The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina and Amanda Love Darragh (translator)

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The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina and Amanda Love Darragh (translator)

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Buy The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina and Amanda Love Darragh (translator) at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Another very readable book that one would in any morality prefer never actually existed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: February 2015
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 9781447269878

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If life as a girl of school-leaving age is hard enough, think about it when you're stuck in a great city under a horrendous siege. Lena Mukhina's diary only covers half the 800-odd days the nightmare in Leningrad lasted, but so palpably singular were the circumstances that it feels like one is given the clearest insight into what it was like, courtesy of these pages. I've been there and never felt the ghost of the siege in the modern St Petersburg, anything like (for example) the ruination of Warsaw had lived on. But a dreadful time this was. At the peak times of Nazi oppression and aerial bombing, the city lost 2 or 3 residents' lives every minute of the day on average. The city was desperate for fuel, and food – and this is a place where it can – and does here – snow in June. Without giving too much of the diet away, it's notable that later on Lena dreams of having a menagerie of small animals to live with – but no dogs or cats.

The comparisons with another certain wartime diary are very easy to make, particularly with a sort of troubled resolution to the authors' character, and the typical hormonal outpourings. This book starts with the everyday matter of the equivalent of GCSE leaving exams to get through, and throughout Lena finds despondency at the lack of attention from the boy she adores – the lad that means she gawkily looks completely away from the camera in the school photos included here. But before long the story is something much different, with Lena peppering her reportage of the rationing and actions of the women she lives with and herself with news of the war. She starts fully embodied with the Soviet spirit, and gives all of page 62 here to lambasting the Nazis as cowards and ineffectual people ignorant of what and who they were up against. (Although in the middle of the book she is told her school grades don't marry with the Soviet ideal of hard work, and it closes with her having been warned about a fine for lack of cleanliness and housekeeping hygiene.)

It's a galling story, and even when the author forces quite large flaws on to the book you're with her, wishing her to get through things even when situations are at their worst. That empathy doesn't quite completely gel given one of the flaws, and this comes from not the modern creators of this book, but Lena herself. Due to the diary nature, subjects come and go in quite blunt fashion, and so do her moodswings. Her boy is shunned then back in the picture with no reporting of anything in between, and other people are introduced as great round-the-clock friends before disappearing, leaving us hanging. Lena herself appears here to have quite major mood swings – high as a kite one day, really down the next, moaning about 300g of bread as a daily ration when a month before in the real cold of winter she was on 125g. Finally, her idea to conclude the diary in a weird third person, writing almost from the point of view of the ruined city in an awkward mix of present and past tense, doesn't work.

There are also slight lapses from the modern producers of this book – at one point they clearly get their roubles and their kopeks mixed up in the cost of bread, and they never give us enough information as to in what form the diary exists, beyond mention of a maternally abandoned notebook that would never have been big enough for these contents. Still, their annotations as they exist are great, and the introduction – while giving some things away – does clearly show an academic willingness to round out the full story and present everything.

And when it boils down to it we're only grateful this book has survived to be presented, and in such a decent and handsome form. The fact that the hell on earth that Leningrad must have been – people on barely a thousand calories a day, with little in the way of fuel, being set upon to dump the city's covering of snow and ice into the main river before the melt-water could spread springtime diseases; the fact that some days had well over six hours of air raid warnings, and at times new salvoes arrived ten minutes after the all clear; the very fact that few people really had a way out beyond just falling asleep in the cold as a walking, malnourished skeleton – none of this should inspire us to expect of a sixteen year old a clear, no-holds-barred and eloquent insider view. But that's what we get. Yes, there are the usual teenage longueurs regarding failed romances and the need for something else, but when the Nazis were forcing that something else to be something like millet soup (or even the unnatural foods the residents were compelled to turn to), we're in a rarefied world. And this is probably one of the easiest to read, most accurate and emotionally swinging ways of telling this story, meaning that while nobody would really wish the circumstances of this book's creation on anyone, in a way we’re very grateful that it did come to exist.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean is a fictional take on the same events, whereas City of Fate by Nicola Pierce takes the teen-friendly Mukhina writing and finds fiction in the siege of a different Soviet city.

Buy The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina and Amanda Love Darragh (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina and Amanda Love Darragh (translator) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina and Amanda Love Darragh (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad by Lena Mukhina and Amanda Love Darragh (translator) at Amazon.com.

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