Olga Berggolts

BerggoltsThere’s been too much politics on this blog lately. Every other blog has you covered on this front anyway. We’re not among the 100,000 best politics-related blogs on the internet. However, I’m pretty sure if we try, we can get to be one of the 100,000 best Olga Berggolts-related blogs on the internet. So let’s talk Olga Berggolts.

Who is Olga Berggolts? The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum’s face. She is a poetess, probably best known as the author of the line “никто не забыт, ничто не забыто” (“no one is forgotten, no thing is forgotten”) that is engraved on the monument to the dead of the Leningrad blockade, and as a personal witness of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Initially a fervent believer in the regime, it was through a Bolshevik poets group that Berggolts met her first husband, poet Boris Kornilov.  Kornilov was arrested in Stalin’s purges and executed. His most famous poem, set to a Shostakovich melody, greeted Soviet radio listeners every morning, without attribution, for long after its author had been killed. Not knowing Kornilov’s fate, Berggolts continued to write poetry addressed to him after his execution. Her first two children died very young, and during her third pregnancy, she was imprisoned as an “unreliable” by the NKVD, interrogated, kept in solitary, beaten, and in the end gave birth in prison to a stillborn child. Soon after her release came the Nazi invasion. She was in Leningrad for the whole 900 days of the blockade, doing daily radio broadcasts to keep up the spirits of the starving city. Evgeny Evtushenko (a man whose biographical sketches I like more than I do his poetry*) wrote an excellent biographical sketch of her here (in Russian).

When I made the 100 poems list, I soon realised there were a bunch of problems with it. One problem was the omission of any Berggolts poems. So here are some of my favourites.

Испытание, (you should probably not read #7, the one with her mother, unless you want to be crying uncontrollably)


On the other hand, my dad doesn’t much like Berggolts. My guess is that this is because her poetry is largely that of personal experience and strong emotion. It can seem exploitative. But I wouldn’t agree with such an assessment: after all, she is not faking it. I don’t think to live through her life and be silent about it in her poetry would have been particularly more laudable. Although the Zabolotsky poem he wrote as he was being sent to the camps (and another sad omission from my poems list) – Лесное Озеро – is indeed amazing, it is amazing for itself, not just for what it omits. And I even agree that it is probably a heroic personal victory to be far away at a tranquil lake as you are herded in a wagon being sent off to the gulag. But that’s a question about the person, not the poet, to me. Maybe being unable to abstract herself from the tragedies happening to her and around her made Berggolts’ life more difficult. Or maybe having the opportunity to release it into her poetry made it easier. I don’t know. What I do know is the beauty of the poems.

But no opinions are easier to argue against than imaginary ones, so let me stop potentially misrepresenting my dad. And anyway, if, like him, you don’t like Berggolts much, there’s always her first husband, Boris Kornilov. If I were to have a “revised” 100 poems, it would probably have this wonderfully brash poem, too:

Качка на Каспийском море

*Lest you think this is is meant as an insult, Evtushenko does do really great biographical sketches. The only reason I phrased it like that is that I wanted to be like the CFOX deejay who introduced Hoobastank with “…and now, here’s a band whose name I like saying way more than I like listening to their music”. Still my all-time favourite CFOX moment.

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