“In the name of the word that, my dear,
Is best one and single for us,
Again fall in love with me here,
And tell me all this and — at once.”“
She was the muse of Leningrad. The mellifluous voice floating over the air waves into cold cave-like rooms where the city was starving as bombs fell. It was one of the darkest times in Russian history.
It was September 1941 and the Nazis had begun their nearly three-year-long siege of Leningrad. The roads were cut off, the city circled. Hitler intended to starve the 3 million inhabitants. She was a calm and inspiring voice for those citizens trapped in what was the former St. Petersburg, her place of birth. Everyday Olga Berggolts read her poetry, poetry of others and the news. She spoke of suffering and war, death and wrenching hunger. She told them not to give up hope. Like everyone else she was suffering, blocked off, locked in, starving.
“I know and remember so much… I’m a fighter.”
Journalist, playwright, poet and Soviet. Born in 1910 in St. Petersburg to a well-to-do family, her father was a surgeon, her mother a former teacher Olga enjoyed an idyllic childhood. But with revolution in 1917 and the ousting of the Tsar her life changed. The family moved to a small town into communal housing run by the communists. She would become familiar with hunger and sacrifice. Three years later, at age eleven, she returned to St. Petersburg and studied at the Petrograd Labor School (the city had been renamed). She expressed herself by writing and was first published at fourteen. She was a voracious reader, devouring works that called for revolution and the rejection of organized religion. Her family was religious, but she had fallen in love with the Communist Youth League. Soon she became an affirmed communist writing for the “Red Weaver” and “Lenin’s Sparks.” She wept when Lenin died. She believed in equal rights and equal work for men and women. She worked in a factory. She was beautiful, smart, passionate.
In 1927 she married at just eighteen to another communist and poet, Boris Kornilov. That had a daughter Irina. At University she wrote for a children’s magazine. She worked in Kazakhstan as a journalist and divorced Boris. She married another journalist, Nikolay Molchanov. Together they vowed to help build socialism. In 1932 she gave birth to their daughter Maya. She would live only a year. More heartbreak. Three years later daughter Irina died of a heart condition. Sometime before she had been severely burned in an accident. Olga was understandably bereft, and her work became darker. Nikolay returned from military service with epilepsy. They lived in a communal home, minus a kitchen, because that was bourgeois.
She became a less ardent supporter of communism as friends were arrested, charged with being “unreliable” as Stalin purged suspected enemies. Olga wrote against the state and the arrest of her friends. In 1937 she was thrown out of the Communist Party. Her first husband Boris was shot for supposedly participating in an anti-Soviet organization. (It was also claimed he merely starved to death.) In a few short years her father would be sent to Siberia because he would not spy for the government. Nikolay would die of an epileptic fit (again also rumored to starve or to have been sent to an insane asylum.). And still Olga continued to write.
In 1938 Olga was arrested by the feared NKVD and charged with counter-revolutionary activities and being connected to enemies of the people. She was pregnant. In prison she was interrogated, tortured and beaten. Kicked in the stomach repeatedly. She lost her child.
“And you’ll have strengths enough
To see and know again
How all that was your love
Will start to bring a pain.”
By the following year she was released and her membership in the Party restated. Why she would want it to be is a mystery to me, except she wrote “there was something wrong with the people (who beat her) not the idea of communism.” She was virulently anti-Stalin but even with doubts, tried to continue loving her communist party. Her wavering tormented her. She believed she was psychotic and needed medical attention because she thought of what had happened to her in prison every day.
In September of 1941 through January of 1944 as the Nazi’s strangled Leningrad Olga broadcast her work and the work of others as the city was bombed. As bodies piled up on the streets her voice rang out. “It is now the fifth month that the enemy has been trying to kill our will to live, to break our spirit, to destroy our faith in victory. But we believe, no, not believe, we know that victory will come…. It will come. We will achieve it, and Leningrad will again be warm and light and even gay.”
Leningrad Radio would transmit every day of the Siege from the Radio House where Olga and her colleges tried to give information and inspiration. It was said they were allotted food others could not get. She offered despairing, desperate citizens hope.
“We already cannot find our sufferings
no measure, no name, no comparison
But we are at the end of the thorny path,
and we know that the day of liberation is near.”
She experienced more suffering. One of her husband’s (presumably the second one) died in 1942. She would drag his body to the cemetery in the biting winter temperatures, her face described as being nearly “black with frost” (“The 900 Days” by Salisbury) on a child’s sled. Her grandmother and three aunts died. That winter was brutal. Thousands died. In one month over 50,000. Temperatures fell to -30 degrees. Fellow journalists huddled together at the Radio House, starving, frozen, camped out in heavy coats and boots, one found dead on the couch in the morning. People began to peel wallpaper for the glue, made of animal hooves. Desperate for food. Anything. Rations were miniscule, rotten bread usually made with wood shavings. A few resorted to hacking the limbs off of the dead and eating them. Some did not wait for the dying to be dead.
“O nights of shriekings and of rumblings
And bombs that ever nearer fall,
And tiny scraps of rationed bread
That scarcely seem to weigh at all…”
Olga was starving, her organs beginning to waste away. In her memoirs she would recall one time with only food of a cigarette and sliver of bread she walked ten miles to find her father who was starving himself. She brought him a cigarette. So ravaged where they both neither recognized the other. With the help of her friends she was taken to Moscow and given treatment. She quickly returned to Leningrad and the radio. She found a small measure of happiness when she fell in love with another radio host, Georgy Makogonenko whom she married. She kept on broadcasting her poems and others works, she often said “there are only two sorts of people: those who trust and don’t trust, those who drink and don’t drink.” Like a good Russian she drank.
The Siege left almost a million dead, 600,000 from starvation alone. Survivors claimed it was the voice of Olga that comforted and kept them alive. She would recall the Siege and being on the radio as some of the happiest. She managed to put her overwhelming personal sorrow, her losses, her beating and imprisonment behind her to inspire others not to give up no matter how dark the day. Her blue eyes saw clearly a bright future where Leningrad would be free of the Nazis threat.
It was said post Siege she struggled, drank more, perhaps feeling less purposeful now that the worst of times was past. Patriot and poet, Olga died in 1975 in her beloved Leningrad. She was buried at Piskaryovskoye memorial cemetery, where almost all the dead of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad are buried. It holds over 400,000 bodies. Thousands attended this conflicted, complicated and committed soldier-poet. An inspiration for millions.
“Each person who defended Leningrad
Who placed a hand in the city’s blazing wounds,
Is not just a citizen, but a soldier,
Whose courage equals that of any veteran.”
She is credited in part that it was due to her optimism that Leningrad and the people would survive the Germans. She saved many. Through her experiences she encouraged the starving, lice-ridden to hang on. To fight to live. She urged her listeners not to have their spirits or faith broken.
Today, we endure what we endure and remember those that endured what they endured.
“No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.”
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Honored for her work inspiring women, in 2020 Zemeckis will be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in part for “sharing and preserving stories of women who were once marginalized and stigmatized . . .” but due to her work “these women are now celebrated for their independence and personal agency.” The Medal is officially recognized by both Houses of Congress and is one of our nation’s most prestigious awards. Past recipients include Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Elie Wiesel, Sen. John McCain and HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco.
www.lesliezemeckis.com for more of her work.