The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl’s Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Valentin Kovalchuk, Aleksandr Rupasov & Aleksandr Chistikov (edd) (Translated by Amanda Love Darragh) - review by Anna Reid

Anna Reid

Ration Book

The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl’s Life in the Siege of Leningrad


Macmillan 390pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Germany’s siege of Leningrad was one of the Second World War’s worst atrocities. Lasting two and a half years, it killed 700,000 to 800,000 people, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the city’s entire civilian population. Atrocities on such a scale are best understood through individual accounts, and this diary, newly emerged from the archives, is one such. It was written by Lena Mukhina, a plain, prim sixteen-year-old living in the city centre with her adoptive mother and an older woman nicknamed Aka – possibly, according to the editors, a retired English governess.

When the diary opens in the spring of 1941, Lena’s preoccupations couldn’t be more ordinary: she is irritated by her mother, anxious about her end-of-term exams and has an unreciprocated crush on a boy in her class. But from 22 June, when the German invasion is announced on the radio, her world turns upside down as Leningrad stiffens its defences, suffers its first air raids, then spirals into mass starvation. Around 100,000 Leningraders died in each of the first three months of 1942, the death rate only beginning to fall off when there were fewer mouths left to feed and supplies started coming in across Lake Ladoga, to the city’s east. Lena’s passage to adulthood was swift and brutal.

Initially, the war brings her nothing worse than hard physical work. She helps clear flammable lumber from her apartment building’s attic, unloads bricks from barges and in mid-July is sent out to the countryside to join in the building of new defence lines. For six weeks she lives in an evacuated village school, trench-digging, gossiping under haystacks during breaks (another girl has been ‘kissed three times: on her forehead, the back of her neck and her cheek’) and watching dogfights between German and Soviet fighters in the summer skies overhead. One evening, three planes crash in a nearby field.

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.’

In November the schools reopen and Lena returns to her studies. Mid-month, she complains of hunger for the first time, and indulges in her first food fantasy. When things are back to normal, she and her mother will eat fried potatoes, ‘golden and sizzling, straight from the pan’, salami ‘thick enough to really sink your teeth into’ and hot, buttery blinis with jam – ‘Dear God, we’re going to eat so much we’ll frighten ourselves.’ On 20 November, the day before her seventeenth birthday, the city authorities make their final and deadliest ration cut, reducing the daily bread allowance for all but manual workers to 125 grams. The corresponding ration card was nicknamed the smertnik, after the word for death.

This was also when Leningrad’s infrastructure began to fail. Electricity was cut as power stations ran out of fuel, trams ground to a halt and water and sewage pipes froze. Amazingly, Lena’s school stayed open: lessons continued in a shelter during air-raid warnings and through December she was still handing in essays and scolding herself for getting poor marks in algebra tests. She mentions in passing that the family are eating their pet cat; enough is left ‘for two more meals’. The discretion is typical: for reasons of psychological self-defence or political caution she leaves out a great deal, never describing the ghastly physical appearance of the starving, or the sight of corpses on the streets, or muggings for food, or the obvious fact that some had much better access to food than others.

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 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?’

Physically, she is saved by her mother’s ration card, and by bartering small, probably prerevolutionary valuables – a sugar bowl, a fan, a sewing machine – for food in street markets. (At one point she can’t resist spending a rouble on old postcards: ‘They were brightly coloured, mainly foreign, all with different views.’) Psychologically, she finds support in the radio and in the first signs of spring, rapturously recording the growth of bright green algae in a jar of water she sets on a windowsill. Most of all, she draws on her own extraordinary reserves of positivity and self-discipline. The diary is peppered with exhortations such as ‘Consider any day on which you do not learn anything new or useful a lost day!’ and ‘Anyone can become strong, smart and steadfast. There is only one essential requirement – will power!’ She has also learned to think for herself: her comment on a promise of better school food – ‘This is a directive from our dear Stalin himself, the aim being to keep Leningrad’s remaining schoolchildren alive’ – has a new, sarcastic edge. It is her only reference to him, and she makes none at all to the Party, praising only the Red Army.

The diary ends in May 1942, with Lena desperate to leave Leningrad and making soup from young nettles. It is good to know that she did manage to get out, settling with an aunt in Gorky, and that she lived to the age of sixty-six. She never married – one of a whole generation of young Russian women doomed to spinsterhood by Hitler.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter