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A Politeia in Besiegement: Lidiia Ginzburg on the Siege of Leningrad as a Political Paradigm

  • Irina Sandomirskaia


In her reading of Ginzburg's notes about the siege of Leningrad, Irina Sandomirskaia emphasizes Ginzburg's conceptualization of besiegement as the imprisonment of a polity inside a tautology. In the reality of the siege as depicted by Ginzburg, the extinction of life occurs in a self-devastating repetitiveness that dominates space, time, body, communication, action, thought, and ethics. Sandomirskaia interprets Ginzburg's conceptualization of besiegement from within in terms of Michel Foucault's biopower, when life is administered and selectively awarded as an entidement, depending on how the administration understands the usefulness of that life for the war economy. As a result, a dystrophic body politic develops, as the polis in besiegement is subject to devastation and implosion, reproducing the bodily processes of a patient dying from alimentary dystrophy. Ginzburg resolutely questions the biopolitical solution by presenting an alternative in the individual politics of “loopholes of lesser evil.“



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1. Within international scholarship, Lidiia Ginzburg originally appeared as an unorthodox Soviet literary scholar. See Pratt, Sarah, ed., “Lidiia Ginzburg's Contribution to Literary Criticism,Canadian-American Slavic Studies 19, no 2 (Summer 1985): 121-99. In the current revision of Soviet history, several other personae have been identified: as a testifying survivor of the siege of Leningrad ( Simmons, Cynthia and Perlina, Nina, eds., Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women's Diaries, Memoirs, and Documentary Prose [Pittsburgh, 2002]; Kirschenbaum, Lisa A., The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1995: Mytlis, Memories, and Monuments [Cambridge, Eng., 2006]) and of the Soviet intellectual experience in general ( Paperno, Irina, “Personal Accounts of the Soviet Experience,Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3, no. 4 (Fall 2002): 577–610 ; Zorin, Andrei, “Proza L. la. Ginzburg i gumanitarnaia mysl’ XX veka,Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, no. 76 [2005]: 45–68 ; Franziska Thun-Hohenstein, Gebrochene Linien: Autobiographisches Schreiben und Lagerzivilisation [Berlin, 2007], 41–86); as a producer of the experimental philosophical prose genre of promezhutochnaia literatura (interim literature, or literature of the inbetween: Emily Van Buskirk [Emili Van Baskirk], “'Nikto ne plachet nad tern, chto ego ne kasaetsia': Chetvertyi ‘Razgovor.o liubvi’ Lidii Ginzburg,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, no. 88 [2007]: 154–68; Emily Van Buskirk [Emili Van Baskirk], “'Samootstranenie’ kak eticheskii i esteticheskii printsip v proze L. la. Ginzburg,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, no. 81 [2006]: 261–81).

2. Ginzburg's theoretical construction of the siege can be compared to the memoirs of another female academic, also relevant for poststructuralism, the theoretician and historian of literature and culture Ol'ga Freidenberg. Just like Ginzburg, Freidenberg survived but lost her mother to starvation in the siege. Freidenberg's book of memoirs about the blockade supports Ginzburg's evidence though not her analysis. While Ginzburg attributes the evils of the siege to the rationalities and techniques (cf. the formalist priem) of its maintenance, administration, and agency (with an emphasis on structures and regularities), the Marrist Freidenberg depicts the blockade as the breakdown of modernity and the return of the primordial myth. A central allegory is found in her nightmarish description of the bathtub brimming with excrement from dysfunctional sewage pipes. Almost spilling over, the formless and ever increasing mass of excrement threatens to drown all life, as the formless and expanding evil of the Stalinist regime suffocates the remains of human decency and value amidst the horrors of war and famine. Freidenberg, Ol'ga, “Osada cheloveka,Minuvshee, no. 3 (1987): 7–44.

3. I am using Ginzburg's Zapiski blokadnogo cheloveka, “Vokrug ‘Zapisok blokadnogo cheloveka,'” and “Zapiski 1940-kh godov” as these appeared in Lidiia Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki. Vospominaniia. Esse (St. Petersburg, 2002).

4. For a biographical reading of Ginzburg's notebooks, with a special emphasis on her Jewish identity and her origins in the enlightened rationalism of her secularized fam ily, see Thun-Hohenstein, Gebrochene Linien, 45–58. Ginzburg is quite reticent about her Jewish origins. On Ginzburg's identity as a lesbian, another silenced autobiographical detail, see Van Buskirk, “'Nikto ne plachet,'” 159–60.

5. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, trans. Alan Myers (London, 1995), 76. On occasion, the English of these quotes has been modified slightly.

6. Ibid., 3.

7. Ibid., 88.

8. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 173.

9. Was writing notes really possible in the conditions of the siege? According to Van Buskirk, part of Ginzburg's notes do show signs of having been produced in the siege, while the greater part of the material results from later rewriting in recollection, ordering, and reflection. See Van Buskirk, “'Samootstranenie,'” 272. For the writer, the siege divides into two distinct periods. One involves acute and almost terminal suffering from starvation during the catastrophic autumn, winter, and spring of 1941–42; the other, that of relative survivability during the remaining time of the siege. Ginzburg systematically compares these two periods of absolute and nonabsolute besiegement as she repeatedly refers to the former as “then” and the latter as “now.” The “then” and “now” of everyday survival corresponds to the periodization of the siege in official medical statistics, which differentiated between periods of “acute and sub-acute dystrophy” (distrofiia is the Soviet medical term for starvation invented during the siege; it signifies nearly total starvation) from November 1941 to August 1942; “progredient dystrophy” (starvation relatively alleviated through an improvement in everyday conditions, a break in the totality of the siege, and a warmer winter, September 1942 to April 1943), and “recuperation” (a further improvement of living conditions accompanied by further traumatization in air raids up to the termination of the siege in June 1944); Chernorutskii, M. V., ed., Alivientamaia distrofiia v blokirovannom Leningrade (Leningrad 1947), 200–201. Both Ginzburg's “now-then” construction and the medical periodization of dystrophy reflect the policy of the Soviet center toward the city, from complete abandonment during the first stage to subsequent attempts to use the remaining internal resources of Leningrad for the purposes of war by transforming the city into a front line; this latter attempt resulted in the final evacuation of surviving dystrophic patients who were no longer useful and an improvement in the supplies of food for the remaining ones, those who could still be useful. The evacuation of the hopeless and the useless considerably improved medical statistics inside the city.

10. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 93.

11. Ibid., 15,12–13, 12.

12. Lomagin, N. A., V tiskakh goloda: Blokada Leningrada v dokumentakh germanskikh spetssluzhb i NKVD (St. Petersburg, 2001), 25–27 ; popular reactions to political terror, shortages, corruption, and antiworker policy were faithfully registered by the NKVD who laid special emphasis on control over public opinion (nastroeniia); for details and principles of organization of NKVD control and surveillance in prewar Leningrad, see Lomagin, Nikita, Leningrad v blokade (St. Petersburg, 2005), 85–154.

13. On the correlation between “entitlement to food” and mortality in Leningrad, see J. D. Barber, “Golod v mirovoi istorii i blokada Leningrada,” and N. Iu. Cherepenina, “Golod i smert'v blokirovannom gorode,” both in Barber, John and Dzeniskevich, Andrei, eds., Zhizn’ i smert’ v blokirovannom Leningrade: Istoriko-meditsinskii aspeht (St. Petersburg, 2001), 13–14, 35–80.

14. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 173.

15. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 24.

16. Ibid., 25.

17. For the practical organization of internal control and policing in the besieged city, I refer the reader to the detailed account in Lomagin, Leningrad v blockade, 223–439

18. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 16. On the informers, see Lomagin, V tiskakh goloda, 12–13: “Every month the NKVD recruited from several hundred up to a thousand and a half new agents and informers while losing between three hundred and a thousand.“

19. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 18.

20. “Strange” is a frequent word in Ginzburg. For profound analyses of Ginzburg's use of (self) estrangement as an analytical and psychobiographical method, see Van Buskirk, “'Samootstranenie,'” and Thun-Hohenstein, GebrocheneLinien.

21. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 109.

22. Ibid., 92–93, 106, 112.

23. On the power of erasure inherent in hunger, compare Ginzburg's construction of starvation as eradication of meaning with Viktor Shklovskii's account of mass famine in the previous siege of Petrograd in 1918. Shklovskii interprets starvation as a creative force, as apocalyptic purification in revolutionary fire. Viktor Shklovskii, Klwd konia: Sbornik statei (1923; reprint, Moscow, 1986), 18–35. Further in this article, I am reading Ginzburg's analysis of the crucial difference between Shklovskii's creative hunger and tautologically structured hunger in the siege of Leningrad.

24. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 26.

25. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 145.

26. In The Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors research the problem of justice. The parallel between a human individual and a city is proposed as a methodological tool. “First we'll investigate what justice is in cities. Then, we'll also go on to consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler” (369a). Further on, the method based on this likeness is explained in greater detail: “We thought that, if we should attempt to see justice first in some bigger thing that possessed it, we would more easily catch sight of what it's like in one man. And it was our opinion that this bigger thing is a city… . Let's apply what came to light there to a single man, and if the two are in agreement, everything is fine. But if something different should turn up in a single man, we'll go back again to the city and test it; perhaps, considering them side by side and rubbing them together like sticks, we would make justice burst into flames, and once it's come to light, confirm it for ourselves” (434e-435a). In search of the best regime of the city and the human being, Socrates tries different modes of this likeness, first exploring the analogy between the virtues of the city and those of the soul, “a perfectly good city” being “wise, courageous, moderate, and just” (427e); then the parallel between the body and the city, this latter represented as “a community of pleasure and pain” (426b-d). Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans., with notes and an interpretive essay, by Allan Bloom, 2d ed. (New York, 1991), 45, 113, 105, and 103–4.

Plato's “likeness” between the state and the human being is developed in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, but here the trope that Socrates uses as a technique of cognition becomes a constructive principle of the state, the “Body Politique.” As Hobbes’ famous maxim in the Introduction goes, “by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an Artificiall Man, though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended.“ Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. with an introduction by Macpherson, C. B. (Harmondsworth, 1968), 81–82 . Ginzburg mentions Leviathan in her notes and construes the “common cause” of Leningrad as a triumph of common good over the anomie of the siege with its war of everyone against everyone. One can assume that Hobbes, alongside Plato, could have been an inspiration. More notes on Leviathan still remain in Ginzburg's archive. See Emily Van Buskirk, e-mail communication, 19 July 2009. These will appear in Lidiia Ginzburg, Prokhodiashchie kharaktery (Zapiski blokadnogo cheloveka. Proza voennykh let), ed., commentary, and introduction by Andrei Zorin and Emily Van Buskirk (Moscow, forthcoming).

27. As noted above, dystrophy is the official term developed inside besieged Leningrad and adopted by Soviet medical nomenclature to describe the pathological effects of starvation. The term was also widely used to medicalize mass death from starvation, brutalities, and hard labor in the gulag.

28. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 20, 17, 10.

29. Chernorutskii, ed., Alimentarnaia distrqfiia, 366; S. V. Magaeva, “Fiziologicheskie i psikhosomaticheskie predposylki vyzhivaniia i vosstanovleniia,” in Barber and Dzeniskevich, eds., Zhizn’ ismert', 141–85.

30. Magaeva, “Fiziologicheskie i psikhosomaticheskie predposylki,” 156.

31. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 10. Physiologically, Leningrad's physicians compared vita minima to hibernation in animals. This is a misleading comparison. Hibernation is a mechanism of adaptation, while vita minima is slow death: there is no way the body can biologically adapt to starvation. Simonenko, V B. et al., Leningradskaia blokada: Meditsinskie problemy—retrospekliva i sovremennost’ (Moscow 2003), 46.

32. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 8, 9–10, 12, 84.

33. Ibid., 19, 57.

34. On death statistics during the siege, see Cherepenina, “Golod i smert’ v blokirovannom gorode,” 35–80. On the mystery of sudden death without lethal symptoms and its ratio to cases of slow death and those of quick death from dystrophy in men and women, see Chernorutskii, ed., Alimentarnaia distroftia, 195; see also the examples provided by Magaeva, “Fiziologicheskie i psikhosomaticheskie predposylki.“

35. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 95–96.

36. Ibid., 96.

37. Ibid., 97, 100–101,102.

38. Michel Foucault's concept of biopower “entails one or more discourses about the 'vital’ character of living human beings; an array of authorities considered competent to speak that truth; strategies for intervention upon collective existence in the name of life and health; and modes of subjectification, in which individuals work on themselves in the name of individual or collective life or health.” Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, “Biopower Today,” BioSocielies 1, no. 2 (June 2006): 195–217. Foucaiilt also emphasizes that in its “care for population,” biopower necessarily uses police methods, cf. the situation of the siege as described above and analyzed by Nikita Lomagin; see Foucault's original conceptualization in The Will to Knowledge, vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (1976; London, 1990), 133–60 and the most elaborate, even though short, discourse on biopower in “Society Must Be Defended“: Lectures at the College deFrance, 1975–76 (London, 2003), 239–64.

39. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 37, 56.

40. In the present-day debate on biopolitics, Foucault's formulation of biopower as a modern technology of power that aims to control an entire population according to the principle of “make live and let die” is opposed to Giorgio Agamben's version of sovereign power over bare life, or “thanatopolitics.” For Agamben, the modern power over life and death derives from ancient practices of sacrifice and analyzes the death camp— the ultimate locus of thanatopolitics—as a political paradigm of modernity. See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, 1998), 119–80. The target of thanatopolitics is represented in the figure of Homo sacer, a nonsubject omitted from the rule of law so that his murder would neither constitute a crime nor entail any legal responsibility (compare Ginzburg's analysis of the status and the body of the blokadnyi chelovek). The motive of cursed sacrifice in Ginzburg's interpretation of the first stage of the siege (the dystrophic subject's absolute abandonment to extermination) seems to support Agamben's construction of Homo sacer and of biopower as totalitarian thanatopolitics. In Ginzburg's conceptualization of besiegement as “pretty well organized hunger,” though, there is a stronger biopolitical motive that supports the Foucaldian version of biopower rather than the Agambenian one. Foucault emphasizes the state's control over the life of the population as a form of care through the application of power-knowledge, not as a distribution of death as in thanatopolitics. Foucault's biopolitics occur in administrative apparatuses, such as hospitals, mental asylums, factory floors, and educational establishments, not in death camps. Biopolitical care relies on statistical knowledge about the body of the population at hand, uses police technologies to implement policies, and is oriented toward supporting institutions rather than supporting life as such. This is care that turns life into a by-product of what happens within institutionalization. Another by-product of biopower is the subject of survival: Foucault's Homo economicus seeking his own agency surrounded by a labyrinth of bureaucratic rules and bans. Also, Foucault's thesis that the biopolitical “society must be defended” by its subjects finds its echo in Ginzburg's defense of the consensus (during the later stages of the siege and after its termination) between the dystrophic subject and the political regime in the regeneration of Leningrad's polity, which she sees as a necessary, even though ethically complex, “common cause” ﹛obshchee deb) of responsibility and memory.

41. To complement Lomagin's extensive analysis of the NKVD's activities, see an account of the work of law enforcement in B. P. Belozerov, “Protivopravnye deistviia i prestupnost’ v usloviiakh goloda,” Barber and Dzeniskevich, eds., Zhizn’ i smert', 245–64; see also Ganzenmiiller, Jorg, Das belagerte Leningrad: 1941—1944: Die Stadt in den Strategien von Angreifern und Verteidigern (Paderborn, 2007), 237-78. On the NKVD reports themselves, see Lomagin, V tiskakh goloda, 142–272.

42. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 82, 81.

43. Ibid., 57, 57–58.

44. Ibid., 69–70.

45. Foucault, Will to Knowledge, 138.

46. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 173.

47. Ibid., 177–79; Van Buskirk, “'Samootstranenie.'“

48. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 16. The Inferno's Ninth Circle is described in Dante, The Divine Comedy, Canto XXXII.

49. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 68.

50. Ibid., 7, 83.

51. Ibid., 7–8.

52. As already mentioned, Leningrad's gradual social and political recuperation starts after Stalingrad. Andrei Zhdanov's policy of transforming the city of death into a military city required a mass evacuation of dystrophic patients and “dependents” unfit for industrial work, first undertaken in the first half of 1942 and completed in summer 1943. Thus, Ginzburg's “unrequested human being,” strictly speaking, does not participate in the recovery of the city. Leningrad's industrial renaissance and Soviet rehabilitation was performed by those who had been found usable for the purposes of war, that is, “requested“ by its technologies. This is a significant political difference between Ginzburg's “now” of the time of recuperation and “then” of the winter of hunger. For statistics of continued and quite heavy loss of life among the “unrequested” evacuees, see M. I. Frolov, “Zabolevaemost’ i smertnost’ evakuiruemykh po puti ot Leningrada do Kostoromy,” in Barber and Dzeniskevich, eds., Zhizn’ i smert', 81–97.

53. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 184.

54. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 88.

55. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 171.

56. Ibid., 172,173.

57. I am summarizing Ginzburg's theory of the “recuperation” of community from a fragment, “Notes in the Days of the Siege,” included in the cycle, “Vokrug ‘Zapisok blokadnogo cheloveka,'” as well as two fragments not included in Zapiski blokadnogo cheloveka, “The Place in the Hierarchy” (1943) and “The Leningrad Situation.” Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 724–34, 173–78, and 184–86.

58. As Richard Bidlack has shown, the “flexible policies” of the city and industrial authorities and the readiness among the starved population to work hard for the sake of victory should be attributed not only to the success of patriotic propaganda or the spontaneous city patriotism but primarily to the necessities of hunger. Bidlack, Workers at War: Factory Workers and Labor Policy in the Siege of Leningrad (Pittsburgh, 1991), 35–37. No such “flexibility” was demonstrated by the secret police. For the political center, Leningrad's image of heroism and martyrdom, as well as the expectation among the Leningraders of political reforms, presented a strongly undesirable and destabilizing factor. Lomagin, Leningrad v blockade, 438–39. Leningrad was later “sterilized” (NKVD's term) for the attitudes and agencies of the “common cause.” On the Leningrad Affair in the context of the politics of memory, see Ganzenmuller, Das belagerte Leningrad, 320–35.

59. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 83.

60. Ibid., 184.

61. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 8.

62. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 184. Emphasis added. Ginzburg's representation of the subject of the siege as “egoistic” seems to contradict her own concept of “the Leningrad situation” as “a common cause.” Simmonds and Perlina in their work on the women writers of diaries and their memories in the siege point out the heroic, self-sacrificial character of their activities for the sake of “the common cause“: the triple feat of surviving, saving their families and the city, and remembering. Simmons and Perlina, eds., Wrilingthe Siege, xxxiv. Ginzburg's “common cause” is, instead, a temporary coincidence, in extreme conditions of survival, between the interests of the survivor, those of military defense, and those of the repressive regime: a temporary “rapprochement between private wills and the will of the state.” Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 285. This coincidence was partly facilitated by the media who redirected the propaganda effort toward the personal and the local instead of the official and the central (at least until after Stalingrad, when propaganda returned to the glorification of the central power). Partially identifying with the narratives produced by this “softened” propaganda, Leningrad develops a form of local patriotism that facilitates some understanding between the subject and the authorities, the memory of the survivor and the official narrative of the Great Patriotic War. Kirschenbaum, Legacy of the Siege, 42–56.

63. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki, 184.

64. Ibid., 184–85.

65. Ibid., 184.

66. Ibid., 184,185.

67. On the political, ideological, and discursive circumstances in the dramatic history of the historiography of the siege, see Nikolai Lomagin, “Diskussiia o stalinizme i nastroeniiakh naseleniia v period blokady Leningrada,” in Loskutova, M.V, ed., Pamiat' o blokade: Svidetel'stva ochevidtsev i isloricheskoe soznanie obshchestva. Materialy i issledovaniia (Moscow, 2006), 296–334 ; Dzeniskevich, A. R., Blohada i politika: Oborona Leningrada v politicheskoi kon'hmkture (St. Petersburg, 1998). On the Leningrad myth, die history, and the media of the Leningrad memory, see Kirschenbaum, Legacy of the Siege, and Loskutova, ed., Pamiat’ o blokade.

68. Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, 77

69. Ibid., 76–77.

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