A book using the diaries of ordinary Russians to tell the story of one of the most brutal chapters of World War II has been awarded this year’s Pushkin House Russian Book Prize.
The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad scooped the prestigious annual award for Alexis Peri, a historian at Boston University.
Now in its sixth year, the prize is for non-fiction titles encouraging public understanding and intelligent debate about the Russian-speaking world. The winner was chosen by jury led by former UK deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg, who has Russian ancestry.
“The spotlight that Alexis Peri casts on the way in which families, individual identity and time itself are warped by such extreme suffering is both unflinching and disturbing,” said Clegg. “The fact that these heartbreaking diaries were initially encouraged by the authorities, and then brushed under the carpet after the war because they didn’t conform to the “heroic” official rendition of the Leningrad siege, only makes them more poignant.”
Peri uncovered the diaries in archives in modern-day St Petersburg. They show that writing was a way of coping amid the starvation and violence of the Leningrad Siege when Nazi forces surrounded Leningrad for almost two and a half years. Over a million civilians are estimated to have perished.
“I wanted to understand how Leningraders made sense of the war, how people who were busy fighting to survive tried to put that struggle into words,” Peri told Pushkin House.
Keeping a diary was particularly encouraged by the Soviet authorities during the siege, according to Peri. “The Kirov district party committee came up with the idea two months into the blockade. They had no idea how the war was going to end or what the battle for Leningrad would entail. They debated whether it should be professional writers to tell that story. In the end, they decided ordinary people should do it. They would eventually ask for those diaries and use them as historical data.”
Judges also singled out Victoria Lomasko’s Other Russias, translated by Thomas Campbell, as the best translation. And they praised the book as “brave, original and irreverent” and “one of the most accessible books about life in modern Russia in years.”
The other books shortlisted for the award were: Armageddon and Paranoia: The Nuclear Confrontation by Rodric Braithwaite; Stalin’s Meteorologist: One Man’s Untold Story of Love, Life, and Death by Olivier Rolin; The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine and Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman.