly piercing. From time to time the sun appears then it disappears again.
The only exam left to pass is physics. Time is flying imperceptibly. The summer will begin soon. There is a lot to get done. This summer must not even in the slightest be like the last one. Last summer was lost time. This summer shall not be like that - this is a solemn promise of a Soviet Schoolchild. And it is not at all difficult. The key is not to be off guard even for a moment. In essence, when you are a schoolchild passing exams you experience a huge moral boost: you understand that you have to study and pass exams, but when the last exam is finished you feel a strange void, you think that everything is done and that there is emptiness ahead. And this is exactly where some get caught out, they give up and… thereafter everything runs smoothly. Roaming the streets, cinema, picking up a book once a month, getting up at 10 am, going to bed at midnight. That’s how the whole summer passes. Days pass monotonously and the first day of school unexpectedly creeps up.
However, a summer will pass very differently if you don’t give up and if you surmount laziness. Laziness, what is it? Laziness – is a quality unworthy of a Soviet Schoolchild. Therefore, laziness must be defeated.
This is how I am going to live.
I am going to get up at 7 o’clock. I am going to do my stretches with the radio.
At the beginning, I am going to be going to Pushkino6 with my mother and working there. During the breaks I will go for walks. At five o’clock I will leave. By seven I will definitely be at home. From eight thirty until nine thirty, I will study German, after I will have tea, listen to the radio or read. At ten thirty I will wash, do my stretches and at eleven I will go to bed, turning off the radio when the programme is the most interesting.
Afterwards, when my mother stops working in Pushkino we will start on the technical drawings together. This is how I will organise my time then: get up at seven, do stretches with the radio, begin work at nine, finish at four. Go for a walk. Have tea when I get back. Spend one hour studying German with Aka. Read and listen to the radio after.
5 June 1941
So here I am, free. Got a B in physics. It was worth spending the night studying the textbook. So, well-earned rest lies ahead. The holiday has begun. Hello, freedom.
7 June 1941
Today I began the day properly. I got up at 7.30, did my stretches with the radio, washed, combed my hair, made my bed and went out into the garden. There was nobody there yet. The stern caretaker was finishing tidying the garden. It’s very nice in the garden. The birds are singing and flying from one bush to another.
After the garden I came home and listened to a radio programme about submariners. What serious and difficult education and life our Soviet submariners have. For example, they learn to service the boat in the dark, relying on their sense of touch. The life of the whole boat depends on each and every student. The duties are divided up in such a way that even the cook doesn’t just prepare food but has to run to his post during a battle alarm. Day in and day out this is how the soldiers train with their commanders and when enemies attack us, which is inevitable – sooner or later war will come – we will be very certain of our victory. We have things to defend – what to defend them with and who to defend.
Once the soldiers, pilots and submariners organised a friendly meeting. They began to tell one another about their vocations. The pilots said: going down to the bottom of the sea, no, it is frightening. It is another matter to fly in the ethers. While the submariners replied: flying above the earth or the sea, no, it is too frightening. It is another matter to be under water, where you feel like a fish.
Yesterday I bought two literature books for 9th grade. Having seen how wide the programme is I decided to start reading immediately. I began with Turgeniev; luckily, I have his books.
I am reading 'Rudin' now.
Here are some quotes I wrote out:
'There is nothing more painful than the consciousness of just having done something stupid.'
'A man puts on a mask of indifference and indolence so that someone will be sure to think. “Look at that man; what talents he has thrown away!” But if you come to look at him more attentively, there is no talent in him whatever.'
'Deny everything and you will easily pass for a man of ability.'
22 June 1941
At 12.15 the whole country heard comrade Molotov’s speech.7
He announced that today, at 4 o’clock in the morning, without a formal declaration of war, the German army began its attack across the length of the western border. Its planes bombed Kiev, Zhitomir, Odessa, Kaunas and other towns. 200 people were killed.
At 5 o’clock, the German consul declared war on behalf of his government, i.e. that Germany had attacked us. Well then, the worst of all things that could have happened, has happened.
We shall come out victorious, but this victory won’t be an easy one, this isn’t Finland after all. This war is going to be merciless and fierce.
In this war chemicals haven’t been used yet, however, there is no doubt about it, when they are to attack us...
It’s 11.30 in the evening and no news bulletin has been aired yet. The radio is playing war songs, poetry, and announcements declaring a state of war and mobilization. Planes are flying, circling above the city, and although we know that Soviet pilots are at the wheel, the effect is still alarming.
The motors of enemy bomber planes will roar in the same way. This is terrible. Won’t there be a news bulletin? Had there even been the slightest victory on our side, we would have had some news about it, but it’s likely that there hasn’t been a victory yet. Yes, well, battles must be going on along the whole front now.
Those returned home from the outside are saying that the mobilized are on the march in the streets, singing. Their wives, children and girlfriends are seeing them off.
Victory is on our side, comrades!
At 2 o’clock in the morning I was woken up by the plaintive howl of a siren. Mum and I got dressed hurriedly, went to the kitchen, where it was very quiet – no planes could be heard. Then we began to hear dull, distant bangs. We huddled together and thought: “Bombs!” But we couldn’t hear any planes. The noise of the bangs came a little closer then, it stayed at that constant distance. It’s our anti-aircraft guns. We listened closer: the anti-aircraft guns were firing, firing furiously. The siren began to howl in the courtyard, and the cannonade of anti-aircraft guns wouldn’t cease, while clouds floated indifferently across the white sky and the stars shined through the openings between the clouds. It was terrifying. Half an hour later an all-clear was given. Mother and I went to bed without getting undressed and fell asleep.
23 June 1941
The long-awaited news bulletin came in the morning.
At 4 o’clock in the morning, on the 22nd of June 1941, Hitler’s regular forces crossed our border and began to penetrate our territory. German bomber-forces dropped bombs on civilian towns and villages in our country; however, by 6 o’clock, the Germans had already encountered the forces of the Red Army. All-out, bloody battles continued throughout the 22nd of June. As a result, the German forces retreated throughout the length of the front line, bearing severe losses. Only in several places, 30-40 kilometers from the border, did Hitler’s forces advance and capture small towns and villages.
German bombers raided the towns and villages of our motherland. However, they were met by our fighter planes and by the fire of our anti-aircraft guns everywhere. 65 German bombers were shot down across the front line.
The English commandment and General Churchill have announced that they would do all in their power to help Russia, and they, in turn, will be helped by the USA. Hitler miscalculated; he thinks that he will be done with the Soviet Union before winter comes, and deal with Western Europe once and for all afterwards. Hitler thinks that his enemies in the western hemisphere have become weak and won’t have the strength to prevent him from realizing the next stages of his plans. However, he has underestimated us, we are going to fight the enemy day and night, with amplified force. We will do everything to help Russia. We will do everything to save humanity from tyranny. Very early in the morning construction works began in our courtyard and in the attic. A gas shelter that will be taking up the whole of the basement is being built in the courtyard. All the partitions are being destroyed in the attic, since they are wooden, and if a bomb falls and starts a fire there, these partitions will fuel the flames.
Ivan Ivanovich only just got back. He has been digging trenches in Udel’niy, all night, with 70 helpers. He didn’t see any enemy planes; they flew very high, to avoid being hit by anti-aircraft gunfire. He heard their roar, heard and saw the fire of the anti-aircraft guns. He doesn’t know anything about bombs. It seems, the yard keeper mentioned that a different group of planes broke through and dropped bombs on the ‘Bolshevik’ factory.8 I don’t know how trustworthy this is but I don’t think that the yard keeper would spread false rumors; and he is the better-informed one.
To tell the truth, we, our apartment, aren’t prepared for an attack: we don’t know where the medical aid and dressing stations are, where a bomb shelter is, where the antiaircraft defence headquarters of the area are, or what we are to do if a blast bomb, an incendiary bomb hit. I know that you should throw sand on it but we have no sand in our apartment. I think (I saw this at the cinema), you have to glue paper bags together, fill them with sand, and keep little piles of them by the door of every room and in the corridor.
Mum and I went to the Marsovo field. Ten anti-aircraft guns stand in its center and heavy cases with shells are piled up next to them. They don’t let you close to the weapons.
Only today did the city begin to transform.
24 June 1941
We slept calmly on the night of the 24th.
During the day I went walking through the city. A silvery aerostat resembling a fish lying on its side, stretched along the whole length of the round garden next to Chernyshev Bridge. It was being held down with ropes. There was a big pile of cylinders with gas next to it. Deep trenches are being dug hastily in the gardens in Ostrovsky Square and in those around the Palace of Pioneers; they are the depth of an average person’s height and one meter wide. Many of those digging are from the intelligentsia.
Almost every courtyard has piles of building materials in it – for the construction of gas-proof shelters. Sand has been brought to many yards too.
Today, someone from the school called to say that I should be there at five o’clock sharp.
At 5 o’clock I was in the blue room at school. 60-69 people came. The majority were girls. The headmaster briefly told us that our efforts would be necessary. Misha Ilyashev, Yanya, Vova Klyachko, Tamara, Bella Katsman, Galya Virok, Solovyeva Lida and Zoya Belkina were there from our class.
We split up into brigades: two boys’ brigades and five girls’ brigades. All of us ended up in the same brigade. Maya Cherbotayeva is our brigadier. We are going to fulfill all the tasks the headquarters gives us.
I am going to bed now. Who knows what kind of a night it will be!
25 June 1941
The night was calm. There were two air-raid warnings during the day. During the warnings the other girls and I took refuge in the school bomb shelter. Maya called me that morning telling me we have to paper the windows at school. And so we were working - there were about 20 of us, girls. Maya, Tamara, Lida and Nina Aleksandrova from our class. After the second warning was all-clear, I went home telling the others I would eat and come back. But I didn’t come back. There was very little left to paper so I decided that they would manage without me and found myself another, more useful, job. Lugging planks of wood from the attic into the basement with a brigade of women from our apartment block. For 40 minutes, we speedily worked without a break, like a conveyer-belt. Then I went to have a rest and at 6 o’clock I went back to working. This work is very hard. Well suited for fit men. Us women, we manage it by lifting the heavy planks in pairs.
At 8 o’clock in the evening a meeting of the residents of our apartment block took place at the zhakt.9 After listening to the report of an agitator from the district committee all the principal questions were discussed. My mother signed up for the volunteer paramedics unit of our block. The brigade consists of six people.
Tomorrow is going to be another intense day. So, it’s time to check the flat and go to sleep. What is this night going to bring?
16 November 1941
Another air-raid warning. As soon as it gets to half past eight in the evening – welcome, here come the Germans.
The day passed in some wretched way today. Aka went to look for something to eat at 9 in the morning, only to come home at 5 o’clock. Mum and I had already made peace with the thought that Aka wouldn’t manage to find anything; that we wouldn’t be having lunch at all when, unexpectedly, Aka came back with meat jelly, instead of being empty-handed. She brought 500g of meat jelly. We made soup promptly and ate two full plates of hot soup each. The way we live now is still bearable but if the situation gets worse, I don’t know how we will survive it. Not so long ago, even relatively recently, mum was able to have soup at work without a ration card and we were given soup the first time round at school too. However, the next day, a decree was issued to ration soup as well.
Clearly, a 150-gram bread ration isn’t enough to feed us. In the morning, Aka buys bread for herself and for me. I eat most of it before school spending nearly all the rest of the day without bread. I literally don’t know what to do. Maybe this is a better solution: use the grain ration card at school every second day, get a second course and then, eat 300 grams of bread on the other days. I should try it out. Most of the time, I just don’t feel well. There is a constant hollowness in my stomach. It’s going to be my birthday soon – on the 21st I will be turning 17. I will celebrate it someway; thankfully, it’s the first day of the third decanate so sweets are guaranteed. Oh, I am so hungry.
When the war ends, and things balance themselves out and there is food to buy once again, I will buy brown bread, a kilo of gingerbread and half a litre of cottonseed oil. I will mix bread and gingerbread crumbs together, pour a lot of oil over them, carefully mix it into a smooth paste, take a soup spoon and enjoy it until I am utterly full. Then, mother and I will bake different pies – with meat, potatoes, cabbage, and grated carrots. And then, mother and I will make golden brown fried potatoes and eat them straight from the fire. We will eat mushroom dumplings with sour cream, pelmeny, pasta with tomato sauce and fried onions too, and hot crusty white bread with butter and salami or cheese – the slice of salami has to be thick enough to sink your teeth into it when you take a bite. Mother and I will eat buckwheat kasha with cold milk too, then fry it with onion so it shines with oil. Finally, we will eat hot, greasy crêpes with jam and thick, fluffy pancakes. Dear God, we will eat so much, we’ll scare ourselves.
Tamara and I have decided to write a book about the lives of Soviet children in 9th and 10th grades; about fleeting interests, about first love and friendship. All in all, to write a book we, ourselves, would like to read and which, alas, doesn’t exist yet.
All-clear, the air-raid warning is all-clear. It is quarter to nine now. Time to go to bed. There is school tomorrow.
Good-bye for now.
21 November 1941
So, my birthday has come. I turned 17 today. And I am in bed with fever, writing. Aka went to search for whatever kind of oil, and for grain or pasta. No idea when she will be back. She might come back empty-handed. But I am happy anyway – this morning Aka presented me with my 125g of bread and 200g of sweets. I have almost eaten all the bread already – 125g – it’s a small slice; I have to stretch out the sweets for 10 days. At first, I planned to have three sweets a day but I have already eaten 9 so I decided to have another four today to celebrate my birthday; as of tomorrow I’ll be strict about having 2 sweets a day.
Our city remains in a very strained state. We are bombed and shot at, but this is not so bad – we have gotten so used to it, we surprise ourselves. What is terrible though is that the situation with food supplies is getting worse. We don’t have enough bread. We should thank England for sending us something. Cocoa, chocolate, real coffee, coconut oil and sugar – all from England. Aka is very proud of it. Bread, what about bread though? Why aren’t they sending us flour? Leningrad folk have to eat bread, or else productivity will fall. Everybody is saying – on the radio they speak about nothing but this – that in no time now we will push the enemy back from Leningrad, that there’s not much longer left to wait. As soon as the enemy is pushed back, a revitalizing stream of supplies will pour into the city.
But in the meantime, we have to bear with it. Yes, and we do, but it is so hard. Sometimes you get to the brink of despair and think: no, we’ll all drop like flies and never see the brilliance of victory day. But such thoughts have to be chased away. These are harmful thoughts. Dear God! I wish so dearly that Aka, mother Lena and I survive this difficult time well; to be able to live and breathe freely again. I dearly wish that mother gains weight again and Aka feels well too. I am so worried about mother and Aka. They wouldn’t survive genuine starvation. And what awaits us is obvious. It’s possible that they will only be giving out bread every two or three days and canteens may become empty. Then what! No, they won’t allow it! England and USA have to sustain us. It’s in their interest that the Germans suffer defeat near Leningrad. Victory in Leningrad – would be the best service for Moscow. And the defeat of the Germans near Moscow will bring about the key turning point in the course of this historic war, specifically, that the enemy will begin to retreat. Oh, let it be sooner not later, let it be soon. Each day brings hope for a breakthrough in the enemy’s encirclement of Leningrad.
Tamara came to visit me and… didn’t bring anything. Yesterday, I gave her my ration grain and meat cards asking her to bring lunch from the school canteen today: specifically, I asked for two second courses using the grain rations and, if feasible, 2 meat cakes or 2 portions of salami, whatever they have. She promised to do it.
Aka and I had placed all our hopes today on the food Tamara was supposed to bring. We had decided to make two saucepans of thick soup out of the grain ration, whichever food it was going to be: kasha, pasta or something else; and to divide the meat cakes into three portions for the sake of the birthday celebration – to eat meat cake sandwiches. And oh, what a nightmare! Suddenly, Tamara comes without bringing anything, not a single thing - no second course, no soup, nothing… She is angry and sulking; she swears she will never promise anything to anybody again and never do anything for anybody. The only thing I gather from her story is that she spent two breaks queuing and they ran out of rations each time. When the grain rations finished, she bought one portion of soup and spilled it. I have yet to understand how on earth she managed to spill it. The one thing I understand is that this is utterly terrible.
Aka will come back soon; she’ll be cold, tired and, likely, with empty hands. It’s the cemetery then. She will learn that Tamara didn’t bring anything and I don’t know how she will get over it. Then mum will come home – tired and hungry. Today she will try to get home earlier knowing it’s my birthday, and, good God, I don’t know what will happen if Aka doesn’t manage to cook something up by then. We are going to truly ‘celebrate’ my birthday. No, I am not going to defend Tamara in front of Aka or in front of my mother, but I don’t want to scold her. A real misfortune happened to her – it is a misfortune, as if the ration cards had been stolen from us, or something along these lines. And a misfortune can happen to anyone.
Of course, it is disappointing, disappointing to the point of tears: it’s on my birthday, of all days, that we’ll have no lunch and will go hungry because of my very best friend.
Well, the piece of bread I was saving for the meat cake can be eaten now. After, it will be good to try to fall asleep - to sleep until tomorrow.
Sweet, darling mother will come home hungry. I will press her tightly, close to my heart, hug her tightly and tell her about the misfortune that came to us. And I think that she won’t be angry. She will have probably eaten something there. If only she were not to get angry, not to darken my birthday. I don’t wish for anything else. We shall drink a glass of wine each and have some tea with sweets.
So long as we don’t fight, so long as everything remains quiet and peaceful. This is my ardent wish.
It’s already quarter to seven and mother isn’t here yet. Anti-aircraft guns are booming outside, it’s the second air-raid warning. Hitler seems to want to give us a good pounding for today and yesterday.
Yes, it all happened as predicted. At 5 o’clock Aka came back tired, cold and empty-handed. She queued for vermicelli but it ran out. Tetya Sasha was closer to the front so she got some but Aka didn’t. Tetya Sasha didn’t even look at Aka. What a swine! She could have let the old lady queue in front of her. Goodness, I shouldn’t fathom the bad luck we have. As if all the gods and all the devils teamed up against us.
I am terribly hungry. I feel a horrible emptiness in my stomach. I want bread so badly, so very badly. I think, right now, I could give anything to fill my stomach.
When will we be able to feel full again? When will we stop suffering? When will we be able to eat something thick, filling, a whole plate of kasha or pasta; you can’t go far always eating just liquid food. We have been just been eating liquid foods for more than a month already. No, it’s unfathomable to live like this. Dear God, when will this suffering end!! This is supposed to be my day of celebration, my birthday, which only happens once a year. I remember that on this day Aka always used to bake a cake and make a cracknel. We would sit at the table, have tea, drink wine, clink our glasses. There would always be sweets on the table, pastries, sometimes a torte, and sandwiches with pastrami and with cheese. On this day, especially in the more recent years, we didn’t use to have guests – the three of us truly celebrated this day together. On 21st November 1942 (if I am still alive), when I cut a huge slice of brown bread and spread butter over it, I will remember this day – the way it was one year ago, in 1941 – and the thick slice of bread will be more exquisite for me than all the delicacies, all the tasty things, all the pastries, and all the cakes put together. Oh, God, I will take such pleasure in taking a bite and savouring this bread, real bread.
Mother, darling, mother, where are you? Are you lying cold in the ground, are you dead? Have you found peace forever? I, I, I am suffering, suffering together with hundreds and millions of Soviet people: because of what? Because of a psychopath’s raving fantasy. He decided to conquer the whole world. And we are suffering in his mindless delirium; we have empty stomachs, and hearts full of sorrow because of him. Dear God, when is all this going to end? It has to end one day doesn’t it !?
25 January 1942
Yesterday the bread ration was increased. This is how it stands now:
Everybody is very upset, they expected more.
It’s impossible to imagine how mother and I live now. It’s freezing with cloudless sunny weather for the second day in a row. We have almost no firewood left but we use a few handfuls a day just to warm up the food. It’s very cold in our room - we only live under blankets.
This morning I ran out for some bread – no, that is wrong, I wanted to run to get some bread, but I had to queue for half an hour and the cold today is more severe than yesterday: the blood turns cold in your veins, your brain freezes and the cold penetrates your bones.
For 1 rouble 90 kopecks, the bread is far from great today: its shape is almost right and it is brown but it isn’t baked through so it’s heavy. I hurried back home, took off some clothes and got right back into bed. Mother boiled some water, we drank a cup of hot water each and lay in our beds. As I was writing these lines, mother had prepared some firewood to make lunch; I am going to get back into bed, because I am cold thorough and through.
Yesterday, something happened. Mother and I agreed that she was going to buy bread on her way from the theatre...
29 January 1942
I have not written for a long time. I couldn’t find the moment. For two days: the 27th and 28th we had no bread. Almost none of the bakeries had bread. They say this glitch in bread supply happened because the pipes burst at the bread factory, as a result of the very low temperatures outside.
Whatever the reason is, we spent 2 days without lunch and without bread, eating only soup from school and jelly. Mum has become so weak that she can hardly walk. But, thankfully, yesterday I got good millet flour, 975g, instead of bread, and mother seems much revived. We made soup and patties straightaway. It’s warmer today; snow is falling. Running water has been switched on in house number 17. Today, I queued there and got some water. Recently the cold has been so severe, we have only been able to get water from an ice-hole in the Fontanka.
I don’t know if we are going to keep living. The past two days have crippled mum completely. She became very weak, yet strong in spirit. She wants to live, and she will live.
8 February 1942
Mother died yesterday morning. I am alone now.
10 February 1942
I have thoroughly heated the stove. On average, it’s about 12 degrees in the room at the moment. Tomorrow, I will write in more detail.
11 February 1942
They increased the size of the bread ration today. This morning the yard keeper and I took mum to Marat Street. We pulled the sleigh along the same road mum and I took when Aka died a month ago. Similarly to that day, as we drove mother along the road, there was a blizzard and, in the afternoon, the sun shined. Then the yard keeper and I went to a bakery. I received 600g of bread, and gave 300g to her. Then I went to school where I had a plate of millet soup and a portion of millet with butter. I came home, cut some firewood, warmed lunch up, ate some bread and felt like I didn’t have the strength to do anything else. I wanted to fetch some water, to wash the dishes. But today has probably been too exhausting for me, not as much physically as morally so I really cannot do anything else today. Yesterday, I sold six bars of glue, for 15 rubles each. I made 90 rubles. Now, I have 99 rubles 60 kopecks. It turns out that I will get no money for the room. Ida Isayevna will bring me 100 rubles, no more. And I will give Ida Isayevna 50 rubles for the vremyanka.10
Yesterday, I made a fire in the big stove and the temperature in the room was 12 degrees. The stove was boiling hot almost to the top. Tomorrow, I am going to get 600g of bread - it’s hard to imagine that. I am not going to do anything else now; I’ll go to bed. Tomorrow is a new day. It’s very hard to be alone. I am only 17 years old. I am not experienced in life at all. Who is going to share their wisdom with me now? Who is going to teach me how to live? There are strangers everywhere; none of them care about me. They have their own concerns. Dear God, how am I going to live on my own. No, I can’t imagine it. But life will dictate to me what I should do. I also have one other close person – Zhenya. She will help - there is no doubt. I will have to find a way to reach her though. I should visit Kira. Perhaps, she will give me a little bit of money.
13 February 1942
When I first wake up in the morning, to begin with I don’t realise that my mother has really died. It seems that she is here, lying in her bed, that she is about to wake up and we are going to talk about how we will live our life after the war. But the frightening reality takes over. My mother isn’t here! Mother isn’t alive. And neither is Aka. I am on my own. It’s impossible to understand! At times I am overwhelmed by rage. I want to howl, to yelp, to hit my head on a wall, and to bite! How on earth am I going to live without my mother. The room is falling into squalor; every day there is more and more dust. I am probably going to turn into Pushkin soon. Am I really going to be consumed by laziness. Am I such a faithful copy of my mother? No, but I love it so much when it is tidy and cozy in a room. No, no, no and no again. I am going to get up now - it’s warm in here – and tidy the room. Except, I don’t know where to begin. I am going to hang up the curtains first, they will make it feel cozier straightaway.
Now, this is how it is. I have 97 rubles. Ida Isayevna will bring me another 100. I have to find a job but I think that I can survive February without it.
There are 17 days left. Bread – 17(1r70k each, 17x3) = 875 kopecks = 8r57k. It seems that the supply of food is improving. Yesterday, all the shops were giving grains for new ration cards. Dependents get 250g, but since I am using the canteen I get much less. Yesterday, without having to queue at all, I bought 125g of peas and 200g of millet, and made such exquisite millet kasha, it was bliss. Yesterday, I also ate 600g of bread, a small pot of lentil soup and a plate of millet kasha, and I didn’t feel well. It’s very understandable, we have all been so starved, and this amount of food is already too much for us.
Sweet, darling, most loved mother. You didn’t make it to the improvement only by a few days. It’s so sad, and painfully disappointing for you. You died on the morning of the 7th, while bread rations already got bigger on the 11th, and grain was distributed on the 12th.
Dear God, how am I going to live on my own. I cannot imagine it. Not at all! No, I am going to leave and go to Zhenya’s. All the people around here are strangers. I am so unhappy! God! Merciful God! What is it for! What is it all for!
5 March 1942
Women’s day is coming soon. The weather is sunny and frosty all the time. Bread rations haven’t been made bigger yet. When I think about everything that I’ve already been through, I feel both afraid and joyful, the worst is behind. I went through it and I am the only one out of the 3 of us who survived. Had there been a delay of another fortnight in the improvement in food supply, I would have followed Aka and mother to 76 Marat Street. Marat. 76! An address full of menace – how many thousands of people from Leningrad learned about it. I stayed alive, and I want to live. To do this, I shouldn’t stay here. I have to find my way to Zhenya’s in Gor’kiy.
Yesterday, my neighbour, Raisa Pavlovna, gave me a card, as well as various letters, which have been brought from the zhakt, where they have been lying around. I don’t know how this card made its way to the zhakt. It turned out to be from Zhenya, sent on 19/I. Zhenya writes that she is very worried about not having received answers to any of the number of letters she has sent us. The address is: Gor’kiy, Mogilevich lane, and I have foolishly been writing to a completely different, older, address. That’s the reason why there was no reply to my telegram.
My new plan of action is: to send Zhenya a new telegram and, then, to try to make my way to Gor’kiy. In order to do this I’ll visit Kira and Galya. If I stay here, it will be very difficult. It’s very hard for me to work right now, I am very weak, yet, if I remain an unemployed dependent, I will be forced to do labour service. Spring will come, it will get warmer, the sewers will thaw, and there will be a lot of work; they might also send us to the cemetery to bury bodies, and end up killing us too. No, I have to make it to Zhenya’s. Zhenya writes that they live tolerably, even well, for our times. There, I could fatten up a little, gain some strength and find a job, to work and live either with Zhenya or with Nura. We are close, aren’t we, they are my relatives, they love me and they won’t tell me to leave of course.
No, no, I have to go! I will write them a telegram:
I am alone now. Aka and mother died. Can I stay with you? Answer soon.
I am the only one left alive. Aka and mother died. I am very weak.
Aka and mother died of malnutrition. It’s very difficult to live. I am weak. Zhenya! Can I come?
My heart wants to burst when I begin to remember my mother. I keep imagining that mother just went to run an errand briefly and that she is about to come back. I am so hungry. Won’t they increase the bread ration? I am so fed up with dragging myself through this half-starved existence. As for work, I won’t be able to bear it right now – I am too weak. Zhenya’s, to get to Zhenya’s, that’s my rescue.
Dearest mother, mummy, you weren’t strong enough, you perished. Mummy, little mother, my dear sweet friend. God, how cruel life is, you wanted to live so much. You died courageously. You had a very strong spirit, but, unhappily, a very weak body. Mummy, you died, you were getting weaker day by day, but you didn’t drop one tear, not a complaint, not a groan, you tried to cheer me up, you even joked. I remember that on the 5th of February you were still getting up. While I ran from one queue to another, you prepared the firewood. After lunch you calmly said that now you were going to lie down to rest. You lay down, asked me to cover you with your coat and… then you didn’t get up again.
On the 7th you couldn’t get up to use the potty anymore, what is more, and this is the most upsetting: during these last days on February 5th, 6th and 7th mum hardly talked to me at all. She lay there covered up, up to the tip of her head, very severe and demanding. When I would throw myself on her crying, she pushed me away: “You fool, why are you crying. Or do you think that I am dying.” – “No, mother, no, you and I are still going to take a trip to the Volga.” – “We will go to the Vloga and we will bake pancakes. But we’d better go use the potty with you now. Take off the blanket. Now, lower the left leg, now the right, wonderful.” So I lowered her feet onto the floor but when I touched them it was awful. I understood that mother didn’t have long to live. Her legs - like those of a doll, were bones and tatters instead of muscles.
Hop-la - she would say cheerfully, trying to get up herself. Hop-la, go on, lift me up this way.
Yes mother, you were a person with a strong spirit. Of course, you knew that you would die but you didn’t think it was necessary to speak about it.
Only I remember, on the evening of the 7th I asked mother: “Kiss me mummy. We haven’t had a kiss for so long.” Her severe face softened, we pressed each other close. We were both crying.
Leshen’ka, you and I are unfortunate!
Then we went to bed, or rather I did. After a short time I heard mum calling me:
Alesha, are you sleeping?
No, what is it.
You know, I feel so good right now, so light, I think I will get better tomorrow. Never have I felt as happy as I do in this moment.
Mum, what are you talking about. You are scaring me. Why do you suddenly feel so well?
And I fell asleep. I knew that mother was going to die, but I thought that she would live another 5-6 days. I couldn’t have imagined that she would die the following day.
I fell asleep. And in my sleep I heard mother calling me again. “Leshen’ka, Alesha, Alesha, are you asleep?” These words still ring clearly in my mind. Then she became quiet. I fell into deep sleep again. When I woke up again I heard mum say something very indistinctly, so I asked her:
Mother, what are you saying?
She was quiet. Then she muttered something again without answering me. “She is probably delirious”, I thought and fell asleep again.
When I woke up the next time, I heard snoring. I thought, well, at last mummy has fallen asleep, and I fell asleep again calmly. I don’t know how long I slept for but I woke up extremely worried. My heart was telling me that something was wrong. Mum was still snoring, but her snore was not that of a calmly sleeping person. No. Mum was lying on her back, with her eyes closed, and she was breathing heavily through her mouth. Something was making a sound in her throat. I began to shake her, to call, she opened her eyes and stared at me with an empty stare. “Mother, mother, can you hear me?” The same stare, then her eyes closed tiredly.
My God, she cannot see or hear me, she is dying. Her forehead is cold, her hands and feet are cold, and her pulse is very faint. I rushed to call for help. The neighbours came. They lit the stove. Warmed up some hot bottles. Made hot, sweet coffee and a kind of vitamin. But it was all in vein. Mother squeezed her teeth together tightly. When they forced coffee down her throat, she didn’t swallow it. It was 6 o’clock in the morning. The neighbours left telling me to keep trying to make mum drink. So for the last few hours I sat next to her bed. She never regained consciousness again and died quietly, somehow just becoming still. I didn’t even notice. Though I was sitting at the head of her bed. That’s how everyone dies from malnutrition.
1. The word is barely legible.
2. Raul Amundsen (1872-1928) - a Norwegian Polar traveler and explorer, who was the first to take the Northwestern route from Greenland to Alaska in 1903-1906, and was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911.
3. Traditionally a modest wooden house in the countryside.
4. Sentence unfinished in the original text. Partly illegible.
5. Sentence unfinished in the original text.
6. Likely to be referring to the town called Pushkin.
7. V. M. Molotov was the USSR’s People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs.
8. German airplanes made the first massive bombing of Leningrad on the 6th of September 1941.
9. ZHAKT (ЖАКТ) – a type of housing cooperative.
10. Vremyanka – a metal or brick oven temporarily installed in houses. The best-known ones were the so-called ‘burzhuyki’ – metal stoves with metal chimneys.