Between September 1941 and January 1944, the Nazis laid siege to the Russian city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). The 872-day blockade was one of the lengthiest in history, and one of the deadliest. Not only was the city under bombardment, there was no food or heat. Disease was rife, and everyone was starving – people even turned to cannibalism. Although it’s hard to tell exactly how many perished during these three years, the broadly acknowledged estimate stands at one million.
The poet and writer Polina Barskova was born in Leningrad in 1976. “Like all the children of that city,” writes Eugene Ostashevsky, the Russian-American writer and translator, “she grew up in the long shadow of the war, and especially of the blokada.” Evidence of which was everywhere, Ostashevsky – who’s also from Leningrad – continues: “in the missing buildings, in the walls still scarred by shell fragments, in commemorative inscriptions, in courtyard games.” I’m quoting from Ostashevsky’s introduction to Barskova’s book, Living Pictures, a fragmented – sometimes beguiling, sometimes confusing – multi-faceted work that blends archival evidence, memoir and fiction to both bear witness to those who survived the siege, and commemorate those whose lives it cost them.
Barskova – who previously edited Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad (2016), a collection of works written in situ, a counterpoint to the state-sanctioned story of the siege as an example of Russians’ heroic self-sacrifice – has long been obsessed with the blokada. Elsewhere, I’ve heard her described as “a scholar of the Siege,” and it’s the archive material that she’s been wading through for years – here she likens herself to Charon, ferrying souls “from one folder to another” – that provides the foundation for the various narratives that unfurl in Living Pictures.
In an early chapter, “The Forgiver”, she elaborates on both the pull and the pain of the archive. She’s overcome by “the sensation of working a brainteaser, a mosaic, as though all these voices could make a single voice and yield a single meaning”. But this desire to neglect nothing and nobody often proves illusionary; “no one can be helped, and everyone is forgotten,” she laments.
Living Pictures is a true collage. The slippage between archival evidence, biographical detail and imaginative forays is present is almost every piece here. I’m struggling still with the question of what to call them. Essays? Stories? Each term feels too restrictive. Chapters is perhaps safest; in part because it acknowledges that they’re at their most powerful when considered en masse, a chorus of voices building to a crescendo.
The book’s final powerful chapter is written as a chamber piece between two lovers (fictionalised versions of the real-life art historian Antonina Izergina and painter Moisei Vakser) who, along with other employees, took refuge in the cellars of the Hermitage Museum. Written as a play script, it’s a notable departure in form compared to that of the chapters that precede it, but as the lovers agree, the siege has “its own language […] its own style.” So too, writing about it demands innovation.
Not that every chapter is set during the blockade. Barskova’s just as interested in exploring the legacy of its horrors; what it’s meant to her specifically to grow up in its shadow. It makes sense then that some of the most evocative writing here is autobiographical. Barskova’s memories of watching a German pop duo performing on TV while at summer camp (think a Party-sponsored version of the Scouts): “In crystal countertenors the angels-castrati sang of the noblest things as they were showered, powdered, spurred onward by stardust, a flashing disco ball, cocaine frost.” Or those of the summer she spent with her babushka – “who resembled a kombucha mushroom” – in Siberia.
For a reader who’s not an expert in Russian history and literature – myself included – it is sometimes hard to distinguish fact from fiction, historical figure from imaginative amalgamation. But the comprehensive notes – which include a precis of each chapter – are invaluable. Depicting history as truthfully as possible is absolutely central to Barskova’s project, but the beauty of her work lies in the lyricism and limpidity of her writing. Elegantly translated by Catherine Ciepiela, it reads more like poetry than prose.
Living Pictures is published by Pushkin Press at £10.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books