Note: This was the Toastmasters competition speech I put together last year in the first blush of my deep dive into the Siege of Leningrad. I took on the persona of Olga Berggolts (or Bergholz), who would read poetry on the radio to the city during its most dark and desperate days. There is one direct quote of hers in the piece, but everything else was written by me.
This speech was a stretch out of my comfort zone, in that it was actually fully written out and more performed than presented. (It would have been fabulous for the Monodrama speech in the Interpretive Reading advanced manual). I would love to be able do more of this kind of historical interpretation.
I promised to post it after the competition was over, but never did. The timing is right now, since I am now five days out from hearing the symphony inspired by the siege (and a people besieged in more than one way) this coming Saturday.
My name is Olga Berggolts.
The stories of my life and of my city are entwined like lovers. My city, my beloved has been called by other names – St. Petersburg, Petrograd—but Leningrad is its true name. The city founded by Peter the Great, window on the West, a city of palaces and spires, the White Nights of midsummer and the dim frigid days of winter, a city whose heart and soul belongs to the arts and the pursuit of knowledge. I have kept faith with my city, even in the face of torture and interrogation, even in the face of imprisonment. So many others suffered in those dark days, but we did not know the true meaning of the word.
In September of 1941, a noose was placed around my city by the soldiers of Hitler, who decreed that it was to be blockaded and starved into submission before being obliterated from the face of the earth. The armies came so quickly there was no time to prepare. Imagine, if you will, enemy soldiers encircling this city of Toronto, as close as Yonge and Sheppard, cutting off all land approaches, leaving the only supply route over a frozen Lake Ontario. That was our world.
Our city officials and generals pointed fingers at each other, the secret police arrested and executed ‘suspicious’ persons, but the noose drew tighter. The shelling began, targeting our markets, our hospitals, our busy intersections, our storehouses, our beautiful buildings. By November, we were starving, subsisting on 200 grams of bread a day, bread made from flour that was full of sawdust. We began to die. Cats and dogs disappeared from our streets…and yet, we still attended the theatre, played music, visited our museums, continued our research, even built tanks to defend ourselves as our factories burned..
And I spoke my words on the radio. They had offered to evacuate me, as they had many famous artists, dancers, actors, and writers, but I would not leave my city. The radio was our heartbeat, even as the trams shut down, even as the lights dimmed and went out, even as the heat died and we huddled around stoves where we burnt the furniture as firewood. In the hours when the music and the voices were silent, a metronome clicked out a regular rhythm, as if to say “we still live.”
But there was only darkness, darkness, as we starved. We boiled books and made a jelly of the glue. We made soup of our meagre rations of bread. We ate the linseed oil meant for painting. There were fights over bread ration cards. Bodies found with limbs hacked off.
And we died by the hundreds of thousands, in our homes, in the streets, in the lines for bread, sometimes in the intermission a concert we had been playing in.
The temperature dropped to minus 30 in December, and we wore all the clothes we owned, during the day and at night. The bombs still fell. The fires burned, unchecked. In late January, there was no food at all, and my husband died, and I took his body to the cemetery, where he joined the thousands in the mass graves. The music died out. The theatres shut. Only my voice remained in those dark February nights.
Never before and never in the future will people listen to poetry as Leningrad did that winter, hungry, swollen, and barely living.
I will talk to you by the artillery fire, lit by the glow. What can the enemy do? Destroy, kill, that’s it…but I can love. It is not possible to count the treasures of my soul. I will love and I will live.
Kindness saved us, sustained our failing heart. Kindness not of our city officials, or those who claimed to protect us while they stole our food, but the kindness of our neighbours, our colleagues, even strangers, who would stop to help a dying man on the street or give their last scrap of bread to an orphaned child. We pulled together to pool the meagre things we had, and found our victory over inhumanity.
A million of us had died by spring, but the warming air revived our spirits as we worked to clean our beleaguered city. We still starved, and died. The bombs still fell. But the green shoots now appearing gave us hope.
And then the music returned, our soul reborn. Only 15 were left of our only remaining orchestra. More were found, among the army that defended us, and again, there were concerts. And then, a new symphony, by one of our own, named in our honour.
In August our own guns silenced those of the Germans long enough for the long eighty minutes required, and speakers throughout the city told our story—all our story, victory and tragedy and sorrow and defiance, so loud and powerful that some of the orchestra nearly collapsed, and the audience leapt to their feet, willing them to the finish. And then silence, and then thunder.
We had fought the battle to remain human beings, at great price. Our heart still beat. Our soul had been reborn. And we had won.