- The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1995: Myth, Memories, and Monuments
Lisa A. Kirschenbaum has written a complex, insightful book. Focusing [End Page 1273] on the memory of the siege of Leningrad, her study traces how its survivors and the state that claimed the siege as evidence of its legitimacy remembered and recounted its horrors and pathos in published and unpublished materials, such as documents from local organizations, personal accounts of the siege, and letters to the editor. However, hers is not a story of suppressed personal memories set against overwhelming state propaganda and myth-making, but a sophisticated account of the interdependent relationship between personal memories, official myths, and the monuments they created.
In the early chapters, Kirschenbaum focuses on prewar and wartime narratives and commemorations that provided a framework for later commemorative efforts. Subsequent chapters discuss the immediate postwar effort to rebuild the city and dispose of the blockade's memory as well as the eventual return of the blockade to public consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s. The last two chapters investigate the shifting stories of the late- and post-Soviet era.
Kirschenbaum clearly indicates how official, state-approved myths, for all their faults, were shaped by personal memories, even if they were "co-opted, contained, and sanitized" for the state's purposes. Conversely, she convincingly delineates how Leningraders incorporated elements of the official myth into their own memories, as the state-sponsored myth assigned meaning to personal deprivation and loss. Of particular import is Kirschenbaum's investigation of memory, myth, and the urban space. Personal and mythical meanings drawing on older Petersburg traditions of apocalypse and spiritual purification coupled with Soviet readings of the city facilitated wartime meanings that resonated with Leningraders. And as the war-time myth was not simply a myth, what emerged was a myth-memory of great staying power that served different purposes over time and could take different meanings for Soviet identity: initially defending it, then reworking it, and, ultimately, as a reminder of expectations and aspirations unmet, renouncing it, even as its basic tenets remained stable.
The myths and memories created monuments, a term Kirschenbaum uses broadly to encompass various official and unofficial incarnations. What these monuments have in common, Kirschenbaum posits, is their fusion of the personal and the public. Individual monuments appropriated wartime media and language while official monuments included, especially through the involvement of blockade survivors, more personal elements. Consequently, official monuments gained in moral and emotional authenticity, thus serving both the state's myth and the survivors' memories.
Kirschenbaum has written an engaging book that successfully disentangles the myths, memories, and monuments of the siege and their locus in national, local, and personal narratives. Dealing with the creation of individual and communal memory in attempts to construct a usable narrative that deals with the trauma of war, Kirschenbaum's book is particularly valuable through its focus on an urban space where divisions between home and front and genders dissipated, adding to our understanding of these issues. And for anyone who has ever heard a "true" Leningrader talk about her city or has witnessed the city's eerie beauty, it does not surprise that the blockade's [End Page 1274] myths, memories, and monuments suggest above all that Leningraders saw themselves not as Soviet people but Petersburgers.