29 Декабрь 2014| Shelyakhovskaya (Gruzdeva) Maria Aleksandrovna

Correspondence of Spouses: “It’s difficult to write a good letter”

1941, 2 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma]

I’d like to give you an approximate picture of our front-line environment.

First of all you are astonished by the fact that when you ride 5-6 km from the front, you even cease to imagine that somewhere nearby terrible fights are taking place, people are perishing, valuables are being demolished.

On the contrary, when you approach the front, you, almost in the same unexpected way, get from the usual sound of artillery cannonade into the zone of artillery fire first, and then into the zone of mortar and machine-gun fire of the enemy.

We are fighting in the surrounding of forests for the time being, and when you are walking across a forest, and shells and mines are bursting not nearer than 100 – 150 m, you don’t pay attention to them. The same about submachine gunners: they—if there is a small group of them—are even less dangerous, as submachine fire is of low effectiveness in the forest. The other day the Germans, having come in at our rear, cut off all lines of retreat for us, except one path near a swamp. Along the side of this path, for the space of 2.5 km they placed submachine gunners, who continuously fired at us with their guns. We walked across the swamp at a distance about 150 m from the Germans, and over these 2.5 km we not only had no killed, but even no wounded. But it all occurs so only in the vicinity of the front line.

It’s a different thing when aviation, artillery, mortar, machine-gun and submachine-gun fire is concentrated on the infantry. But yet, the Germans sustain bigger losses from our fire than we do from theirs. Leningrad, as it is known to you from newspapers, is being bombed by the Germans. A thousand-kilogram bomb fell down on a building next to ours—the building where there are so many cultural valuables and where we so much loved to go. Probably, the window in our kitchen has been smashed.

The building where Dad and Mama so much loved to go was the Russian Museum When fatigue accumulated and was about to bring our parents to a family quarrel, they would go to the museum, and the desire to quarrel disappeared. The bomb fell on the Benois Wing[1].

1941, 6 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma]

I don’t know whether my letters are reaching you. Here the weather is staying beautiful, warm, serene, although it is October already. Even the weather is favorable to the Germans[2]. But soon they must experience all the “amenities” of a Leningrad autumn. It would be good to come over Leningrad before winter and fetch my valenki—otherwise it will be rather chilly soon.

I was going to write a good letter, but it’s difficult. There is pain in my heart, and my thoughts are centered on other things. We must overcome the Germans, but how to do it more quickly?

1941, 9 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma]

Are you managing to read? I cannot get books here. The only,—unfortunately, the only—source of elevated poetry which I am meeting with is in your letters.

1941, 12 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma]

Absolutely unexpectedly I’ve happened to get to Leningrad. I’ll be here 12, 13, 14 Oct 41. I’m unspeakably glad that I’ve seen Ivan Gasparovich, our friends, our acquaintances, our home town.

Leningrad has changed much, but the Leningraders hold fast heroically.

Ivan Gasparovich is alive and in good health, he’s shielded all the windows with boards, and all the glass in the frames is intact. He says he is terribly sick at heart because of loneliness, perplexed with the question: how will his boards and rags be left should something happen to him?

The touching humorous mention of “boards and rags” is connected with Granddad’s peasant thrift: he always tried to save things, even old ones. As it will become clear later, this economical thrift, to which he was faithful even in his besieged-city loneliness, will later help our parents in a Leningrad devastated by the siege: a time will come when the things saved by Granddad from moths will be cut out again and resewn many times.


The Winter Began in October

1941, 15 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma]

I’ve stayed at home for two nights. The impressions are most contradictory. Everything reminds me of our past life: your things, gotten with such difficulty, old dear photographs, Natasha’s toys—all this, so necessary in its time, now lies without being used, and every night might be obliterated. And you are scraping along without clothing, without things which are necessary in everyday life.

Ivan Gasparovich, seemingly cheerful and buoyant, is actually deeply shocked and sick at heart, being completely alone. I looked at the city, analyzed the situation, after re-joining my unit, and again—deep in thought. For our country, for our city, for our people I am ready to give my life, but it won’t change anything for the time being. On the contrary, now I am required to save what I am entrusted with, but I can save it if I am alive.

I am doing my best to execute the orders of my commanders better.

From your letter I got to know that you sent a parcel to me, in which you put mittens knitted from the wool taken by you from Leningrad.

I cannot forgive myself this oversight. Now I have 4 pairs of mittens, as I took from home the woolen ones, knitted by you last year, one pair (cotton knitted) I bought here, and, finally, the fourth pair, which I also took from home—cotton knitted, the gray ones.

While you and Natasha are there without any warm undergarments at all. How useful would the wool be to you and Natasha for socks and mittens, while I don’t now need them at all.

From home I took your cap, which so keenly reminds me of the days of your youth—and now, together with the warmth it brings, I feel a part of your warmth too. I put on myself the woolen blouse, the one without sleeves.

In a word, I am clothed warmly, and it comes in useful, as, after the warm serene and dry autumn we have had here, a real winter, with snow and cold, has set in since 14 Oct.

I took with me three little volumes of poetry and a German-Russian dictionary.

What can be bought where you are? In Leningrad without cards[3] nothing can be bought.

Ivan Gasparovich certainly won’t leave Leningrad.

I advised him to transfer some of your things to the Ponomarenkos [Author’s note: The family of Nina Ponomarenko, our Mama’s friend, lived in another house]. He hesitates. But it’s worth doing, because if one building will burn down, the other might remain.

1941, 18 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma]

Again and again I reread your letters. From some letters I can see that you behave like a brick, but on others traces of your tears can be seen. You shouldn’t grieve, my darling. Remember that millions of people are suffering now, and you and I are far from being the most unhappy. We have only one little daughter, and it is easier for you to bring her up than to raise more children. You can work both in the Wartime and, especially, in peacetime.

In the beginning of the next letter, addressed to Mama, there is a number after the date: № 3. The idea to number letters appeared when it became obvious that not all letters reached their destination, and those letters which did arrive often came not in that order in which they had been sent.

1941, 21 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma] […] № 3.

My beautiful, tender friend.

About myself, my darling, I’ll say: who and for what purpose needs life if we don’t overcome fascism? But we—although it will be a costly victory—will overcome it. Everything is in this now.

How are you and Natashenka? In my present life there are many moments when my mind is not busy with settling urgent questions, and then I constantly think about you, my darlings. How much love for you, how much high light-filled feeling crowds then in my bosom, how many tender words I wish to say to you, my treasure—but as soon as I start to write, the situation changes, and everything I write comes out colorless, inanimate, disjointed, the more especially as my letters are often written to you in snatches.

You, my darling, in your beautiful letters express your feelings marvelously. If I could preserve them, it would be a marvelous poem about high, heavenly love, but, unfortunately, the letters wear out, and sometimes I have to burn them. […] On some letters traces of your tears remain. Sonechka, tears are not needed in our time. If life is hard—then read. I gain strength in reading Pushkin, even Shcherbina[4]. Read and reread what is known to you. Behold and understand what others felt and are feeling, and it will be easier for you to endure the separation. Live by your reason and believe in life, learn to understand its deep meaning. Philosophers (primitive ones) teach that life is becoming more complicated and shorter. But I rather think: “The finer and deeper one feels, the richer one is”.

Our 6 years of being together I wouldn’t exchange for 60 years of colorless vegetable existence. Much between us has remained still unspoken, but our feelings (recall Udelnaya, Pargolovo, Mikhailov Garden[5] were high and pure, and from recounting them a psychological novel, bright, vivid and light-filled—about our bright perception of life—would come out.

Be happy, my dear, in separation from me, as well. Let my feeling of unspent love warm you—the feeling that in all its depth was, because of both my outward sternness and the pressure of work, so seldom expressed in words.

1941, 22 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma] № 4.

The content of this letter of mine will be “shallow philosophy on the depths”[6]. You have written more than once about your easy disposition and non-perfectionist attitude. All this is exactly as you write. But you should think seriously about it. A question arises: where is the limit of easy disposition and non-perfectionist attitude? Every person makes his history himself. From the sum of personal histories that are determined by the circumstances known to us, the history of a society is formed. Therefore think not only and not so much about self- restraint as about what is desired, and achieve what is desired in every possible way. This is the point. The other perception of life is kissel-like[7] and does not lead to anything.

1941, 23 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma] № 5.

In one of my previous letters I wanted to write about whether one should weep when being in separation. Reasoning theoretically—no, one shouldn’t. Practically, it is probably not always possible. We must not long for unlived life, should not grieve about it. You, darling, try to live inspired not only by future life, but by the present life as well. What would have happened if we had postponed our life for the future—even, for example, only till the end of our study? Likewise, now we are merry when we get in a warm zemlyanka[8], we are content when we’ve had enough hot tea, and we are happy when we’ve had a wash in a banya[9]. And you too, in the same way, keep trying to fill every day of your life with meaningful content, don’t postpone your life for the future.

And in a cold fine winter night, when only the occasional bark of dogs and the squeak of runners over snow are heard—to look at the starry sky—isn’t it a great pleasure? In my childhood I spent hours looking at the starry sky. If you have time and warm clothes, sledge together with Natasha. Remember: to grieve, to pine away, to grumble at the hardships of life is the lot of inactive people. Do you remember from Mayakovsky: “first, we should recast this life…”[10] Recasting life for the better should go on always, while there is life. And in life, however difficult it might be, we should see what is good, finding light-filled points in it. And they are there, we should see them; and if there are too few of them, they should be organized.

And here, too, this is what we have: artillery shoots without a stop, both ours and German. In our blindages the light goes out because of the shaking, but we at the same time are listening to a phonograph (our guys have their own), I am reading poetry and thinking about you, my darling. Surely, you’re not going to be thinking: “ah, I’m afraid I may be killed, ah, I’m afraid I may be gotten by a landmine”. If you thought this way, what kind of life it might be.

You are a most beautiful person, reasonable, sensitive, deeply loving. How much reason and feeling is contained in your letters!

Today I got 3 letters and a postcard written by you in August. As for Natasha, talk with her about me, but talk calmly, and then she will not weep. Read to Natasha about Mazai and the hares[11]. She probably remembers me reading these verses to her in Leningrad.

1941, 24 October. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma] № 6.

Today’s letter will be devoted to our army way of life.

Most of the population that surrounds me lives in blindages. I, because of my life of a wandering traveler, don’t have a permanent shelter. I eat and sleep when and where I fall. And since I am an active person by nature, my rather restless position is not a burden for me. What else, except sleep and food? My spiritual interests are in a closed circle: the situation at the front, your letters and my letters to you, verses by Pushkin, Shcherbina, Fofanov[12].

My enemy and friend is the autumn night darkness. The darkness is sometimes so thick that when you strike against someone you don’t see him.

I am clothed warmly, and, besides, the frosts here are over with. Again rain and mud and skidding trucks. The latter gives me a lot of trouble.

Tell Vasiliy Duryagin: words and fruitless fantasy are not needed. The hinterland and the front are one in our time. Without a strong well-organized home front, a successful war is impossible. Let him console himself, and if it’s necessary—he will be drafted.

1941, 27 October. [from S. I. Gruzdeva to A. I. Gruzdev at the front]

I’ve received 3 letters at once today—of 6, 7, 9 Oct. Very sad that you don’t receive my letters.

You are worried about our warm clothes. Natasha has everything: a winter coat, two woolen kerchiefs. As for mittens, I have sewn them for her. Vasya is trying to get valenki for us—for me and for Natasha.

In my room I hung up postcards on the walls—views of Leningrad. We lived in the most poetical place of the most poetical city, and, besides, all these places remind what is ours, what has been experienced together. Indeed, really, we have lived a life that was full of poetry and spiritual beauty. We only haven’t come out to science and research yet and known another of the highest enjoyments—the enjoyment of thought. I am thinking much these days, and, it seems, if I could, besides, read, I would grow up wonderfully fast,—but have no time to read. I manage to read in snatches, occasionally. On the table near my bed, in a simple frame, is your photograph. I know that externally you look different now—severe, grown much older, tired, but in it has wonderfully been reflected what is the best in you, what is fully known to me only—your gentleness and sensitivity.

Let your life be salvaged by my love.


[1] This wing of the Russian museum on Griboyedov Canal, very close to where the whole family lived before the War. This beautiful building, designed by the architect Benois in the neoclassical style in 1912-1916, is attached to the main building of the museum and is used for temporary art exhibitions. The main building, constructed in the beginning of the 19th century, was, fortunately, not damaged.

[2] This phrase refers to the rapid advance of German troops in June–October 1941.

[3] That is, food ration cards.

[4] N. F. Shcherbina (1821-1869)—Russian poet.

[5] Udelnaya, Pargolovo, Mikhailov (Mikhailovsky) Garden—beautiful green places in Leningrad and its suburbs.

[6] The title of a verse by the Russian poet V. Mayakovsky (1897–1930). The verse was written during his journey across the Atlantic on an ocean steamer in 1925; the main idea of the verse is the feeling, expressed with sad humor, of human life passing away like seagulls disappearing against the background of the ocean.

[7] kissel—a traditional unsweetened fruit soup of viscous consistency

[8] dugout hut

[9] washing house

[10] From V. Mayakovsky’s verse “To Sergey Yesenin” (1926) [S. A. Yesenin (1895–1925)—Russian poet]: “Meanness has thinned out little thus far. / A lot of work to do requires moving fast. / First, we should recast this life, / It may be sung of after it’s been recast.”

[11] Mazai and the hares—characters of Granddad Mazai and the Hares, a story in verse by N. Nekrasov. It is a story of how village hunter Mazai pitied and saved, with the help of his boat, a lot of miserable frightened hares during a spring overflow of a river.

[12] K. M. Fofanov (1862-1911)—Russian poet.

© Translation into English and endnotes by Christina Petrides (USA)
and Maria Shelyakhovskaya (Russia).

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