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Great European Lives: Olga Bergholz

Soviet poet Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz (1910 - 1975) in Leningrad, 1973. Photo: Leonid Lazarev/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY looks back at the life of Russian poet and journalist Olga Bergholz, a figure who faced tragedy and imprisonment but remained a voice of hope.

There’s an eternal flame at the gates of St Petersburg’s vast Piskaryovskoye memorial cemetery, where almost all the dead of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad are buried. Around 50,000 soldiers and 420,000 civilians lie beneath the ground there, victims of one of the most brutal passages of the Second World War that, according to a tablet by the entrance, claimed the lives of 641,803 people in less than three years through starvation alone.

At the heart of the cemetery is the vast statue of the Motherland, the maternal figure that represents Russia, close to which is inscribed a verse that ends, “We cannot list their noble names here, There are so many of them under the eternal protection of granite. But know this, those who regard these stones: No-one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten”.

The words were written by the poet Olga Bergholz, a woman who came almost to personify Leningrad during the siege thanks to her inspiring radio broadcasts from the heart of the besieged city bringing news, her poems and, most importantly of all, hope to people facing one of the most harrowing ordeals of modern times.

The Germans closed in on Leningrad in September 1941 determined not just to capture but destroy the city. Meeting resistance, they settled in for what should have been a relatively short siege, especially with the Russian winter imminent. Instead the city held out until January 1944 when German forces were usurped from the outskirts by the Red Army, lifting the blockade. The price had been heavy but the city had survived, thanks in no small part to the relentless optimism of Bergholz, the voice in the ether that brought succour, encouragement and the persistent urge to stay alive.

“It is now the fifth month that the enemy has been trying to kill our will to live, to break our spirit, to destroy our faith in victory,” she said in a typical broadcast on Leningrad Radio in February 1942. “But we believe… no, not believe, we know that victory will come. We will achieve it together and Leningrad will be warm and light and happy again.”

Her positivity was born out of an unshakable faith in communism and the nation it had built, faith that remained undimmed throughout the siege as it had through the turbulent 1930s as she saw friends, colleagues and even her own father falling victim to Stalin’s purges before being imprisoned herself at shattering personal cost.

For all her travails the siege would define her life, a time when, as she later expressed in verse, “people listened to poems as never before, with profound faith, in dark apartments like caves beside muted loudspeakers”.

Leningrad Radio became far more than a state mouthpiece during the blockade, not least because it was broadcasting the truth. Since they had arrived on the threshold of the city, the Germans had put out propaganda that it had fallen, that government buildings had been seized, that the people of Leningrad had surrendered. It was crucial for the truth to be heard.

Broadcasting at different times and on different frequencies, to counter German attempts to jam the signal, citizens across the city and beyond would scan the airwaves waiting to hear the familiar call: “This is Leningrad Radio, broadcasting to the country from the city of Lenin.” There would be news of the war, hints on survival and inspiring personal stories, from ordinary citizens to Dmitri Shostakovich, who kept Leningrad updated on the progress of his Seventh Symphony, named after the city and symbolising the preservation of dignity and humanity in hellish conditions (the symphony’s premiere would be broadcast live from the besieged city).

It was her broadcasts of news and poetry that stayed longest in memories of survivors, however. Her’s was the voice of the city, going through exactly the same hardships, experiencing exactly the same tragedies as the people listening. “While outside in the thick, icy darkness racking explosions roared, in the big long room members of the department staff lay sleeping on camp-beds, armchairs and sofas ranged along the walls, making the room rather like a railroad carriage,” wrote Bergholz later of one particular night in 1942. “Wearing their coats, felt boots and gloves they were sunk in heavy, oppressive slumber, moaning and muttering, either dried up or bloated from hunger. One of them, the journalist Pravdich, no longer moaned or muttered. It crossed my mind that he was probably dead. In the morning we discovered that he was.”

Food shortages were so severe that year Bergholz was forced to watch as her second husband Nikolay Molchanov starved to death and she became so malnourished herself her muscles began wasting away. Following the death of her husband, family and friends outside Leningrad insisted on evacuating her from the city via the perilous ‘Road of Life’ across the frozen Lake Ladoga but after barely a month recovering in Moscow Bergholz insisted on returning to her beloved besieged city.

On January 27, 1945, the first anniversary of liberation, Bergholz and her third husband Georgy Makogonenko, a literary editor and colleague at the radio station, broadcast 900 Days, a documentary in sound, a collage of snippets including bombing raids, warnings of impending artillery bombardments, excerpts from Shostakovich’s symphony, Bergholz’s verses and voices of the people. It was a remarkable piece of work, a fitting tribute to the city and an eloquent record of stubborn resistance against the odds.

Few people are steeped in a city like Olga Bergholz was in St Petersburg, becoming almost its living embodiment. She was born there to Fyodor Bergholz, a surgeon, and lived in the city for practically her entire life.

Six years old when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist regime, she was a true child of the revolution and grew to embrace its ideology with a passion. A precocious poet, her first published works were verses in praise of Lenin written when she was 14. When her father sent them to an official party publication they were widely disseminated by a regime seeking to assert itself over a population struggling to grasp communism in both its everyday application and ideology. Bergholz became a key voice of Soviet youth in the early years of the fledgling nation.

In 1925 she joined a youth literature organisation called The Shift where she met Boris Kornilov, marrying him at 18 when both were students at the State Institute of Art History. Their daughter Irina arrived soon afterwards. She spent her first year after graduation in Kazakhstan, learning her trade as a journalist on the newspaper Soviet Steppe. During her time in Central Asia she divorced Kornilov and married Molchanov, the couple returning to Leningrad where Bergholz was assigned to Electric Power, the in-house newspaper at the city’s largest electrical plant.

In 1932 she endured the first of the many tragedies that would blight her next decade when Maya, her daughter with Molchanov, died a month before her first birthday. Three years later six year-old Irina died as a result of a heart condition, leaving Bergholz a mother twice-bereaved while still only in her mid-20s. The trauma and grief was filtered through her poetry in collections such as The Out-of-the-Way Place (1932) and Night (1935). As she emerged from these tragedies Bergholz found herself caught up in Stalin’s purges, seeing friends and colleagues arrested and their names smeared in state-controlled media. When fellow poets Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoscheknko were denounced and the literary journals they ran banned Bergholz spoke out, writing of the secret police in 1937 that “the NKVD, which was originally the executive power of the government, has escaped government control and is acting alone against loyal citizens”.

For this she was expelled from the Communist Party and the Union of Soviet. The same year her father was exiled to Siberia and shortly afterwards her ex-husband Kornilov was executed. Towards the end of 1938 Bergholz was finally arrested and charged by the NKVD with counter-revolutionary activity and associating with enemies of the people. She was beaten so badly during her interrogation she lost the child she was carrying. She was released in 1939 with the ardency of her communism somehow undimmed. There was a greater good, she believed, writing in her diary that, “there is something wrong with the NKVD, not communism itself”. Within two years she found herself besieged in her native city.

She remained an important figure for the rest of her life, receiving the Order of Lenin in 1967. In 1970, the year of her 60th birthday, a distant planet discovered by Soviet astronomers was named 3093 Bergholz in her honour and in 1994, 50 years after the liberation of Leningrad, a crater on Venus was named after her. She’d found her calling when confined and trapped but her name would live on among the stars.

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