I have to say from the start that I have never before read a published diary. Never read a 16 year old girl's diary. And never read any book based in Leningrad. So I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. But this book is moving, shocking, chilling, frightening, yet full of truth, joy and insight.
Lena Mukhina was 16 years old in 1941, living and studying in Leningrad. She was writing a diary, recording her life at school, her friends, the boy she liked, the exams, her hopes for the future. She was a diligent student, working hard and living with family. But suddenly everything changed. Her world crashed around her as the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and lay siege to Leningrad.
In just a few short days, her plans were cancelled and her life changed completely. Air raids and rocket attacks became the norm, and residents of the city were rapidly called upon to help prepare their homes, businesses and communities for the siege that came. They dug trenches, cleared lofts of flammable material, and readied themselves.
Lena's diary details the shocking events of the coming months. In less than a year, we hear of thousands of residents dying, strict rations being imposed, and conscription to different duties. In a brutally open account of her life, Lena tells of her feelings and how they change on a daily basis. She ends up having to take each day at a time, with little support. Having read her diary, it is painful to imagine what life was like for her and so many others at that time. We read a detailed account of how little she had to eat, how few possessions she had, how starvation and suffering became so normal and accepted that residents no longer sheltered from rocket attacks.
What struck me about this book is how the residents of Leningrad were subject to such propaganda from the authorities, who presumably sought to calm the residents. Nonetheless, rumours spread through the communities breeding fear and anxiety. Despite having a good understanding of the world around her, Lena believes much of the information she is given, although the editors provide helpful footnotes to explain the truth as we now know it.
Most shocking, though, other than the extent of death and devastation, was how matter-of-factly Lena speaks of how her pets became food - a cat providing food for several days. And yet, despite everything she is going through, there are still moments of simple joy - meeting friends she has missed, receiving new rations, and ultimately seeing her hopes rekindled.
This is a vivid first-hand account of the terrifying and harsh life Lena was forced to live through the siege of Leningrad.
The Diary of Lena Mukhina, translated by Amanda Love Darragh, is published by Pan Macmillan and is available from their website.
Disclosure: Pan Macmillan sent me this book to keep for the purposes of review. All opinions are our own.