One winter day during the Siege of Leningrad — an 872-day World War II blockade that left more than a million civilians dead — a Russian nurse came across the body of a small boy. He sat at the curb, frozen solid, one hand in his mouth.
“I realized he died of hunger, trying to eat his fingers.”
Testimony like this — wrenching, frank, and often flat-toned — is part of “The Blokadnitsy Project,” an exhibit of work by fine arts photographer Jill Bough now on view at Harvard. (“Blokadnitsy” are women who survived the siege.)
The images on display are artistically complex: black-and-whites of 12 women who survived the siege, framed with collages of artifacts from their apartments, lace or big-flowered wallpaper. Beneath each photo is a handmade book: an album of old photos, of new photos by Bough, and of newspaper clippings. Personal testimony is rendered in Bough’s big, clear print.
“The art became more of an experimental art form,” said Bough. She wanted viewers to experience the lives of these women at a more intimate distance, one that was tactile, full, and personal; a portrait alone makes a viewer step back, she said.
The nurse is called “Nadezhda,” a nom de guerre of a sort — just as the other 11 names were invented for the exhibit, eight years in the making. Bough explained: The women, many in their 80s and 90s now, were not just shy talking to an American, but reluctant to talk to anyone who had not seen the war. (“We will never speak the same language,” said Tamara.) Blokadnitsy barely ever mentioned the war even to their families. They guarded their privacy as they once did their own lives — like Valentina, who at age 9 sat on the rooftop of her home watching for bombs and fire.
“We saw everything,” said Galya. Today, she meets once a week with fellow survivors in a choir to rehearse old war songs.
Alla remembers the cold of 1941-1942 in a few words. “That was the winter mother and I turned bald.”
Luda was part of a city crew that looked for bodies. Burials took place after winter, often in mass graves excavated with explosives. “We stacked dead bodies like firewood,” she said. Bough took a close-up in Luda’s neat apartment. “These are the hands,” said Luda, “that performed this nightmare.”
In one picture, Emma shows a small samovar that survived the siege with her, along with a single doll with a cracked face now patched with tape. “Like everyone else during the siege,” she added, “we burned our entire library to stay warm.”
Trauma and loss are reflected in the ways the women live today, 70 years later. “They are hoarders,” said Bough of her subjects, who are still wounded by the starvation they both felt and witnessed. (Ludmilla, nearly 90 and almost blind, is happiest in her kitchen.) In the apartments, there is a well-fed cat, sometimes more than one.
The apartments themselves are oblique reflections of trauma — deliberately cheerful, as a rule, with full food pantries, full shelves of books, and walls full of mementos. Nadya showed a picture of her father. He died — the family thinks — fighting Germans at the front. “My whole life,” she said, “I have been waiting for his knock on my door.” Nadya is 84.
There is another “constant theme” among the women, said Bough, who interviewed and photographed 22 subjects. The apartments are full of trinkets and maps and items related to travel — yet none of the women has ever ventured outside Russian borders. They all wanted to, but foreign travel was not easy in the Soviet era, for one. And they seem fearful outside the ken of their tiny dwellings.
Harvard is the first stop for “The Blokadnitsy Project,” sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Bough will take it to Bozeman, Mont., next, her hometown. But — still careful of her subjects’ privacy — she will not take it to St. Petersburg, the city that from 1924 to 1991 was called Leningrad. “They have no concept of how public things are these days,” said Bough. The women agreed on the idea of the show, and in the end wanted to tell their stories — but “I need to protect the women from their personal trauma,” she said.
Why just women survivors? “You associate the siege with women,” said Bough, who offered several reasons: They are more numerous, since men 55 and younger were at the front. Women survivors have banded in clubs. (Galena calls her friends from that era “my girls.”) And the photographer has a fascination with Russian women that goes beyond the project. The exhibit, on the concourse level of the CGIS South Building through Dec. 16, includes selections from other shows: “Russian Women I Admire” and “The Russian Heart: Scenes from a Village.”
The Siege of Leningrad blurred gender lines. Women built fortifications, worked in factories, kept fire watch, learned the ABCs of machine gunning, and — of course — dug graves. Then there was the blurring of how everyone looked. One chronicler of the siege, a teenage oboist with the Leningrad Symphony, recalls looking out at the audience, unable to tell the sex of the audience members. Luda, one of Bough’s subjects, described it this way: “People all looked the same: thin and bald.”
The survivors illustrate other, deeper costs. Ludmilla is one example. “I believe all people who survived the war are the same,” she told Bough, in perhaps the exhibit’s moment of hardest truth. “They have no sympathy for others.”