The cool September air was thick and acrid with smoke, but Valentina thought she detected the smell of something sweet, too, like chocolate burned in a pot by a careless cook.
What a strange smell, she thought as she built up the courage to approach her living room window and peek out onto the street below.
What could it be? The air raid sirens wailed their eerie warning relentlessly. Valentina’s stomach churned and she felt it would sink to her toes. She wished with her whole being that she could shut off the sirens and return to her former life. Just two months ago, she’d been enjoying a lazy summer at the dacha with her grandfather, swimming with friends at the lake and hunting for blackberries. She’d celebrated her 15th birthday in grand style with salads, meat, potatoes, and cakes. Her idyllic summer was interrupted cruelly when they’d been warned to return to the city. Invasion by the Germans was imminent, friends said, and the city would be safer than the surrounding villages.
Those blasted sirens had been going off since July when the Germans began their advance on Leningrad. The Soviet government had promised a quick victory, but the Germans had only closed the ring around the city further.
Just two days ago, they’d bombed a factory hospital and killed 50 men.
When will this nightmare end?
Valentina heard frantic voices and hurried footsteps in the archway leading to the courtyard. She could hardly make out the words, and curiosity overtook her. She threw on her coat and scarf, and raced down the two flights of stairs.
“It’s the Badayev warehouses,” cried one of the women in the courtyard. “They’ve bombed our biggest food warehouses. It’s all over — we’ll certainly starve now.”
“I’ve just heard they’ve taken Shlisselburg,” said another. “We are cut off entirely.”
The warehouses were just over a mile from Valentina’s building on Marata Street in the heart of the city. She felt paralyzed and could not put one foot in front of the other. Terror seized her imagination. But her mind told her she had to act. She could not stand there and do nothing.
“Grandfather works near the Badayev stores,” she said to no one in particular. They weren’t listening anyway, each one overcome with panic.
Valentina willed her feet to move in the direction of the warehouses. Rationing had been in place since mid-July, and food was a growing concern. The thought of all that food burning was inconceivable. If the Germans had really taken Shlisselburg, there’d be no new supplies from outside the city. The noose had tightened.
The stench from the fire was becoming unbearable. Valentina pulled her scarf over her mouth and breathed through it. The sirens bathed the overhead air in waves of terror. With each winding peal, she felt a pang of fear ricochet through her body.
“I should be used to them by now,” she berated herself as she made her way closer. Scanning the horizon, she became aware of several fires burning to the north and south.
How many bombs had they dropped on Leningrad? Valentina wondered.
As Valentina hurried south along Obvodni Canal and neared the warehouses, the heat from the fire became intense. The aroma of burning ham and sugar overwhelmed
her senses. People were everywhere, some running away as others rushed toward the inferno.
Not sure what she thought she would find, she glanced about frantically.
Could Grandfather be here in this chaos?
Valentina noticed some people stooped over, scooping something into bags. Then she felt a substance like white sand under her feet.
Fumbling in her coat pocket, she was relieved to find two rumpled cloth bags. All Leningraders carried an ample supply everywhere they went. One never knew what treasures one might come across, so as the pioneer slogan reminded them, Leningraders were always ready.
She quickly squatted down and began shoveling the coarse sugar into her bags. I wish I had more of them, she thought as she raced to rake in as much as possible with her fingers. She felt she’d discovered buried treasure, and worked so feverishly she barely noticed the heat.
After filling her bags, Valentina scooped more of the white gold into her pockets, and then formed a makeshift bag from her scarf. The air was so permeated with smoke, she felt she would suffocate, but the drive to collect something edible was stronger even than breath itself. When she had filled every crevice, she turned toward home.
Valentina’s eye caught a familiar figure making its way through the black smoke.
Could it be?
“Dedushka,” she called out. The figure turned, revealing the ashen face of her grandfather. He dropped the suitcase he was carrying and reached out his arms. She ran to embrace him.
“Dedushka, how grateful I am to see you,” Valentina cried. “I was so worried.” For that brief second, she felt safe.
“We must move quickly, Valichka,” he said, gently urging her with the familiar sobriquet. He released his grip on her and grabbed up the suitcase. Their breathing was becoming more labored in the oppressive air. He tied a handkerchief around her mouth, and they walked home in silence.
When they arrived at their flat, they carefully placed their treasure in the kitchen and collapsed together on the living room couch. Their faces were black with soot like firefighters after an intense battle.
“Dedushka, what’s in your suitcase?” Valentina asked softly after they had caught their breath. She’d been wondering since she saw him in the street and could stand the mystery no longer.
“Chocolate,” he whispered in a raspy voice. “A whole suitcase of chocolate.”
After a few moments of silence, Valentina began to chuckle. “Dedushka, can you imagine? Of all things, you got a whole case of chocolate? You know it’s my favorite, but it’s not the most nutritious.”
He was quiet for a moment and then he, too, began to laugh. “Your sugar is not much more useful than my chocolate, Valichka. We shall become sugar lumps together.” They laughed as one, a welcome reprieve from the weeks of tension. Then, exhausted, they drifted off to sleep right there on the couch. Valentina was too tired even to remove her coat.
Ne holod, ne golod — neither cold nor hunger — will overtake us,” Valentina wrote in her diary on January 1, 1942. It was a popular saying, and she thought if she committed it to writing in this new year then she might be more likely to believe it. The winter had been brutal, with temperatures plummeting to minus 35 degrees centigrade. Each day when Valentina went to fetch water from the canal, she saw people collapsed in the road, and no one had the strength to help them. Some died of exposure right there in the mounds of snow piled on the sidewalks.
What if that were Grandfather, or Mama, or Aunt Galya, she thought each time she witnessed these struggles. Would someone help them?
Valentina willed her frigid fingers to continue confiding in her diary. “I’m so cold my fingers can barely move across your pages. We have no electricity, no running water. Papa is gone to the Front, and Mama has taken to burning our chairs to keep us warm. But the hunger is much worse. I despise it. Thank God we just heard we’ll get 100 extra grams of bread a day.
“My four layers of blankets do little to take away the cold’s cruel sting. I don’t even take off my coat! I am chilled to the bone, and my legs throb with pain. I cannot go to school, and anyway, I think they’ve cancelled it temporarily. I told Grandfather today that I am afraid like never before.”
Valentina closed her diary and shut her eyes. The air was silent. Glorious silence.
What a blessing there are no air raids tonight.
“Valichka,” called her grandfather from the living room. “Come listen to the Leningrad Radio Orchestra on the radio. It’s the New Year, after all. Come celebrate with me.”
“My feet hurt so,” Valentina replied, attacking the blankets with great effort in order to rise from the bed. “It’s like moving a mountain to get these things off of me.”
Her grandfather appeared in the doorway. “Let me help you,” he said gently, moving slowly toward her bed to help pull them off. Everyone in Leningrad moved like molasses in those days. The severe rationing of November and December had taken its toll: 125 grams of bread for ordinary people, and 250 for workers. The doctors had told Anastasia Alexandrovna that her daughter’s pain was due to malnutrition, and there was nothing they could do until food supplies increased.
Valentina winced as she placed weight on her feet, scrunching up her face. Her grandfather watched her carefully. “I will carry you then,” he said.
“But you don’t have the strength … ,” Valentina protested. She looked him up and down, noticing how his clothes hung on him as though he were a child playing dress up in clothing several sizes too big. He seemed to have aged 10 years in just four months.
“It’s New Year’s Day, Valichka,” he reminded her, a gleam in his eye. “The Almighty will give me strength.” He lifted her from the bed and carried her to the living room couch, where just four months earlier they’d laughed about the chocolate. He took her hand and they sat side by side in candlelight, listening to the last performance of the Leningrad Radio Symphony. Too few of the musicians were left to carry on, and Valentina admired the strength they’d shown to continue playing for so long.
In the background, Valentina and her grandfather could hear the pleasant sounds of Valentina’s mother in the kitchen. Valentina closed her eyes and imagined that all this horror was a dream, and they were celebrating as they would on any other New Year’s Day.
Her mother prepared a modest dinner on rations that had been saved for this special occasion, and Aunt Galya set the table. She lit the kerosene lamp with the bit of oil they had left, and they stood facing the tiny icon that her grandfather pulled out from his secret desk drawer. He said a prayer for Valentina’s father at the Front, and then the four of them sat down together to the most fulfilling meal they’d had since summer: a meat patty, buckwheat cereal, 300 grams of bread, a cup of tea sweetened with Valentina’s sugar, and two squares of chocolate each instead of just one.
Mama, where is Grandfather?” Valentina cried out frantically. Her feet were so painful she could barely walk, but she paced from window to window in the living room, peering out onto the street. She felt waves of panic rising within her. There were no street lamps because there still was no electricity, and she squinted into the darkness in hopes of making out her dedushka’s thin frame moving slowly along the ice.
“He should not have been gone so long,” she said. “Mama, he shouldn’t be out by himself. People are mugged for less than 100 grams of bread. Blast this darkness. Blast this wretched war.” She sank onto the couch and began to sob.
Anastasia took her daughter in her arms. “My sweet one, do not fear. All will be well.” They huddled together on the couch and soon were joined by Aunt Galya, who stood watch over the courtyard to announce Grandfather’s return. As they sat in silence, the grandfather clock in the corner ticked heartlessly, reminding them of the passing time with no regard for their angst.
“Does the clock not realize that it, too, will soon be dust and ashes?” Valentina cried. “We’ll have to use it for firewood before long if this war keeps on.”
Galya drew a quick breath. “He’s here,” she said, and the three rushed to the door, Valentina forgetting for a moment her intense pain.
Anastasia threw open the door, and they watched Grandfather ascend the stairs haltingly. He was so thin, so frail.
“Where is your coat?” they cried as he came into view in the dark corridor. “You could have died.”
“Dedushka, do you not realize how cold it is?” Valentina scolded him. “What were you doing?” They gathered their arms around his shoulders and urged him into the relative warmth of the apartment.
“Quickly, seat him near the stove,” Galya instructed. “Put on some of the new firewood we got from the neighbors.”
Teeth chattering, Grandfather stretched out his gloved hand, clutching a small paper bag.
“Dedushka, what … ?” Valentina’s voice trailed off as she realized he meant it for her.
“It’s for your pain,” he stammered. “To take it away, Valichka.”
Valentina slumped into the chair next to him and placed a hand on his. “But, Dedushka, you can’t … ”
“Yes, I can, Valichka, and I did,” he said unflinchingly. The clarity in his voice shocked her. She had not heard such strength in his voice since before the siege.
Then, in his other hand, he produced another bag. “For all my girls.” He looked up at them with a spark in his eye. Valentina took it and they peered inside.
Vitamins. And powdered milk.
“You are a saint,” Valentina managed, her voice trembling. “Your beautiful, warm fur coat . . . ” Her words trailed off.
Galya and Anastasia collapsed into the chairs beside them. Each took one of his hands in theirs, rubbing them to warm him up. Valentina watched, unable to absorb the weight of his sacrifice.
My dear diary,” Valentina began on February 1st. “The trams have stopped dead in the streets, frozen in time and covered in snow drifts. How I wish they were the only ones who have died. There is no word from Papa, and while Mama hides her fear, I know she is fretting beyond comprehension. I am, too, but I take comfort in Grandfather’s company and his assurance that Papa will come home.
“Aunt Galya has had a mild case of scurvy, but Dedushka’s vitamins have kept it from becoming too serious. We’ve all lost so much weight we hardly recognize ourselves. I saw one of my classmates, Sasha, at the canal digging a hole in the ice for water. At first we didn’t recognize each other, but then I heard his familiar voice, though weaker than before. It’s becoming more difficult to carry the buckets home, and more dangerous to be out alone, so Dedushka comes with me every day.
“I have delirious dreams of the Badayev warehouses, chocolate and sugar flowing down the streets. I rebuke myself incessantly: Why didn’t I scoop up more sugar? Why didn’t I take more bags? We eat a square of chocolate each day, but our store is waning thin. We also take a little sugar, but it’s almost gone. I hear others talk of eating glue from beneath their wallpaper. Will it come to that for us?
“Today, I encountered a babushka selling ‘sugar dirt.’ She claimed it was dirt infused with sugar from the Badayev warehouses. I thank God I still have some pure sugar from that day. But why does He allow this noose to choke us so? My strength is failing me. This desperate hunger is the cruelest enemy of all!”
Valentina closed her diary and her eyes, listening to her surroundings. At least there were no air raids. She lost herself in the ticking of the metronome outside her window, transmitted over the loudspeakers installed throughout the city. The Leningrad radio station broadcast a variety of programs on them, including music, poetry, and children’s stories, but when those ran out, a metronome ticked in their place. Better than silence, it was meant to encourage Leningraders that life was continuing. Like the clock in her living room, Valentina envied its confident march forward in time, as though all would be well in its next moment.
“Be thankful you are still alive to hear it,” she said out loud to herself. “And that Mama, Aunt Galya, and Dedushka are, too.”
Just then, there was a knock at the door.
“Dedushka?” Valentina called out softly. She was afraid to answer the door, knowing that people had been robbed and even killed in the collective desperation for food.
Her grandfather emerged and looked through the peephole.
“Who is there?”
“I’ve come to serve evacuation papers,” said an energetic voice on the other side.
Grandfather opened the door slightly, the chain still latched. “Your name and identification?”
The man stated his name and presented his identification card, and Valentina’s grandfather confirmed that it was valid. He allowed the officer to step inside.
“Your papers, please,” said the officer, holding out a document. “For Valentina Ivanovna Bogdanova.” He looked closely at its details, and then at Valentina. “This must be for you? Show me your passport, please.”
Valentina looked at her grandfather for guidance. He motioned for her to comply and she went to her room to retrieve her passport. She showed it to the officer, and he opened it to her picture, glanced at her, then back at the passport. When he was satisfied, he placed the document inside the passport and handed it to her briskly.
“Shastlivovo puti,” he said, meaning, “Have a good trip,” but more literally, “Have a happy way.” It seemed to Valentina an out-of-place term of courtesy in such circumstances. She was unsure when she’d last heard it, and she certainly did not know what he meant.
Have a good trip where? When would she be going? With whom? She was filled with questions.
“Do svidaniya,” said the officer, and he disappeared into the darkness. After her grandfather latched the door, Valentina looked inquiringly at him.
“You don’t seem surprised, Dedushka,” she stated flatly. “Do you know something about this?”
“Come, sit with me for a bit, Valichka,” her grandfather said, wrapping his arm around her shoulder to guide her to the couch.
They sat, and Valentina stared at the document in her hands. Evacuation. Going away. Where? When? She wanted to cry. Why didn’t Dedushka, and Mama, and Aunt Galya have papers, too?
She began to feel abandoned, and she had not even gone anywhere yet.
He took the paper from her gently. “My dear Valichka, I see your physical suffering, and you are slowly starving,” he began. “This person I love so much is disappearing bit by bit. I am in agony watching the three of you suffer.” He swallowed, his voice faltering. “The ice road on Lake Ladoga has been successful in evacuating people from this stronghold of death, and soon it will melt. I have been working to get evacuation papers for us, but I learned yesterday that I was successful in getting them only for you.”
Valentina could not speak. Her throat was seized with such depth of emotion, she could hardly breathe.
Leave this place, leave my precious Dedushka, my Mama, and Aunt? For what? To die all alone? Her thoughts raced, and she stared at her grandfather in disbelief. Tears filled her eyes and streamed down her cheeks.
He took her chin in his hands. “Look at me, my sweet granddaughter,” he said, choking on his words. “You must get out. You must live. If we all stay here, we will die. If you get out, maybe you can help us from the outside.”
“But what about Mama? And Aunt Galya? Do they know about this?” Valentina stammered.
“They do,” he answered. “We are in agreement that we would rather see you live than for all of us to die here together. Please, do it for us.”
Valentina felt a stab of pain in her heart. She felt it would be ripped in two. She could not bear to leave them.
“I would give my very life to get you out of this city,” he said. “Now please, let us sacrifice the joy that you give us by being with us, to allow us to see you live. I have arranged for you to travel with our good friends, the Ivanovs, whom you know. They leave one week from today, and they have promised to take you with them on their journey to their relatives’ home in a village outside of the Germans’ reach. You can stay with them until the war is over, and we are reunited.” He kissed her forehead, and then held her as she sobbed in his arms.
The heavy, rusted key turned in the keyhole. It sounded just as she remembered, the mechanism making a clunking sound as the key turned the third time. Lingering for several minutes, she was afraid to walk through the door to see what she might find.
It was the spring of 1944. Valentina had returned alone to Leningrad on a train from the north, having said goodbye to the Ivanovs when they announced they would not be returning. It had been months since she had received word from her mother, and she was filled with anxiety at the thought of what had become of her family.
She turned the smooth gold watch that her Dedushka had given her in her hands, wondering if it was the last memory she would have of him. He’d given her permission to sell it if necessary, but she’d guarded it and was thankful she had found enough to eat without having to barter his favorite timepiece.
Valentina crossed herself and mustered the courage to step over the threshold. Looking into the hallway, she noticed the chairs were gone, and glancing into the living room, she learned her prediction about the clock had come true as well. Its regal face was all that was left, propped up on a corner table.
Dear God, did any of them survive?
She stepped into her grandfather’s room. Everything was neatly in place. His slippers occupied the corner, waiting for his return to warm his toes. She was relieved to see his fur hat on its hook.
At least he was able to keep it, she thought.
She knew he’d kept a diary somewhere, but did not know where he hid it.
Where was that secret drawer, the one where he kept his icon? Valentina wondered.
She opened the drawers one by one, hoping to discover the mystery he’d hidden so well. He had not wanted them to know where it was in case someone came for him in the night, accusing him of praying or reading spiritual books. He’d ensured that they could say truthfully that they did not know the whereabouts of any spiritual relics.
Valentina tapped on the sides of the desk and on the bottoms of the drawers, hoping to find a hollow space just big enough to harbor a diary, a Bible, or an icon.
Finally, she heard it. One of the drawers had a fake bottom, and she found the mechanism that turned its tiny trap door. She twisted it and out came a softbound book. She grasped the worn leather in her hands, and then drawing it to herself, kissed its cover.
It was her beloved Dedushka’s diary.
Valentina took a deep breath, placed it on his desk, and opened it to the first page.
She was terrified to look at its last.
As she read, Valentina felt that she was trespassing. After all, he rarely shared his entries with them, and she respected his privacy.
But she had to know what had happened to him.
She smiled as she noticed how much of his writing was filled with comments about her mother and aunt, and about her. He wrote of the mundane details of life, taking delight in her small triumphs at school, in gymnastics, and in art.
Another life, she mused about those events that seemed 100 years ago on some alien planet.
As she turned the pages, she was spellbound. Her heart raced as she took hold of the last page.
What would it say?
Gathering every ounce of courage, she closed her eyes and turned to it.
So many times I’ve sat here with my eyes closed, listening to Dedushka and Mama in this home. How I long to hear them now.
Valentina opened her eyes and willed herself to read the last entry.
“January 1, 1944.”
Her heart skipped. That was only four weeks before the end of the Blockade.
Could he still be alive? she wondered, filled with hope.
“Very cold, sunny day. Some sniper fire and fighting, but by evening there were sports competitions that lifted the citizens’ spirits. I traded my wedding ring for some firewood so Anastasia and Galya could celebrate the new year in warmth. It’s been so difficult for us to feel warm physically, but even more so emotionally without our beloved Valichka. I miss her desperately, and wish every moment that she were here with us.”
Valentina felt her heart would explode.
Just then, a key turned in the lock. She froze.
Please, God, she pleaded, let it be all three of them.
She listened for the footsteps. She knew well the sounds that each one made when they entered the flat.
“Mama,” Valentina said. “Is it really you?” She ran into the hall, and her stunned mother stood in wonder as she wrapped her arms around her. “Mama, oh my dear Mama.”
Anastasia saw the diary that Valentina gripped in her hands.
“Please, Mama, tell me he’s alive,” she begged.
Her mother hung her head. “I have such sad news,” she began.
Valentina’s thoughts froze, as though her mother was speaking to her through a tunnel.
No, it can’t be … he can’t be gone.
“Sweetheart, you know he gave his all for us,” she continued. “He had heard of a place off of Nevsky Prospect where he could get some meat for us. We asked him not to go. There had been some bombing and sniper fire. He thought it was clear, and he went.” She faltered. “He did not come home.”
Valentina’s emotions swirled as she tried to absorb this new reality.
Life without Dedushka. I cannot accept it.
Her mother took her by the arm, and they sat down on the couch together. Valentina opened the diary again. She had not finished reading it.
Her eyes fell on the last page.
“I would give my life for my girls, and it would be my honor. No greater love has a man than this, than he lay down his life … if I do not return one day, I hope they know how much pleasure it gave me to care for them in these dreadful, terrible times. One day, God will bring light and laughter to us again, and we will feast on sugar and chocolate together.”
About the Author
Brooke Ballenger began writing about Russia after living in St. Petersburg for 17 years, she says, as a sort of tribute to the hardships there and the people who have lived through it all. In fact, her winning story is based on the real-life experiences of the mother of a close friend. “Her courage during the Leningrad Blockade made a deep impression on me, and I spent a good deal of time at her kitchen table over the years I lived there,” Ballenger says.
While writing has come naturally since she won a contest as a student at St. Mary’s Episcopal School (“That was my first big publishing moment,” she says.), submitting her stories wasn’t necessarily a priority. But she called on her journalism training from the University of Missouri-Columbia and, realizing a deadline was what was missing, began entering contests, including the Memphis magazine fiction contest.
Ballenger is currently working on a collection of children’s stories, and teaches Russian at Central High School and Bellevue Middle School. She is a member of the American Council of Teachers of Russian.
Honorable mention awards went to “Effects of the Wind” by graphic designer and web developer Laryn Kragt Bakker; and Nathan Fan, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Wooddale Middle School, for “The Devil Makes Three.”
Thank you to our judges — Cary Holladay, Marilyn Sadler, John Bensko, and Alice Long — and, as always, to our sponsors, without whom this contest would not be possible: the Booksellers at Laurelwood and Burke’s Book Store.