Review published on February 6, 2017.
Whilst trying to break the almost obsessional hold that the German Eastern Front has over me (i.e. Stalingrad in particular), I tried transferring my interest elsewhere and I ended up with Leningrad. Leningrad, now St, Petersburg, is a Russian city that was held in a state of siege for 872 days from September 8th 1941 onward by the invading German forces. The German military regularly bombed the Leningraders from the air, and from the German encirclement they shelled the city repeatedly with large calibre artillery as the beleaguered population slowly starved and froze to death. Some people sadly approximate that well over a million people died there between 1941 and 1944, although official records are somewhat lacking.
This book, said to be a contemporary of Anne Frank’s Diary, is actually nothing like her book, other than the fact that it is a diary kept by a young female during World War II. This book is something very different.
Lena Mukhina was a sixteen-year-old girl, living with her mother and grandmother, attending school and leading a scholarly life, falling in love with a boy, conversing with her school friends, dreaming, in fact doing everything a sixteen-year-old girl should do. She begins a diary in which she speaks her innermost thoughts with extraordinary candour. Each day that passes, we read more into her secrets and desires, and her psychological profile becomes greatly enlarged. She shares a youthful naivety at the same time as showing wisdom way beyond her years. She is a caring person, although sometimes given to self-pity and a mildly greedy disposition. I read on and I found all these flaws in her character were ultimately fully justified.
The book itself is not for the faint-hearted; it has heartbreaking circumstances developing right through it. Her plight rapidly worsens as normal services often break down and, as weakness and illness take hold of people she knows and loves, she suffers both physically and mentally. Rationed food is barely enough until eventually a soup is made from carpenter’s glue slabs with a few seeds thrown in in order to supplement their meagre diet; it is all they have to eat very often. The stove has to be fed with wood that is in short supply, so the room they share becomes unbearably cold as winter takes a hold. They lay in bed for hours because it is warmer. Then, because of the incipient malnutrition, our three sufferers cannot stand easily or walk any appreciable distance.
Understandably, Lena Mukhina’s preoccupation with food takes over her thought processes: how to obtain it, the sheer paucity of any choice in the matter, the greed complex, and then the sad realisation that she has eaten the next day’s bread. It can be very difficult to read some parts, but it remains compulsive reading all the way through.
The diary was passed into the Soviet archive back in 1962 by an unknown person. It was then rediscovered and published in 2015, as translated by Amanda Love Darragh. The book has a brilliant foreword by three eminent Russian scholars, which superbly explains a lot of the mystery that surrounds this diary. It can be a mite complicated to understand family names and relationships due to a lack of Russian knowledge, but the foreword helped me a lot.
I am glad to have acquired this book. It is an almost live history lesson taken from a tragedy that happened over seventy-five years ago. I will never forget the story having read it, and I compared its content to today’s world, as all readers no doubt will.
Reg Seward 5/4
The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl’s Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina
Macmillan 9781447269878 hbk Feb 2015