Friday, May 21, 2010

Chronicler of the Blockade: Olga Bergholz (1910-1975)

This month marks the centenary of Olga Bergholz (Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц, sometimes transliterated as ‘Berggolts’), a Soviet writer best known for the poems she composed, not to mention the radio broadcasts she delivered, from besieged Leningrad during the Second World War—what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Her most familiar poems from those blockade years are “February Diary” and “A Leningrad Poem,” both of which depict the harsh realities of survival in a city completely cut off from the world, where one might have had to trade a loaf of bread to get a coffin for a dead child.

Indeed, bread is a central image in “A Leningrad Poem,” since those without it were doomed to starve, yet “people listened to poems / as never before—with profound faith / in dark apartments, like caves / beside mute loudspeakers.” (“И люди слушали стихи, / как никогда,— с глубокой верой, / в квартирах черных, как пещеры, / у репродукторов глухих.”) As Americans did in the weeks and months following the attacks on 9/11, the people of Leningrad, Bergholz implies, found solace in poems despite their misery. Of course, most New Yorkers could still put food on the table in late 2001; tragically, one couldn’t say the same for Leningraders during the 900-day siege.

On the Calque site, you can read Andrew Glikin-Gusinsky’s translation of another WWII-themed poem, “My Home,” which Bergholz wrote when peace had been restored to Leningrad, but when bleak wartime memories were still fresh: “Glancing at the three windows that used to be mine, / I remember: the war happened here. / Oh how we darkened, without a ray of hope… / And everything darkened, everything darkened in this world.” Now, though, the poet wishes “dearly for someone to be happy.” (Calque gives the original Russian text of the poem as well.)

Bergholz was born on May 3 according the old calendar, so her birthday now lands on May 16. Either way, the centenary of her birth is this month, though dates don’t always transfer so handily from the old style to the new. In honor of her centenary, a St. Petersburg publisher has just put out a volume entitled Olga: The Forbidden Notebook (Ольга. Запретный дневник), which contains newly available materials from the archives of the FSB (successor to the KGB), including journal entries from three periods: her incarceration as a political prisoner in the late 1930s, her ordeal during the blockade years in Leningrad, and her 1949 stay on a kolkhoz in Stalin’s Gulag. Alongside the journals, the editors give a selection of Bergholz’s poems and letters. Her FSB file has only been accessible since last year, so the editorial team must have worked swiftly to put together what most reviewers have deemed a fine collection.

Dmitrii Volchek at Radio Svoboda claims that this new volume will help to present a more even-handed view of Bergholz’s career, since “for many years censors did not allow a significant portion of what she wrote into print,” and her name therefore became “associated with gung-ho patriotism” (that is, “ура-патриотизм”). But Volchek says that the new book redeems her as an artist, giving “the sensation of an improbably explosive force.”

Bergholz’s reputation as a Soviet flag-waver didn’t come out of nowhere. She did write patriotic poems, and the most public of them is displayed at the Piskarev Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg, where 470,000 Soviet citizens who died during the blockade are buried. This is my translation of those poignant lines:

Here lie Leningraders.
Here lie citizens—men, women, children.
Next to them are Red Army soldiers.
With their very lives
they defended you, Leningrad,
cradle of the revolution.
We cannot recount their noble names here—
so many rest under the eternal protection of this granite.
But you who fix your attention on these stones, know this:
nobody, nothing has been forgotten.

(Здесь лежат ленинградцы. / Здесь горожане - мужчины, женщины, дети. / Рядом с ними солдаты-красноармейцы. / Всею жизнью своею / Они защищали тебя, Ленинград, / Колыбель революции. / Их имен благородных мы здесь перечислить не сможем, / Так их много под вечной охраной гранита. / Но знай, внимающий этим камням: / Никто не забыт и ничто не забыто.)

But it appears that the newly published Forbidden Notebook complicates any purely nationalistic view of Bergholz’s work. In fact, reviewers at both Radio Svoboda and НГ Ex Libris note that her reputation as a poet-patriot came about because her urge to speak the truth coincided with a moment in Soviet history when truth-telling was permitted. Svoboda’s Boris Paramonov calls her a poet of “confrontation” and explains that “the war had suddenly and unexpectedly made the truth legal, made it utterable,” while the unnamed Ex Libris reviewer identifies the blockade as a “unique case, when one could write the truth, the bitter and evil truth, and write it without fear of punishment.” It was an instance, the reviewer says, of “fully permissible suffering.” Like countless other Soviet citizens, Bergholz suffered in peacetime too (as when her unborn child was “kicked out of her belly” by NKVD interrogators), but her depictions of those sufferings rarely appeared in print. Now, Russian readers can get a fuller sense of that other side of her story.


  1. After writing this post, I learned that Petrozavodsk, my most beloved city in Russia, hosted an event commemorating the life and work of Olga Bergholz last Wednesday in their ethnographic museum. (Read more about it here: ) The gathering included "blockade survivors, members of the Karelian Union of Writers, actors, and fans of the poet's work."

    One blockade survivor who attended the event, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, described the importance of Bergholz's radio broadcasts during the war: "... her voice was heard every morning on Leningrad Radio. And people listened to this, and their spirits were lifted. They understood that the city was still alive, that we hadn't surrendered, that victory would happen, everything would happen, if we just overcame ourselves."

  2. Just wanted to say that I'm enjoying this blog, Jamie... a great introduction to Olga Bergholz and some very interesting links! I look forward to more posts.

  3. Glad to have you as a reader, Dinosaur!

  4. Hi Jamie, thanks for this site/blog I hope you don't mind that I have included your translation, as above, of the Piskarev Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg poem in my FB happy birthday wishes to Olga (I bombard my FB friends with birthday poets every day, I try to supply a sample). I would love to find some more online translations of her work?

  5. Beyond the translation I linked to on the "Calque" site by Glikin-Gusinsky, I don't know what else is out there. If you find anything, please let me know!