- The Art of RevisionHow Vera Inber Scripted the Siege and Her Self during World War II
“Today marks the completion of the most important year of my life,” Vera Mikhailovna Inber wrote in her diary on 24 August 1942.1 For 12 months, the poet had endured severe hunger, cold, and bombardment in blockaded Leningrad, home to one of the longest and deadliest sieges in modern history. Between September 1941 and January 1944, German and Finnish troops encircled Leningrad, cut it off from supply lines, and attempted to bombard and starve its residents into surrender. As many as 700,000 civilians perished from the starvation and hypothermia they suffered during the 1941–42 winter, when most received little more than 125 grams of bread a day. Although rations and evacuations increased in the spring of 1942, malnutrition and enemy fire persisted, and the blockade took over a million lives before it was lifted in 1944.2 Inber was undernourished and exhausted, and her husband near death. Yet, as she went on to explain in that August entry, 1941–42 was also an important year because it catapulted her career as a writer. “My dreams have come true!” she exclaimed.3 However, when Inber prepared her [End Page 143] diary for publication in 1944, she reduced this jubilant entry to a one-line observation: “I have been here for a year.”4
Professionally at least, Inber was in the right place at the right time inside besieged Leningrad. For the first time in her career, the 51-year-old achieved tremendous acclaim from readers, colleagues, and party leaders. Although she questioned whether she and her husband could survive a second siege winter, Inber refused to evacuate. “How strange it sounds, but things are good for me in Leningrad,” she wrote in May 1942.5 She reaffirmed her decision not to leave that autumn: “for me, this would be complicated and even more simply—bad.”6 She also cut these statements from the published diary. For her to have admitted that “Leningrad is good for me” when millions were suffering would have been an act of sacrilege against the hallowed myth of the blockade, a narrative she helped create.7
Through her wartime compositions, Inber became a principal author of what the historian Lisa Kirschenbaum called the myth of the siege of Leningrad.8 This narrative frames the blockade primarily as an epic battle between the barbaric fascists and the steadfast defenders of Soviet civilization who withstood the enemy’s assault by virtue of their heroic sacrifices, inspirational leaders, and commitment to socialism. Kirschenbaum’s pioneering research identifies the major tropes and phases that came to define this myth or masterplot.9 Below, I offer a detailed examination of the personal, literary, and political forces driving Inber’s contribution to it. By comparing published and unpublished editions of her principal wartime works, the [End Page 144] poem Pulkovo Meridian (Pulkovskii meridian) and the diary Almost Three Years (Pochti tri goda), I trace how her articulation of the siege story evolved in response to shifting personal, political, and aesthetic circumstances.10 Inber was both a creator and a captive of the blockade myth. I argue that the critical framework for understanding the twists and turns of her wartime writings, of her literary career, and of the siege masterplot more generally is revision.
Inber’s writings on the siege were guided by both internal and external factors. First and foremost were her own creativity, ambition, and fear. However, cues from editors, readers, and policy makers as well as the evolving conditions of the blockade also shaped her writings. These elements are deeply interwoven on the pages of her diary and difficult to disentangle. Inber wrote and rewrote Pulkovo Meridian between October 1941 and November 1943, during which time the accepted themes of the blockade myth changed significantly. Drafts of Pulkovo Meridian, along with critiques and edits of it, are preserved in the notebooks of Inber’s unpublished diary.11 As she crafted the poem and tried to get it published, she uncovered tacit guidelines on how to present the siege and herself to readers. In 1944, she revised her diary...