Visiting researcher, Dr Yvonne Pörzgen, writes about uncovering stories of the Siege of Leningrad in IWM's collections.
Where do you go to research the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944)? As it turns out, IWM London and the University of Bristol are excellent places for such a project. The Goethe Institut’s programme “Scholars in Residence” brings young scholars from different countries in touch with each other to work on related projects. I was happy to support Alys Cundy in conducting her project on the representation of twentieth-century conflict in museums in Germany in 2013. In spring 2014, Alys introduced me to the scholars at the Research Department of IWM and at the History and Russian Departments at the University of Bristol who supported me with my research.
It was just the right time. On January 27 2014, St. Petersburg celebrated the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege that killed over a million inhabitants of the city. How do you commemorate such an event that changed the city forever and whose traces are still to be found all over Saint Petersburg?
The focus of my research was the current permanent exhibitions in St. Petersburg’s museums. As I have found out, they have not changed much since Soviet times. The IWM archives hold a 1982 guidebook to the city’s museums, The Museums of Leningrad: A Guide. The description of the exhibition in the entrance pavilions of the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, a vast complex dedicated to 500,000 citizens of Leningrad who died during the siege, hardly differs from the description on the Piskaryovskoye homepage today. The current presentation continues the Soviet narrative of the heroism of Leningrad’s citizens, of their unfailing belief in victory and their united effort to hold up against the enemy, the Nazi-German besiegers.
If you look at diaries that were written during the siege, but published either abroad or after the end of the Soviet Union, you get a different picture. Elena Skrjabina emigrated to the USA, where she published her siege diary in 1971, Siege and Survival: The Odyssey of a Leningrader. Her written entries show that in contrast to Soviet propaganda and the surviving myth of heroic defense, the attitude of the population was hardly unanimous. On June 23 1941, two days after the Nazi’s attack on the Soviet Union, Elena wrote about her former landlady: “She made no attempt to hide her hatred for the soviet government and saw in this war and the eventual victory of the Germans the only possible salvation. In many respects, I share her views; but that smile irritates me.”
Many of those citizens of Leningrad/St. Petersburg who lived through the siege wanted their memories of it to survive. In 1992, Valentina Gorohova-Danilova presented a typescript of her memoirs to IWM London, commenting in the dedication: “And now [...] my memoirs of the Leningrad Siege will reach London.” Documents like these unique memoirs make the IWM a deeply absorbing place to research the Siege of Leningrad.