There are too many interesting books that I will probably never have time to read. This is one of them. So I will settle for a few reviews of the book. The diary of Russian teenager Lena Mukhina was recently released. She survived the horrors of the siege of Leningrad during WW2. Over 700,000 civilians died in the battle. Some have called her the Russian Anne Frank.
Stalin said “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” This statement sadly and accurately reflects how we respond to waves of human suffering expressed in massive statistics. Its almost like 700,000 isn’t a real number for us. It is too much to wrap our minds around. We get weary. We yawn. We move on. As a result, biographies and diaries can help us see beyond the statistics to the depth of human tragedy. An individual story can make atrocities in the abstract become concrete.
A few things stood out from the review. The first is the bizarre nature of the propaganda pumped out by the Russians. Socialism has been a catastrophic failure, but you would never know it from listening to socialists, even when the city is burning.
“By the time she returns to Leningrad at the end of August, the city is surrounded. On 8 September, the same day that the last road out of the city was captured, the Germans launched their first raid. Lena’s diary becomes a Blitz-like record of sirens, midnight dashes to a basement shelter and long, frightening hours spent listening to the thunder of explosions and anti-aircraft fire outside. Having earlier uncritically regurgitated Sovinform assurances that the Germans were surrendering en masse, she starts questioning government propaganda, scoffing at a radio report that fires are being ‘quickly extinguished’: ‘Quickly indeed, they were burning for five hours!’ News of the fall of Kiev shocks her into her only direct criticism of the leadership: ‘I’m no longer sure they’re not going to surrender Leningrad … So many loud words and speeches: Kiev and Leningrad are unassailable fortresses! … But now this.’
Also, I am struck by the horrors of the siege and the effect of starvation on the human soul. All of this is so foreign to me. I have a hard time imagining such cruelty and desperation because I have never experienced it. I can’t imagine being so hungry that eating wall paper paste would be a welcome treat.
“In the depths of the siege winter, many households disintegrated emotionally as well as physically. Lena’s held together. Her mother continued to walk to her workplace daily, bringing home and sharing whatever she was given for ‘lunch’. A windfall was sheets of carpenter’s glue, which could be boiled up and turned into edible jelly. Aka [her governess] queued at the bread shops, for hours at a time, in temperatures that dipped into the minus thirties. Both adults turned a blind eye when Lena hid the pathetic quantities of ‘meat jelly’ she brought home from school. By the end of the year, though, Aka was too weak to leave her bed. ‘Aka’, Lena records on 28 December,, ‘is just an extra mouth to feed. I don’t know how I can even bring myself to write such things. But my heart has turned to stone. The thought of it doesn’t upset me at all… If she is going to die I hope it happens after the 1st, so we’ll be able to get her ration card.’ Aka obliges, dying on New Year’s Day. A few weeks later Lena’s mother follows suit: a one-line entry for 8 February reads, ‘Mama died yesterday morning. I am all alone.’ From then on, Lena fights as much against despair as against hunger: ‘When I wake up in the morning, at first I can’t believe that Mama has really died … But then the awful reality sinks in. Mama has gone! Mama is no longer alive! … I feel like howling, screaming, banging my head against the wall and biting myself! How am I going to live without Mama?’