'People are not born brave, strong and smart. These qualities must be acquired through perseverance and with determination, like the ability to read and write."
When Lena Mukhina wrote this stern reminder to herself, she was a Leningrad schoolgirl of 16 with two great worries - her end-of-year exams and her secret crush on a boy in her class. Her diary of the summer of 1941 is sprinkled with Soviet pieties, teenage problems and a blithe disregard for anything concerning politics.
All this changed on June 22, when the radio announced that the Germans had invaded. By mid-September, Leningrad was encircled, and its two-and- a-half million inhabitants were under bombardment. The blockade was to last an incredible 874 days, but that first winter was the most harrowing of all. Until late November, the city was completely cut off; then a single, fragile line of supply known as "the Road of Death" opened up over the ice of Lake Ladoga. People starved in their hundreds every day.
Throughout it all, Lena continued to keep her diary. She wrote of the terror of the air-raids, the lack of sleep, her exhausting labour building the city's defences and her observations on the transformed city - all interspersed with the anxieties and dreams of a young girl. No wonder that when her notebook was discovered recently in an archive in Moscow, she was hailed as "the Russian Anne Frank". Before discovering from relatives that Lena lived until 1991, the publisher had concluded from the diary's abrupt end that its author had died, one of around 800,000 siege victims.
Lena's family consists of the beloved aunt she calls Mama, and an elderly housekeeper, Aka. Mama works in the theatre and receives the higher "worker's" rations, while Lena and Aka are "dependants".
I broke off from my reading to weigh 125g of bread, Lena and Aka's daily portion by November 1941 - one thickish slice, which would have been heavily adulterated with wallpaper dust, wood cellulose and bran. And yet how philosophically Lena managed on this diet.
"I'm listening to piano music on the radio and nibbling tiny crumbs of bread, to prolong my pleasure." She sets down long, vivid daydreams of food and life after the war, when she and Mama will look back on these hardships as memories. "Everything we have to endure is temporary."
The Wehrmacht, meanwhile, has dug into its positions. Unknown to Leningraders, the order has gone out that "any requests for surrender arising as a result of this action will be categorically rejected". Why? Because they had "no interest in saving any part of the civilian population of the city". This whole section of northern Russia was to be emptied for future resettlement by Aryans. "The delirious fantasies of a madman," remarks Lena. "Yet because of this we are suffering…"
By December they are forced to kill and eat their "dear puss". "I never thought cat meat would be so tender and tasty," Lena writes, beyond all pretence at sentiment. She is still attending school, occasionally going to the theatre, and she enjoys the New Year party for the city's children arranged by the authorities - yet she is so weak, she observes, "it's making me unsteady on my feet".
Any food now seems tasty: the wallpaper-paste bread appears "golden and delicious, better than any before the war". "What joy, what joy!" she exclaims on December 25 - the bread ration is to be increased by 75g.
By the end of December Aka has taken to her bed. "It would be better if she died… she is just an extra mouth to feed," writes Lena in a rare lapse of humanity. "But if she dies I hope it happens after the 1st, so we can get her ration card..."
Aka does die and a month later, despite all Lena's attempts at cheerfulness, despite queuing and begging and making "meat jelly" out of carpenter's glue, Mama slips away, too. "My dear, sweet, beloved Mama…" Alone, Lena must now fend for herself. Her stern injunction to herself back in the pre-war summer has surely come good by now. Through perseverance and determination, she has become brave, strong and smart. As she comments, sadly: "Yes, fate has taught [me] a thing or two, though rather harshly."
Evacuated in 1942, Lena made her way to an aunt in Gorky and trained as a mosaic artist, but never married, despite her crushes and daydreams as a girl. Had not her health been permanently weakened by early malnutrition, she might have lived beyond the age of 66; she might even have lived long enough to see her teenage dream of becoming a published writer triumphantly fulfilled.
Diary: The Diary of Lena Mukhina, Lena Mukhina, Macmillan, hdbk, 391 pages, £16.99
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