Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard
She died recently. The elderly woman Klara Petrovna Nikitina, who raised children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. And after her death the diary that she kept was found.
In this unique document she wrote down in small and neat handwriting, habitually economising even on paper, her memories from her military childhood in the besieged Leningrad.
When the war started, the third-grader Klara was 11-years-old. Her father was a military serviceman, he was in Mogilev together with his battalion. He was wounded during the Finnish campaign — the bullet entered two centimeters from his heart. Klara lived with her mother and 15-year-old sister Roza. During the war she had to bury both of them. But it will happen later…
Despite all burdens and deprivations that fell on little Klara, she kept her sense of humour and cheerfulness up to the end of her days in an already modern and peaceful St. Petersburg. Perhaps it is precisely they who helped Klara Nikitina to endure all the tests of the blockade, considers her granddaughter Lyubov Litvyakova:
An already elderly Klara Petrovna scrupulously described each of the military days she endured in an old-fashioned checkered notebook. Here are the lines:
“June 22nd, 1941. A sunny morning didn’t foretell anything bad. The mood was good. Ahead is the whole day without any precipitation (as the radio had broadcasted the day before). I took my needlework and the blue stool that my neighbour uncle Pasha made for me, and went to the yard. I sat near the window and started to embroider. Zorya leaned out of a window and started to shout to me, but since she lisped, I didn’t immediately understand what it was about. But then I twigged on that this is a war, that the Germans had attacked and were bombing Kiev …”
Hunger didn’t start immediately. At first the bombing of the city started. The quantity of food started to reduce. Then the Badayev warehouses started to blaze. Then food stopped to be given out, except bread. The horrible frosty winter of 1941-1942 came, which claimed thousands of the lives.
“People stood idle in store queues from 08:00 to 20:00 – 12 hours – in the hope of receiving at least something on ration cards. But there wasn’t any food, and in the evening people went home in the evening. But not everyone could come back home. Some corpses were left lying, because they were standing in the queue despite being dead, being squashed by the alive, and couldn’t fall — the shop was so densely crammed full with people who were waiting for food. The dead were dragged to the edge of the pavement and were left until the brigade on sledges came to take them away to the mass cemetery that was formed at the place of the former kitchen gardens on the right side of the Smolenka river on Dekabristov Island.”
On November 7th, as Klara remembered, they were congratulated over the radio by comrade Stalin. He promised that the enemy would be destroyed and victory will be our. Her father was at the front. Klara’s mother started to feel worse and worse. At last, before New Year the family was given a little bit of sugar and 1942 was met with the wheat porridge that Klara remembered for the rest of her life.
“Mother felt worse and worse. The food that we received at the end of December had been eaten, and there weren’t even crumbs in the house. Bread stopped to be given out, not to mention provisions. And it’s here that sequential mortality started. My neighbour Zhenya Turmanov called me to go to Smolenskoye cemetery. There were raspberry bushes there. We went there during a severe frost in order to snap off branches for the purpose of boiling them in water and drinking them as tea.
Zhenya was 14 years old. He was a tall boy and if for him the snow went above his knees, then for me it went up to my belt. I trudged behind him along his prints, since there was neither a trail nor a path. I fell down, he pulled me out from the snow. It was difficult for him because he was also exhausted by hunger. Frozen, covered in snow, we reached raspberries and snapped off branches. The way back home was difficult. I fell down endlessly, and he dragged me nearly on his back. When we came home my mouth couldn’t open due to the frost, my hands were stiff, my nose turned white because I froze it.
My mother rubbed me as she could. We put out a coffee pot and boiled water with old books. We put raspberry branches out, and tea was ready. My sister came from the shop. She stood there for 12 hours, without having even a crumb in her mouth, waiting for bread to be given out via ration cards, but it was in vain, there hadn’t been any bread for already two days. How tasty and fragrant this tea was. It was pink and it seemed very sweet to us. Then we chewed raspberry branches. They too seemed divine to us…”
“Soup” on the snow…
“Bread wasn’t given out also on the third day. But on the fourth day we received a threefold portion. Many ate it upon exiting the shop and, having come home, laid down and died from volvulus. The same could’ve happened to us, but we guessed to crumble it on a plate and to pour boiled water on it. We got ‘soup’. This is why such trouble didn’t happen to us…”
… We heard rumours that in the canteens soup is given out for cereal coupons. I took a small can and went there. There was a terrible crush. It wasn’t clear who was behind who. It wasn’t possible to pull out my hands because I was squeezed from all directions. There wasn’t any soup for many, including me. And the soup was water swirled with flour. Before me there was a woman who came out with a can and slipped. The can dropped out of her hands, and soup poured out onto the snow. The woman cried out with a wild voice, then fell down and started to gnaw the snow on which the can’s contents poured out.”
“In the morning at 06:00 I took bread coupons and went to a bakery to buy some bread. I had my mother’s and my own coupons for 375 grams of bread. My sister took her coupon for 125 grams of bread and went to the shop to keep an eye out (maybe provisions will be handed out). Mother told her to buy it and eat it in the shop, because there was a need to stand there for twelve hours.
I bought bread, and as soon as I left the bakery some guy pulled bread from me and ran away. I shouted more loudly than the woman who spilled soup. I shouted so much so that it was audible across all of Vasilyevsky Island. People gasped and sighed, but nobody could help me. The guy escaped and, probably, ate this bread on the way.
I ran home on the 17th line and shouted very loudly on Kamskaya Street and at the front door, and didn’t close my mouth. Having rushed into the apartment, I woke up all the neighbours with my shouting. Everyone jumped out in the corridor with a question:
‘Your coupons were stolen?
‘No, my bread.’
I and my mother were waiting for my sister. She came in the evening and pulled out from her pocket a portion of bread. Probably, someone told her in the shop that the bread had been taken from me. She didn’t eat it. She brought it home and we shared out this portion into three parts.”
“In September at our school a hospital had been formed. And we, the former pupils of school No. 11 of class 3A, agreed to be a patron of wounded soldiers. Before the war we watched the movie ‘Timur and His Squad‘, the Timurovtsy movement captivated us. Well, we thought that we also will be able to do the same thing. We agreed among ourselves and went to school. Nobody objected that we will come and help the wounded, but only in that chamber where we studied — it was our class, and Valentina Aleksandrovna Nasevich – an old but very much loved by us pre-war teacher. I, Lyuba Raskuratova, Lida Ivanova, Shura Fedorova, Nadya Artemyeva, Viktor Gorshkov, Alik Skaletsky, Slava Petrov.
We wrote letters at the request of the wounded, we read books to them, we read poems, we simply sat and talked to them. Many were dying. In the yard there was a shed where they were taken out. And when the shed was crammed full, they were taken away by cars to the mass cemetery and buried in common graves. Our group gradually thinned out. Vitya Gorshkov was the first to die. It was already very cold, and his mother couldn’t bury him as the earth was very firm. And his corpse was stood in a corner of a room. And he stood like this in the room until it became warmer outside. Those who were alive pass through the winter together with the dead.
Before the war Vitya and I shared the same desk. He was a good, cheerful, and mischievous boy. We often quarrelled with him. I expelled him from my school desk, he obediently took his briefcase and went to the desks at the back of the classroom. But when our teacher entered a class and saw that he wasn’t in his place, she ordered: ‘Gorshkov, go to your place’. He just as obediently did so, having taken his briefcase. And we sat like this at the same school desk for three years. And if war hadn’t come to us, we would have sat here up to tenth class perhaps.”
“Once again I went to take water. I took it from the hatch. The hatch was iced over all around. In order to get water there was a need to lay down on my stomach, and if the hand allows, then to get the water. I stretched and stretched, and started slipping headfirst. The woman standing behind saw that I was about to plunge, shouted and fell on me. She shouted: ‘Drop the teapot!’. The teapot was full of water, how could I drop it?! I didn’t have another one. ‘Help!’ — the woman shouted. I didn’t let go of the teapot. Someone laid down on their stomach, extended a hand, and pulled the teapot out from my frozen hands. Someone dragged me by my feet. They thus didn’t allow me to drown. I used this teapot for a long time. Then I tied it to a rope, and I didn’t have to lay down on my stomach anymore to get water.”
Neighbour uncle Pavel…
“Uncle Pavel with his wife lived in our apartment. He worked as a loader. They weren’t starving. Uncle Pavel stole flour, and his wife baked bread in an oven. They also had firewood. When she was baking bread, the smell stood all over the apartment, and we had convulsions that cramped the mouth. And once uncle Pavel’s wife, Nastya, gave me and my sister an order — knit a tablecloth. We were knitting this table cloth under an oil lamp, with frozen hands, day and night. And we tried to guess how much bread Nastya will give us for this work. And when this work was finished we got a 1.5m x 1.5m tablecloth, and we received 200 grams of bread. Nastya baked bread, and uncle Pavel sold it on the market, i.e., exchanged for gold. Employees of OBKhSS caught onto it, did a search, confiscated provisions, and jailed him. We didn’t see him anymore. And Nastya lived cautiously during all the war, but wasn’t in need of anything.”
“My sister often fainted, and my mother didn’t get up from the bed at all. Our legs swelled and our heart hurt. The doctors went all around the apartments that were as hungry and weak as we were. They prescribed belladonna to all, which helped nobody.
And so, in the night of January 30th to February 1st my mother asked my little sister to call grandmother, who lived in this same apartment. Grandmother came. My mother was in a very bad condition. She only managed to tell grandmother: ‘Mother, don’t leave the children behind’ and died.
Grandmother cried. My sister and I cried. Our mother is no more. We won’t see her big tender eyes anymore. She won’t stroke us with her caring hands anymore. And what will we tell our father when he returns? We stopped receiving letters from him. But we wrote and wrote to him.
… Our neighbour hammered together a coffin from plywood. Grandmother washed and brushed mother. And it was necessary to carry her for burial at the new mass cemetery behind Smolenka River. For digging a grave the grave-diggers requested 1,600 grams of bread, 10 packs of cigarettes, and 1000 rubles of money. Grandmother got into debt and paid.
The funeral was on February 2nd 1942. In the night of February 2nd my sister sent me to sleep at my grandmother’s place, and she stayed all night long near mother’s coffin. My mother was only 35-years-old. I cried all night long.”
“My grandmother and my aunt started to be our mentor, and then auntie became our guardian. We started to live without our mother. We need money to buy provisions, but we didn’t have any.
On February 10th my sister turned 16-years-old, and my neighbour Misha Turmanov promised to find her a job at the Kalinin plant where he worked. Some time afterwards my sister got a job, and I stayed at home as a housekeeper.
My sister worked at the plant for one month and then universal vaccinations against dysentery were done to everyone there. Many workers at the plant immediately fell ill, including my sister. Diarrhoea started. This was death for an exhausted body.
We called the doctor to come to our house. The doctor said that the body couldn’t cope with the inoculation. Perhaps this was an act of sabotage in order to kill many people who worked for the front the military factory.
Misha Turmanov fell ill after being vaccinated too. We thought that he died somewhere on the street, but it turned out that he had been taken to hospital straight from his workplace. He stayed there for a very long time and nevertheless remained alive. And after the war he worked at this plant for a long time, up to retirement age.”
Only after the war did Klara learn that her father had died at the frontline. During the Finnish war shrapnel from a shell entered near his heart, but during the Great Patriotic War shrapnel from a shell directly hit it.
Does this story have a happy end? It depends on what is meant by a “happy end”. Klara buried her mother. She buried her sister, who died from dysentery. But she herself survived. She was evacuated after the blockade was lifted. She returned to Leningrad. She married, having turned from Klara Shpakovskaya into Klara Nikitina. She had many awards from the state. She lived until 2019. She dreamed of publishing the notebook of her memoirs. But she wasn’t able to do it during her lifetime…
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