Kontynuacja odcinka 7


Grandma anticipated starvation; she had a box filled up with hulled grain. However, when she opened it in December, we found out that everything had been eaten up by mice.” Grandmother’s cat called Macek (which meant ‚cat’ in Polish) lived in the Korchni´s house. Unfortunately the cat could not be found since September. The animal was most likely stolen and eaten up by someone. Cat meat stood fairly high in the value ladder of blockade sources of food; people would compare it with rabbit. Therefore, grandmother´s hulled grain could not be protected against rodents.

In December 1941 Grandma fell ill. Cold and hunger, their combination was breaking her will to live. A small improvised stove could not heat up their empty room. Average outside temperatures would drop down to minus 40 degrees Celsius that winter, which was extremely low even for Leningrad. During coldest nights Viktor could see hoarfrost forming up on walls inside the flat. Upon grandma´s appeals Viktor was trying to swap her bread allocations for some firewood. He also searched for some additional food in the black market. He would regularly go for water with two buckets to the Neva that was almost a kilometer away from his home, to a place where people made a hole in ice. However, he was also hungry. The fifteen-year-old Jurij Rjabinkin, a boy who also participated in the chess tournament in gardens of the Pioneer Palace on the first war Sunday recorded in his diary: “it is such an itchy feeling down in the bottom of your stomach and your mouth is full of saliva all the time”.  In the following stage people got swollen and one could hardly think of anything else but food. “Every night when I sleep I can see bread, butter, pirozhki and potatoes. Before I fall asleep, my last thought which pops up in my head is the fact that after twelve hours the night will be over and I will be allowed to eat a tiny piece of bread…” At the brink of starvation ordinary human feelings, emotions and interest in anything except food faded away in people. They turned into predators driven by an only source of power – their instinct of self-preservation.

The people who did not want to lose the last remains of humanity and civilization, would usually seek salvation in their jobs and in two only islands of culture available in the town: literature and the radio. The Korchni´s did not have a radio receiver; after al,l when the war started, authorities confiscated most private radio receivers. However, as we already know, Lev Merkurjevich encouraged his son to read books from his early age. Many people in Leningrad searched for oblivion, distraction from the contemporary poverty and for mental support in belles lettres.  Jura Rjabinkin, who suffered from fixed images of ordinary food, picked Dumas and Jack London. American historian Anna Reid, an author of one of the most touching books about the siege, mentions a ten-year-old boy (without a name) who survived only thanks to an ‚escape’ reading list – Pushkin’s fairy-tales, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, Charles Darwin’s Voyage Round the World and Two Little Savages by Ernst Thompson-Seton. If we recall the number of books Viktor had managed to read before the war, he could easily be the ‚survivor’ mentioned in Reid’s book.

Maybe it was not just books that saved Viktor, but also the necessity to look after the grandma. The basic experience of siege survivors said that those who remained in bed lost the hope. Idleness combined with apathy prefigured the death. Grandma did not get out of bed from December 1941. Viktor had no other choice but to queue for food allocations and to go the market to buy something to eat all by himself. At the same time his malnourished body made his life difficult. A journey for water, which would be a nice ten-minute walk under normal conditions, was a fatiguing several-hour chore for the weak boy. Especially on the way back the buckets full of water seemed unbearably heavy to the guy. At the end of February 1942 Grandma got very sick. The doctor who Viktor called said that the Grandma suffered from the last stage of dystrophy.  This medical term was a euphemistic name for malnutrition which ended up in death of hunger.

Jelena Alexejevna could have only be saved by plentiful food rich in calories and vitamins, i.e. a miracle. The doctor recommended that they try milk. “I set off to Malcevska market to swap bread for milk”, narrated Viktor. He succeeded, however, he was, probably for the first time ever, deceived. The milk was bad. The boy only recognized that when he heated up the white liquid on their stove: “The milk started to splutter and changed into poorly digestible whey.  You can imagine how angry I was. It was on 1st March. And on 4th March at approximately midnight I saw a wisp that moved up towards the ceiling and to the entrance door. It swung, as if waving good-bye to me and disappeared. I realized that suddenly I was alone in the room…”

Viktor, being helped by his neighbor, wrapped his grandma’s corpse in a bedsheet and put it on a sledge. Leningrad citizens called it an Egyptian funeral. Sledges with corpses reminding of mummies or butterfly chrysalis became one of the most famous visual symbols of the siege. During the first months of 1942 you could see such scenes in city streets really frequently. Nobody wanted to waste wood, the most valuable fuel, for coffins. People could rent a used coffin (and return it after the funeral) at the most. However, Viktor did not have money to pay for the rent and a real funeral. Many Leningrad citizens suffered from a similar shortage of funeral requisites during that winter. When writer Vera Inberova watched people pulling sledges, baby carriages and various improvised carts, she noticed that “corpses were wrapped in fabrics, covers, table cloths and sometimes even curtains. I once noticed a small package wrapped in paper and tied with a string. It was very small – a little child’s corpse.” Another problem occurred with the deposition of corpses since there was simply too large a number of them since December 1941 till April 1942. The capacity of morgues was way too low. New cemeteries were established quickly and improvised mass graves were dug. Viktor´s grandmother was buried in one of such graves. The tomb was at least located in a dignified place – in Volkovsky cemetery, one of the oldest in Peter’s city. It was established in the mid-18th century and several significant representatives of Russian science and culture were buried there, for example physicist Mendeleev, writer Turgenev and also Lenin’s mother.

The death of whole families ranked among the most tragic consequences of famine. Usually only children survived because adults frequently sacrificed their food to them. The city administration appointed special teams that searched empty flats and rescued orphans from them. Orphaned children sometimes stayed in their flats with corpses of their relatives. Twelve year old Tanja Savicenkovova recorded the ‚disappearance’ of her own family which took place with a certain fatal unavoidability: “Zenja died on 28th December at 12:30 p.m. in 1941; grandma died on 25th January 1942 at 3 p.m.; Leka died on 17th March 1942 at 5 a.m.; uncle Vasja died on 13th April at 2 a.m. and uncle Lesja died on 10th May 1942 at 4 p.m.; Mom died on 13th May 1942 at 7:30 am. The Savicenkovovs died. All of them died. Only Tanja remained.” (Tanja died in consequence of malnutrition in 1944, after the siege ended).

Lonely Viktor had no chance to survive in the empty flat. Our story could have ended here and the world would have lost an interesting person and a dramatic sports career. Fortunately enough, the second wife of Viktor’s father intervened. “Several days later my step-mother came and took me to her place. My mother? Of course, she could have taken the abandoned child to her place, however, at that time she could hardly look after herself.” Zelda Gershevna was of that impractical type of people who so easily died of hunger during that winter. Roza Abramovna worked as a team leader in a sweets factory. Her fairly privileged position enabled her to provide food not only for herself but also for Viktor. In spite of that he ended up in hospital for dystrophic people in summer 1942. At that time the procurement got slightly better in the town. Evacuations continued from 1942, city administration, helped by NKVD, searched for food wherever they could, including forced confiscation in the country. However, the main reason for the improvement was the sad fact that during previous months many people had died… Conditions in hospitals remained difficult. There were not enough doctors. And since there was lack of disinfecting means, crowded hospitals were natural centers for the spread of contagious diseases, specifically typhoid fever and dysentery.

In spite of all the problems Viktor Korchnoi was treated by doctors and he eventually overcame the malnutrition. He survived! He owed his new chance to go on living primarily to his step-mother Róza Abramovna. And secondarily also to himself, his will and desire to survive, to his youth. And maybe also to his tough, beligerent character? Towards the end of his life Korchnoy reluctantly returned to this topic in an interview conducted by Mark Gluchovsky for the 64 magazine on the occasion of Korchnoi’s eightieth birthday. “It is a matter of course that the siege influenced me”, admitted Korchnoi, “but what sense does it make…Spassky also survived the siege and in addition to that he had to hammer and hammer his character so that he could survive matches with Petrosjan and Fischer.” In spite of that we cannot help thinking (as also Gluchovsky did) that the deep existential experience of the siege must have significantly influenced the soul of the ten-year-old boy. Was his experience of ‚I have survived the siege, I can manage anything!’ the source of his belief in himself and the strength of his personality?


Zdeněk Vybíral


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