By Igor Vishnevetsky
Dalkey Archive Press
Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
Igor Vishnevetsky's Leningrad combines poetry and prose, newspaper articles and personal journals, publicized tallies and top-secret communiques to paint a complete (and completely bleak) image of Leningrad Blockage-era Russia and the full scope of horrors that can rain down on a war-pummeled city while its residents try to hold their lives together throughout an increasingly turbulent period.
As history is reduced to numbers and outcomes and notable skirmishes with the ever-widening distance separating then from now, it's easy to forget that people did their best to live through times of far-reaching upheaval and misery that encroached most disastrously on their smaller worlds. Here, Vishnevetsky presents us with Gleb Alfani, a composer, and his lover, Vera, as the intimate connection between a ravaged city and its residents' desperate attempts to preserve the humanity that they need to survive in a brutal environment. Gleb distracts himself from both a hopeless world and the barrage of ammunition disfiguring his home by drowning out the cacophony of ceaseless fire with the opera he superstitiously believes will keep him and his beloved safe as long as he's composing it. Vera's safety becomes a paramount concern when she divulges her pregnancy, already a complication in turbulent times where death far outpaces births but an even more daunting hurdle since Vera's husband is both a naval officer in the war effort and very obviously not the child's father. She flees Leningrad in the hopes of finding refuge, instructing Gleb to follow her once he receives her next letter, but his emaciated body and weakened spirit soon fall victim to a flu that leaves him delirious and split from reality. Spring eventually returns to Leningrad and health finally returns to Gleb, but the world he is reborn to is nothing like the one he once knew.
Aside from their roles as the beating heart in the political history of war, Gleb and Vera, as well as their friends and family orbiting the periphery of the plot, are witnesses who provide their own personal narratives about struggling through another day, clinging to the things that gave their life meaning before, and how those things become frivolous necessities as the life rafts keeping their rapidly deflating morale afloat. The continuation and preservation of art is a recurring theme throughout this short book: A minor character retrieves rare books from bombed-out buildings; Vera's husband writes of how he feels that the time he once spent painting now seems "absolutely ludicrous in comparison with the immense, unifying cause propelling us all forward," though the painting to which he refers is the lone item in Vera's apartment that glimmers with hope when Gleb goes looking for her and finds only a long-empty residence; Gleb slips into poesy in some of his journal entries, finding dark beauty in a devastated world and imposing metered order on a time when chaos ruled, and later mourns the books he sacrificed to the fire that kept him warm throughout the unforgiving winter. The aesthetic value of artistic pursuits aside, holding tight to one's appreciation of art is how these characters preserved elements of pre-war life, fighting impending death and coping with persistent uncertainty by remembering the things that gave beauty to the world and brought them happiness.
The importance of bearing witness to the unenviable epoch in which they lived and to which they had front-row seats is among the primary functions Vishnevetsky's characters serve. One of Gleb's first journal entries talks of how a friend confessed that being confronted with death leaves him in a state of arousal; rather than being a deviant's admission, it highlights how the triumph of living when thousands die each month is an understandably muddled, confused thing. Some characters find themselves almost gloating to the corpses they've stepped over in the streets, so giddy they are with life--hard as it is--while others try not to take in too much (if any) of their squalid environment. But no judgement is imparted to make one reaction seem more honorable than the other: Vishnevetsky merely uses each character's response to meteoric body counts to color their personalities, demonstrating how the coping mechanisms of the living are as varied as their methods of survival. While some characters need to record the loss and desolation of the times, especially once discrepancies arise between what they've seen and what official documents claim, others merely want to survive, and looking too closely at the carnage surrounding them would only deliver the final blow of emotional defeat. Self-denial looks an awful lot like self-preservation in the right circumstances and, as accounts of cannibalism rise and Gleb's instructions to himself about what does and doesn't prove to be edible betray the desperate edges of madness, it is increasingly clear that each individual must decide for themselves what desperation looks like and how they must harness it to see another day.
Since the world has a cruel way of moving on despite the sufferings of its inhabitants, the first spring of the siege finally comes and is wholly incongruent with the winter that still clutches at the hearts of those who have lost and suffered through so much. But it is proof that all things will pass and that time always shuffles onward, and the most we can do is learn from the past and remember its harsh imperatives. While time does not heal all wounds, hindsight is a stern teacher that is keen to remind its students that life goes on for those who are strong enough to forge ahead with it. It is in this truth that the crux of Leningrad's lesson dwells, the affirmation of life's ability to take root in the most hard-scrabble, inconceivably hostile elements as long as there is something to live for.