Today’s guest blogger is Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, translator of Olga Berggolts’s memoir Daytime Stars.
Olga Berggolts was a prominent, often outspoken Soviet poet, who is hardly known in the English-speaking world. A citizen of passionate Soviet loyalty, she was arrested and tormented during the purges of the late 1930s. During the World War II siege of Leningrad, the former prisoner became the beloved voice of Radio Leningrad, an official figure whose moving poems, grounded in her own devastating losses, resonated with her fellow citizens and brought her literary fame. In the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, she was among the first writers to challenge the orthodoxies of Socialist Realism.
Berggolts began her memoir Daytime Stars immediately after the dictator’s death. In lyrical, often deeply personal prose, she expresses both idealistic enthusiasm for the Soviet project and doubt, even despair, about its outcomes. For Anglophone readers of Soviet literature, it is, I think a revelation, undermining our cold war inflected tendency to divide Soviet writers into official party hacks and heroic truth tellers persecuted by the regime.
Central to Berggolts’s Soviet identity was her self-conscious effort to speak not as an individual, but as representative of her generation — the generation born in the early 1900s that came of age along with the Revolution. The “daytime stars” of the title stand as a metaphor for her own efforts to speak her generation’s truth, to tell of its triumphs and its sorrows. She writes that as a child she learned about daytime stars. Outshined by the sun, they could be seen reflected in the still waters of deep wells. Try as she might, she never managed to see them. Still, she believed in them, and sought as a poet to make visible what was hidden: “I want my soul, my books, that is my soul open to all, to be such a well that reflects and holds within itself daytime stars — people’s souls, lives, and destinies.”
To tell the story of her generation, she returned just after Stalin’s death to Uglich, the Volga town where she lived in evacuation during the famine years of the civil war (1918-21) and which she associated with the purest idealism of the Revolution. Her return took her through the Moscow-Volga Canal. Opened in 1937 to much fanfare, the canal was a product of Stalinism’s commitment to modernization and a monument to its brutality. Berggolts could not acknowledge — perhaps did not know — that some twenty thousand of the convict laborers who dug the canal died during its construction. But she lamented the project’s devastation of the landscape: The rising waters of the reservoirs constructed along the canal and the Volga submerged the “fairy-tale beauty” of the region’s ancient Russian towns.
Traveling the canal and visiting Uglich today, the Stalinist past is almost invisible. The cathedral of the Epiphany Monastery, where Berggolts lived during the civil war, and which in 1953 she found in a state of disrepair, its blue domes turned black, its stars rusted, now gleams in its former glory. But the living past remains visible in Berggolts’s luminous memoir. Its story of the generation that grew up under Lenin and fought and suffered in World War II still resonates in contemporary Russia.
is a professor of history at West Chester University and the author of International Communism and the Spanish Civil War, Small Comrades, and The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1995.