A Walk Along the Neva: The Siege of Leningrad

One of the leading women poets, whose war poems, collected in her LENINGRAD NOTEBOOK (1942), are among her finest contributions, OLGA BERGOLTS has used the autobiographical vein to give this poignant account of the Siege of Leningrad.


I LEARNED about day stars during my adolescence, in Novgorod province. I got the information from my teacher, Peter Petrovich, when he dropped in on the village librarian one evening. Peter Petrovich was an old man with small, deepset eyes and a long, sparse, snow-white beard, who knew many interesting and secret things about the universe, life, and people. The July evening had darkened and closed in, the first stars could be seen through the wide window of the reading room, and Peter Petrovich said that the stars never disappear from the sky; that besides evening stars and night stars there are day stars. They are even brighter and prettier than night stars, but they are never seen in the sky because the sun eclipses them. Day stars can be seen only in deep and silent wells. So far above us as to be invisible and unattainable, they burn in the depths of the earth, in the black reflection of water, with sharp little rays of fight like halos emanating from them. Actually, he didn’t say anything about the rays of light, but I knew that that was the way it had to be.

From that evening on, I was obsessed by one desire — to see day stars. I told absolutely no one, not even my sister, Muska, that I knew about day stars and wanted to see them. I thought, First I’ll go alone and see them, and then I’ll tell Muska right away, and even show them, first to Muska and then to others, and I’ll say, “Look, see what I saw first!” And so, in two or three days, one cloudless, intensely hot noontime, havingmade sure that no one was around, I went to an old well, turned back the mossy well covers as I would a book’s, and gazed into the depths.

There was not a single star in the well.

I couldn’t believe it.

For a long time I watched, for a long time I breathed in the cool smell of water-swollen wood, but the stars did not appear, although from time to time the black quadrangle of water began to move in the center and wash toward the walls in little circles.

You probably can’t see them the first time, I guessed. An hour or two later, tired by the heat, I went again to the well, not so impetuously, but stealthily, and carefully opened it, and again, nothing. So I watched until evening, until the first stars, which anyone can see, appeared. But, strange! My conviction that there are day stars and that there are wells on earth that catch them and reflect them did not leave me.

The years went by: the beginning of the thirties — the first Five Year Plan, those stormy, fiery nights at the electric plant where I worked; the end of the thirties — the deaths of my daughters, one after the other, then the period of trial from 1937 to 1939, which left its indelible scars, and almost immediately thereafter, the great fatherland war. More and more things tended to pile up between me and my old life; my sorrows and joys — particularly my sorrows — were utterly unlike what seemed to me the static sorrows and joys of my family in the Neva apartment, and my ties with them, which had become weaker and weaker, were ready to snap.

I wasn’t sorry about this; actually, I didn’t even think about it. I rarely saw my father; the Neva apartment existed somewhere deep in my subconscious; I hardly remembered Avdotya or Grandmother or Aunt Varya. Early one October morning in 1941, when Leningrad was already surrounded by the Germans and the attack on the city was imminent, I heard Aunt Varya’s voice on the telephone: “Lyalechka, come say good-by to your grandmother.”

I didn’t understand. I was incredulous for the wrong reason. “Aunt Varya, how can you think of evacuating her? You know the roads are all blocked off.”

“We’re not evacuating her, Lyalechka; she’s dying.”

I almost said, “So what?” but something stopped me.

“She’s dying and wants to say good-by.”

“Aunt Varya,” I began to mumble in complete confusion. “The district council is having an emergency meeting of political organizers today, and as you know, I’m a political organizer.” But suddenly a thought interrupted my excuses. How many years since you’ve seen Grandma? Over two, and she lives not far away. She’s dying. And I saw her as she was in my childhood: small, always working, grumpy, kind. My grandmother. My kind, old, only grandmother.

“Aunt Varya!” I cried. “I’m coming right away. Will there be time?”

“I think so.”

“I’m coming, Aunt Varya!”

I did not notice that the trolley had stopped. The conductress yelled at me angrily, “What’s the matter with you? Get out!”

I looked out and saw that we were standing in front of Lenin factory. “My stop is next,” I said.

“Look, are you deaf or something? It’s an air raid. Get out and take shelter.”

Clutching my passes in my right hand, I ran to the home where I’d been born, where my world had begun, where I had fallen in love, where I had heard the irresistible call of the Revolution. I ran to the home which I left when I was twenty years old because I despised its inhabitants for their “bourgeois backwardness,” to the home which I had practically forgotten. I ran toward it as the ghastly shelling continued around me, choking and terrified that I might not ever see it again. Oh, just once! Only once again.

The house was standing. . . .

Grandmother was lying on the pillows, wrapped like a peasant in a white shawl. Her face was completely shrunken and wrinkled. What amazed me most of all was her hands, lying on her chest. They seemed unnaturally large. The fingers were so knobbed and calloused, with such swollen blue veins. These were the hands of a woman who had worked for eighty out of her eighty-seven years, the hands of a mother who had given birth, fed, swaddled, and raised fourteen children and many grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, and had outlived and buried many of them, closed their eyes with these hands and thrown the first handful of sand into their graves. And I? What had I done that was good for her, for Aunt Varya, for my father? Nothing. I’d never had the time — the first Five Year Plan, urgent building to be done, the mastery of Marxist theory, my own life, raising my own family; there had just never been time. I was building a new society, while my grandmother and aunt had gone on with their saints’ days and all that nonsense.

My grandmother was half unconscious, looking at the wall, when I sat down near her.

“Mama,” Aunt Varya called. “Lyalya has come to say good-by.”

I had walked out of the Neva gates early in the dry, golden October of 1941, utterly fearless and joyful, drunk with the knowledge of my own immortality and convinced that all things I knew then or had ever known were also immortal. But neither I nor anyone else knew that we Leningraders would walk these same ecstatic, glorious, brilliantly lighted roads in the other direction, and soon.

FOUR months later, I took the same road in the other direction: I went from the city toward the Neva gates. I went to my father early in February of 1942. I equipped myself before setting out. My comrades on the radio committee, where I had worked and lived for a long time, all helped as much as they could. In a measuring bottle like a baby’s formula bottle, which showed up from nowhere, they poured some slightly sweet tea. Someone gave me two cigarettes, and I took my ration of bread. I decided to eat it bit by bit, and under no circumstances would I eat it at once, even if I could think of nothing but that bread lying in my gas mask — an entire 250 grams. My gas mask hung from my side, the same gas mask which our Avdotya had thought such complete protection from all the horrors of war. “You, Lyalechka, get a gas mask.” she told me. At that time, paper crosses in windows also seemed iike protection. How carefully, during the summer of 1941 —was it really just seven months ago? — we taped our windows to prevent them from shattering. Some cranks outdid themselves. Thinking that tape was not enough, they cut fancy paper patterns and pictures. On Fontanka Canal, the window of one apartment was decorated with tropical palms, beneath which apes were sitting in state. Did these people, wanting to laugh off the war with jokes, think this would help?

Nothing helped. Nothing prevented death from entering our homes — not the taped windows, the ingenious patterns and pictures, not the carefully checked gas masks which we opened and put on at the first air raid signal. When we put on these masks, death didn’t get us with suffocating gases; it just entered into each of us like a weakness of the flesh, like gnawing hunger, like a permanent chill.

I knew I’d have to go a long way. I had to cross the Neva and climb the right bank. From the radio committee building, this is approximately 17 kilometers. I braced myself for the trip. I was full of a strange kind of zeal and incredible calm. No, not calm, more like indifference; no, better yet, an awful gentleness and peace. I did not know if I could get to my father and decided not to look that far ahead. I decided to set myself small goals. Here I am at one lamppost. I must get to the next. Then the next. Then to the Moscow Station. From there, I’ll be able to see his dispensary. I’ve just got to keep my legs moving. I’m not in a hurry. I must try to stay on the sidewalk and not get in the snow.

And I walked. At first, along the Neva, from one lamppost to another. From one to another.

I got as far as Moscow Station. When I looked at my watch, it had stopped.

I went on to Staro-Nevsky Street. There again I walked from lamppost to lamppost. To the left, from Moscow Station lined all the way up to Alexander Nevsky Monastery, were buses, frozen and buried under snow, like corpses. One after another in line, several dozen, just standing. And near the monastery, a line of streetcars with broken windows and piles of snow on the seats, also just standing. Probably they’ll stand like that forever. It was impossible to imagine that there had been a time when they had moved, whistling and whispering against the asphalt. Had we really ridden in them? Strange thought. I was walking past the abandoned streetcars and buses in another century. I had either lived one hundred years ago or would live one hundred years hence. I didn’t know which. It made no difference.

As I neared the Neva, my path was crossed by another. And as I came up to the intersection, I bumped into a woman, shivering despite many layers of shawls, pulling a coffin on a sled. Actually, it was not a coffin but something like a bureau drawer. Maybe it was a bureau drawer covered with a bit of plywood. She dragged it, her whole body straining, almost falling forward. I stopped to let the coffin pass, and she stopped to let me pass, straightening up and taking a deep breath. I started, and she jerked the sled at the same time. But she couldn’t move it; the runners were probably caught in some pothole or mound in the path, and it stayed right where it was, near my feet. Staring out at me from her shawls with hatred, she Hissed barely audibly, “Well, go on!”

And as I took a wide step over the coffin, I unintentionally sat down on it. She sighed and sat down beside me. “Are you coming from the city?” she asked.


“Been going a long time?”

“Three hours, probably.”

“Is it bad there?”


“Are they bombing?”

“Not now. Shelling.”

“Same with us. Shelling.”

I opened my gas mask and got out my treasure — my beloved cigarette. As I said, I had two: one for Papa, and the other I had decided to smoke later, near Lenin factory. But I couldn’t hold out, and I smoked it. She didn’t take her eyes off my cigarette, and when she saw that it was smoked more than halfway, she reached out for it. There were just two puffs left for her.

Then we got up and took the sled rope and dragged the coffin over whatever had caught it. She looked at me quietly and I at her. Then I started off again toward my father. First one lamppost, then the next. The meeting with the woman, smoking with her, made no impression on me at the time. I just thought, Now I can’t sit down again until the Lenin factory. Then I’ll sit and have just a bit of bread.

SLOWLY, unconsciously, I walked on and met many more coffins and corpses, wrapped in sheets or pique bedspreads, being carried on sleds. I saw many corpses lying in the snow with their feet in the path. Almost all the feet were bare; only those alive and walking the paths of a dead, freezing, unyielding city need overshoes.

At the Lenin factory, which used to be considered the beginning of the city, long ago when I was a child, because a horsecar ran to the factory and a streetcar ran from there back to town; at the Lenin factory, I sal down on the concrete bench in front of the dispatcher’s concrete office — built in the style of Le Corbusier, of course — and ate a little bit of bread, then continued along Shlusselburgsky Street. I did not look to the right, to Pavelsky Street, where four months ago, during the thunder of an air attack, my grandmother died solemnly and unhurriedly, blessing the four corners of the earth and praying that Moscow be saved. I did not look at the crossroads, where my father and I had stood under silvery, Biblical clouds and had hurriedly talked about my husband, Nikolai, of his work on Lermontov and Mayakovsky, of poetry, of the future. I had no feelings then, no human reactions.

I stopped only when I got to the Neva, to the crossover to my father’s factory. The first tender lilac shades of night were falling. A smoky rosylilac, the snow-covered Neva seemed an immense, terrible waste. From here was the longest stretch, although I could see the factory across the Neva and knew that just to the left of the main building was the old wooden dispensary.

In my gas mask there was still about 100 grams of bread, and I thought a mug of boiling water could be found at my father’s and we could divide the bread and eat it. As soon as I arrive, we’ll eat. This thought gave me strength, and I crossed the Neva.

Soon now, but oh, God, it’s far!

The narrow path across the Neva was hard and trampled down by unsteady footsteps. There were ribbed patches where someone had stumbled. The right bank was icy and unapproachable, and its top was lost in the rosy twilight. At the foot of the hill, women so muffled in shawls that they did not resemble human beings were getting water out of ice holes.

I’m not going to break down, I thought dully, feeling that my whole horrible trip had been in vain. But when I went up close to the rise, I suddenly saw steps, barely hacked out of the ice.

A woman oddly like the woman with the coffin, in the same sort of shawls and with the same brown-paper face, came up to me. She was carrying a pail filled with a couple of quarts of water, which kept slopping, in her right hand. “Are we going up, my friend?” she asked.

“We are.”

And on all fours, side by side, keeping close together, holding on to each other’s shoulders, we crept up, clutching the next step in the ice, hauling our feet up after us, step by step, slopping every three or four steps.

“The doctor chopped out these steps,” said the woman, catching her breath on our fourth stop. “God bless him — it’s easier — to get water.”

I didn’t even think that she might be talking about my father.

The second half of the climb, we took turns Carrying the pail until we got to the top and reached the factory gates. The factory yard, the wooden dispensary, the little garden with its carved rose trellis where Father had tended his roses for so many years— I recognized none of this, absolutely nothing, and I stood for a long time in front of the dispensary porch, wondering where I was. What was this strange little wooden hut, this half-torn-down trellis? I thought I’d never seen them before.

Looking around, I calmly noticed that even inanimate things a building, a trellis, a snow bank — can die. Everything was dead, or perhaps in the other world, because while everything was superficially the same, the soul was gone. In the silent, empty, hoary forest, even in the snowy wastes of the steppes, there is life and soul, but here there wasn’t. There was nothing whatsoever alive.

IN THE small vestibule of the dispensary, barely lit by the next room, on a wooden bench lay a woman. She was wearing a quilted jacket, was carefully muffled in a shawl, and lay on her side with her palms supporting her cheek in the way that those awaiting connections for distant places in railroad stations sleep. But she wasn’t sleeping. She was dead. I saw that the minute I walked in.

That’s probably a common sight around here,

I thought, going into the next room, and there, at a desk, behind a wooden railing with fat spokes, sat my father.

A low, thick candle lit his face from beneath. His face was so swollen that, even in the candlelight, you could see its greenish-blue hue. But the hair on his temples and at the back of his neck, the light-gray hair of a blond, was still stiff and curly, and his eyes seemed, in the flickering candlelight, especially large and blue.

I stood silently outside the wooden railing in front of my father. He lifted his swollen face, looked me up and down intently, and then courteously asked, “Whom do you want, citizeness?”

I heard myself, for some reason, answer woodenly, “I want to see Doctor Bergolts.”

“I am he. What’s the trouble”?

I looked at him and was silent. It wasn’t pity, nor fear, nor anything natural, but something that I can’t define even now which seized me, something dead and unfeeling. He repeated compassionately, “What’s the trouble?”

“Papa,” I managed to say. “It’s me — Lyalya!”

He was silent for what seemed a long time but probably was only several seconds. He then came from behind the railing, stood in front of me, and lowering his head, silently kissed my hand. He understood why I had come. He knew that Nikolai had been in the hospital. Then, raising his head with a jerk, sternly, as if dismissing something, he looked at me and said softly, “Come, little girl, we have some hot water. Maybe we’ll even put together something to eat!” And he added, laughing a little, “Perhaps some canned soup.”

He had loved Nikolai very much, but neither of us said anything about him or mentioned his death.

We went into the small, badly lighted dispensary kitchen. The candle that Papa had carried with him was extinguished. It was valuable state property, and Papa used it only to receive people.

Two women with robes on over their quilted jackets — one short and dark-eyed, the other very tall with features sharply outlined by emaciation — clasped their hands when they saw me. “Lyalechka!” the short, dark-eyed one fairly sang. “How you’ve grown!”

“That’s Matryosha,” Papa said. “Don’t you recognize her? Matryosha, the very best of nurses. And this is Alexandra Ivanovna. Don’t you remember her either?”

“Papa, you know, it is five years since I’ve been here.”

“I guess so,” he burst out, and then softly clapped his hands. “Well, now, my good women, where are our riches? Give my daughter and me some boiling water.”

Matryosha began to bang away at the little stove and to cook something in a frying pan. A repulsive smell filled the tiny kitchen. I guessed that it was some kind of artificial cooking fat. It smelled loathsome. I took off my scarf, coat, knitted hat, and the kerchief underneath. “It’s so hot in here, Papa.”

“Hot!” Matryosha caught that one. “We’re burning up the trellis for this heat. Never mind, you’ve got to keep warm, right?”


“Lyalechka!” she exclaimed. “Maybe you want to wash? Down to the waist, maybe? And your feet. I’ll get some water.”

But I remembered the icy, nearly perpendicular steps which I had just crawled up and quickly shook my head. “No, no, no, I’m not dirty. We look after ourselves on the radio committee. There are no lice in our rooms. We get our water from the basement, the former boiler room. It’s a weird alkaline water that spurts out of a broken pipe in the morning, but we have hot water too. No, we look after ourselves. We even make the women use just a little lipstick. And we look in the mirror so that we’ll have no dirt in our nostrils, eyes, or ears. You know, if a housewife doesn’t look in the mirror, that means the mirrors are covered, and that means there’s death in the house. So we make our women look in the mirror and take care of themselves.”

A painful garrulousness had come over me. I had been very quiet of late, and here in the warmth of the stove and of the people around me, I became intoxicated. I was suddenly drowsy, but at the same time I wanted to talk, talk about anything.

I got out the remainder of my cigarette ration. My father sighed with delight. “Oh, yes,” he said, reverently taking the cigarette with his large, intelligent surgeon’s hands. “You muzhiks certainly live well.”

The strange and smelly thing in the frying pan was put on the table. Accurately as druggists, we divided my slice of bread in four, poured out four mugs of boiling water, and very, very gently sat down at the little table which was so crowded that we bumped each other unintentionally, as on an overcrowded train. The lighted wick floating in fat which served as a lamp flickered and cast our freakish and frightful shadows from side to side of the little room and heightened the impression that we were traveling by train to some distant point. And that woman in the vestibule was just waiting. . . .

THAT evening, when I lay down to sleep in Papa’s dispensary, he sat next to me and rubbed my hands and forehead as he had done in my childhood when I had measles or grippe. And I somehow remembered Pavelsky Street. “Papa, how are things on Pavelsky Street? How is Aunt Varya? Avdotya?”

He was silent for a long time, watching the candle. “They starved to death. Aunt Varya on the way to the hospital. Avdotya while on watch at her factory. The house was shelled.”

“You mean no one lives there?”

“No, no one. There are just snow banks there now.”

He was silent, and so was I. And, distinctly and clearly, I suddenly heard how Avdotya used to sing, “My beloved native land.” Her voice was always thin and cracked when she sang this line, and her tears always prevented her from going on. Avdotya, dead, not singing her wonderful tearful song. And Aunt Varya died on the way to the hospital, along the very same way I had come that day. Everything was frozen silver with snow; our departed ones and the half-destroyed home were covered with snow. Snow was spreading all over Russia; snow, snow and sorrow, as mute and endless as mine. Slowly, slowly, pain — and life, although I didn’t know it then— enveloped my soul.

“Papa,” I said aloud. “I don’t think I’m still alive.”

“Nonsense,” he said angrily. “You’re alive. If you weren’t, you would not have come here.”

“No, you’re wrong. I don’t want to live. I just don’t care about living.”

“Foolish girl.” His answer was slow and tender. “I want to live very much. You know what? I’ve become a collector.”

“What do you collect?”

He began to laugh. “Anything silly. Perhaps it is a psychosis. I collect everything I can — post cards, buttons, rose seeds.”

“Buttons? What for?”

Sitting behind the candle in the shadows, he seemed timeless, a part of the future or the past,

I didn’t know which. Looking at me with his unbelievably blue eyes, he confessed: “You know, maybe it’s an ugly thing, especially here in Leningrad, but a great thirst for life has come over me. An unthinking thirst like first love. No, it’s not thirst exactly, but greed. Yes, that’s it, greed. There’s so much I want to preserve and save and hold in my arms. Everything on earth, buttons, post cards, rose seeds. I’d keep everything just to keep it from disappearing, down to the last button.”

He looked at me so trustingly, despite his knowledge of the foolishness, the monstrous insanity of our time, and then enthusiastically, conspiratorially went on: “You know, they have promised to send me some special rose seeds. They’re called ‘The Earth’s Glory.’ These are tremendous, slowgrowing roses, golden, with just a touch of orange on the edge. They grow in the south generally, and not everywhere, but I’m going to grow them here, next to the dispensary. It’s too bad that Matryosha had to burn the trellis this winter, but we’ll put a new one together. I’ll plant the roses in the spring, and by summer they’ll have blossomed. Will you come to see them? What do you think? Think they’ll be nice?”

“Nice,” I replied. To my amazement I felt something stir next to the pain that was in my heart.

Maybe because Matryosha washed my feet like a mother or older sister; or because Papa was now talking about roses called The Earth’s Glory and how I would come to see them (Do you mean that the streetcars will run again?) — maybe for these reasons and for many more unrealized ones, I felt suddenly a great peace. This feeling was somewhat akin to pride, but it wasn’t pride. I repeat, I understand only now that this was my return to life. My father is right, of course, I thought. I am alive, I can walk, I got to him. Damn it! Don’t listen to yourself. Do everything you can. Heavens! You have two things to be done, in the city and at the radio station, and they have to be done properly. Now I’ll sleep, but tomorrow, or at the latest the day after, I’ll go to the radio committee and get to work. It’s better to die on the job. But I won’t die. I’ll live in spite of everything that has happened to me and to “My beloved native land.” It is alive and will live. But now we’ll sleep. Both of us. We’re tired. It’s night, and we’ll sleep.

“Papa, I think I’ll sleep tonight,” I said. “Better put out the state’s candle.”

He put his great doctor’s hand on my face, and I kissed it as I used to in my childhood.

“Go to sleep,” he said. “That’s better. But this summer you’ll see in my garden Earth’s Glory roses.”

He got up, and before putting out the candle, he circled the yellow flame with his hands and showed how tremendous the roses would be and how they would blossom. “Look, like this — huge, golden,” he said, his hands fluttering. “They can grow to this height. All right?”

I looked at his hands: luminous, translucent, they somehow shed an almost blinding goldenred light:

the hands of a Russian doctor, a surgeon’s hands, which had saved thousands upon thousands of soldier and civilian lives, which had hacked steps out of the ice, and which were now actually like some huge unheard-of flower;

hands as wonderful as my grandmother’s, castiron, twisted, darkly veined, and calloused hands which had, during an air raid, blessed me and our whole country;

hands as powerful and gentle as Matryosha’s;

hands as large and intelligent and fearless as those of an old miner;

hands shedding light and power, knowing and transmitting the secret of the land to the future, working hands — the highest, original, eternal earth’s glory.

Yes, I’ll see Papa’s roses this summer, I thought simply, as simply as my father’s words had been spoken.

IT WAS with a feeling of peaceful certainty that I went back to town on the second morning by the same route I had taken two days earlier. I knew then that I would live. I had to live and work because people needed my work and I knew it. I felt neither pride nor happiness in this knowledge. I just went and acted. I was thinking over my forthcoming broadcasts and mumbling some lines of verse which suddenly came into my head which I would absolutely have to write down for Red Army Day — also radio committee business.

I knew what they would be about: about contemporary Leningrad, about myself as a Leningrader, about what was most important for us after eight months of war, about our feelings and struggles, about a hungry, bereft, dying people who loved life and would therefore win without fail.

Now, when I think over these three walks — first away from the Neva gates, then toward Neva, and finally my return to town — I think of a piece of Indian wisdom which I read in a statement made by Ivan Bunin after our victory.

Indian wisdom has it that a man must take two trips in his life: the departure and the return. On the departure, man and his single life are bounded by his individuality; he lives mainly for himself, by his self-interest, by a simple desire for acquisition, a desire to take — for himself, for his tribe, for his nation. On the return trip, the barriers between the individual and the social “I” are gone, the desire to take is lost, and in its place is the desire to give back what has been taken from nature, from mankind, from the earth. And so man’s life and knowledge are united in one life, a single “I,” and so begins the genuine spiritual existence.

I have put down this piece of wisdom only approximately, and it cannot be made to fit anyone’s life exactly. But it seems to me that that dizzying, frightening trip away from the Neva gates in October of 1941, regardless of all my feelings of solidarity with society, was still a part of my departure, but the trip from my father’s, when my greatest desire was to give back as much as possible of what was necessary for my countrymen, for their strength of action and work — this was probably the beginning of my return trip.

No, the desire to take, even from the past, hasn’t died within me, but the desire to give back is stronger. To give back not only what I took, but to give it back transformed by its progress through my soul, give it back in its essence.

Of this I spoke at the beginning, in telling about the day stars, and with this I will end. Reading this, some could say, “Now, really, you promised to show us day stars. Where are they?”

And I will answer, I opened my soul for you, like a covered well, with all its darkness and light. Look into it, and if you should see a bit of yourself, or a part of your journey, then you have seen day stars.

Translated by Gabriella Azrael.