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Reclaiming the siege of Leningrad from the Russian state: Living Pictures reviewed

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

Living Pictures Polina Barskova, translated by Catherine Ciepiela

Pushkin Press, pp.198, 10.99

Take the Red Line north, heading out of St Petersburg, and you’ll eventually reach Courage Square on the city’s outskirts (if you pass Polytechnic you’ve gone too far). From there, it’s a brisk 20-minute walk along the birch-lined Avenue of the Unvanquished to Piskaryovskoye cemetery, home to some 186 mass graves and almost half a million civilians and soldiers who died during the 900-day siege of the ‘hero city’ during the second world war – or, as it’s known to Russians, the Great Patriotic War. Just behind the obligatory statue of Mother Russia watching over the sepulchral hush you’ll find, etched in granite, the words of the poet Olga Bergholz: ‘Know this, you who regard these stones: No one is forgotten and nothing is forgotten.’

The words can have an unnerving ring. Equal parts commemoration and threat, it’s obvious why the Soviet state adopted them as the official motto of blockade veneration, inscribing them in every last one of its dozens of monuments, museums and other memorial sites dotted about the city. This is memory on a totalitarian scale: eternal and absolute. But as Polina Barskova suggests in Living Pictures, a collection of writings on the life and afterlife of the blockade, the official line is at best a half-truth, at worst an outright lie.

In the opening piece, the author recalls visiting Piskaryovskoye cemetery herself, after which, having been struck by the vast emptiness of it all, she reflects: ‘Today the blockade seems to generate – instead of compassion, attention, pity and collective mourning – an absence of real, viable emotion.’ True enough: in Russia now, official memory tends not towards loss but ‘sacrifice’, not to pathos but to ‘glory’, not to tragedy but to ‘heroism’. The victory of euphemism is also one over genuine sentiment, one that Barskova’s writing overturns time and again.

Known principally in Russia as a poet, the American-based writer is also a leading scholar of the blockade, and her prose debut amalgamates these two occupations in a work of memoir, scholarly research, political dissent and creative imagination. Recalling the parlour game tableaux vivants, in which groups pose with props to bring historical paintings to life, Living Picturesaims at breathing life – and complexity – into the deathly monolith of Soviet memory. To do this, Barskova nimbly leads the reader through a gallery of spectres, offering up a series of fragmentary self-portraits intertwined with episodes drawn from the lives of those who experienced the siege, culminating in a poignant chamber drama about two lovers, the artist Moisei Vakser and the art historian Antonina Izergina, who during the siege are left to stage their own deaths in the Hermitage Museum, amid the bitter frost and empty frames of evacuated Rembrandts.

Like Joseph Brodsky before her, Barskova’s writing is a disorienting mirror-maze of autobiography and artistic, literary and historical allusion. But for all its similarly poetic touch, her prose has more vim and bite. Nor does it pander to western audiences: with cameos from the likes of Evgeny Shvarts, Vitali Bianki, Daniil Kharms and Mikhail and Yakov Druskin, the great and the good of Leningrad’s many artists, writers and musicians are on full show. Of course, for any reader not fully versed in the intellectual history of Leningrad and the blockade, the surfeit of allusions and obscure associations can at times be overwhelming, even maddening. But a discreet set of easily missed editorial notes added by the excellent translator Catherine Ciepiela accompanies the work and provides a trusty exhibition guide.

In perhaps one of the most telling moments of the book, Barskova observes that the blockade is at once ‘nowhere and everywhere’ in St Petersburg. Unlike Berlin, the city has ‘done everything to ward off, to cordon off, what happened here’, replacing it with a deeply impersonal, sanitised version of events. One of Barskova’s tasks is to wrest that official narrative from the state and to place it firmly back in the public arena. She achieves this aim well; but, as Eugene Ostashevsky notes in his thoughtful introduction, such ‘historical or artistic investigation of the blockade has again become oppositional and subversive’. Originally published just after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Living Pictures was awarded the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize a year later. Now that the country is further along its path to all-out militarism, the book is so subversive that it could disappear from the shelves.

Reading it today, one cannot help wondering how many recent horrors might have been spared if Russia had reckoned more openly with its past. Instead, after visitors have had enough of the patriotic guts and guile on display at Piskaryovskoye cemetery, they can return to normality. All they have to do is walk back along the Avenue of the Unvanquished to Courage Square, then take the metro south towards Veterans Avenue.

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