Interview with Alexis Peri, winner of the 2018 Pushkin House Book Prize for 'The War Within'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

How did you become interested in Russia?

I’ve always been interested in history and psychology and literature – those fundamental questions about understanding human behaviour. I took a lot of different history courses in college and university. What really drove me to be interested in Russia was the poetic way some of these questions were answered. I’ve always been impressed by the Russian tradition of valuing the word. I remember vividly taking Russian intellectual history, which gave me the chance to read the great novels and plays. I was just so intrigued by the intersection of the historical and the aesthetic in the Russian canon.

How did you choose the theme of your book?

I made many trips to St Petersburg as a student learning Russian. The history of the siege is very present in the landscape of the city – in monuments, on posted signs, and in markings on St Isaac’s Cathedral. It’s an obvious part of the city, and one that residents would openly discuss and proudly share. I was really drawn to the topic. What stuck out for me was how the mostly non-professional writers I studied in this book had incredibly sophisticated literary insight when under extreme psychological distress. The human condition is captured in these beautifully and heroically written texts.

How did you set about your research?

I wanted to understand how Leningraders made sense of the war, how people who were busy fighting to survive tried to put that struggle into words. I was very interested in seeing how they came to terms with their experiences in literature, artistic works, and print media from the time. Then I discovered an abundance of diaries held in public and private archives in the city. One of the district party committees began encouraging Leningraders to keep diaries as early as November 1941. There was a large corpus of texts as a result.

Why did so many people turn to writing?

Before World War II, Soviet people were encouraged to examine their lives in diaries as a way to improve and transform themselves into better citizens. In the case of the siege, there was another, very specific reason: the diaries would be the documentary basis for the official history of the siege. The Kirov district party committee came up with this idea two months into the blockade. They had no idea how the war was going to end or what the battle for Leningrad would entail, but they had this idea. They debated whether it should be professional writers to tell that story. In the end, they decided ordinary people should do it. They would eventually ask for those diaries and use them as historical data.

What motivated the individuals who kept diaries?

Individuals wrote for all different kinds of reasons. The party’s interest was just one of them.  Some did it entirely on their own as a way to cope with what was going on, to document it for their children who had evacuated from the city, or for posterity. The reasons changed over time. For instance, without mechanical timekeepers, train and factory whistles, etc., it was very hard to tell the time of day.  During those long, dark Petersburg winters, diary-writing helped them keep track of the passage of time.

Were they afraid of speaking frankly?

There were risks. There is always a risk when someone writes something personal that might be found out. But there was also a Soviet tradition of criticising the local leadership and oneself. I found criticisms of local leaders and policies around food distribution. But the diarists were not anti-Soviet. They were very proud of the Soviet Union and politically loyal. Still, they often made comments that later would fall foul of the party line because they did not know what the official narrative of the war would be, and it shifted over time.

What particularly struck you during your research?

I am interested in deep questions about the human condition and psychology, about the limits of the human body. I was astounded by how much suffering Leningraders heroically endured, and these journals provide insight into the life of the mind in captivity. Almost every diarist was surprised, sometimes horrified by their own ability to withstand unfathomable suffering. One who stands out is Berta Zlotnikova, a young teenager whose diary became a set of philosophical contemplations about the nature of freedom and love. It’s an incredible set of thoughts and insights considering the circumstances under which she was living. She wrote about the need to free oneself from within, mentally and intellectually. There is a conceptual sophistication, human creativity, and intellectual gravity there that is really remarkable.

What is your next project?

It also begins in World War II. It’s about friendship and pen friendships between American and Soviet women. It looks at their correspondence as part of the solidifying the military alliance, and extends till 1958. It explores the transformation of those relationships from the post-war resettlement through the Cold War.