Art and Life in Besieged Leningrad, the story of artist Elena Marttila

For this post we publish something a little bit different and welcome guest authors Olga Kucherenko and Ksenia Afonina as they tell the story of  94 year old artist Elena Marttila, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad.  There during the harsh and bitter conditions during the winter of 1941 she experienced hardship, severe cold and hunger whilst all around her people laid dying.    Her exhibition ‘Art and Endurance in the Siege of Leningrad’ is showing between 20 January and 19 March 2017 at the Old Library, Darwin College in Cambridge and this is her story.

If I have to die, I will do it as an artist – not in bed, but with a brush in my hand – Elena Marttila

As a powerful means of communication, inspiration and persuasion, art is often credited with shoring up morale in times of hardship. Such was the case during the most tragic moments of the Second World War in the Soviet Union. The work of artists creating motivational and reassuring pieces was valued by the Soviet authorities as highly as frontline service and labour feats in the rear. Arguably the most widespread form of artistic expression at the time was posters and wall art, especially in besieged Leningrad, whose tragic fate became the symbol of suffering and human endurance on the Eastern Front.

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Vosstaniya Street in Leningrad as seen in January 1942

When the Axis tied a noose around the city in September 1941, Leningraders found themselves almost completely cut off from the vital supplies and news from the mainland. Many had been evacuated or deported before and during the first months of the blockade, but millions remained behind, joined by refugees from the neighbouring regions, including many artists, whose task it was to encourage their starving fellow-sufferers and to protect their city’s historical heritage. As members of the Leningrad Union of Soviet Artists – the local arm of the All-Union Association of Visual Artists – they camouflaged historic buildings, created posters and organised exhibitions. Some of the most iconic images of the Great Patriotic War were created by Boevoi Karandash and TASS Windows. The posters were produced almost on a daily basis and displayed in public places around the city. Together with the radio they became the main source of information and means of communication in beleaguered Leningrad.

Elena Marttila… created a series of unique drawings, which tell a personal story of the siege

Yet, there were also young artists, who did not belong to any formal organisation or artistic group and who took it upon themselves to record their personal experiences of the siege. Their works rarely became part of official exhibitions, but they often helped them endure amidst unimaginable adversities. Elena Marttila was one of those artists. She stayed with her mother in Leningrad during the most difficult winter of 1941-42 and created a series of unique drawings, which tell a personal story of the siege and testify that art can also save lives.

The Leningrad Art School on Tavricheskaya Street was the only art college to remain open during the siege

Elena Oskarovna Marttila was born on 6 January 1923 in Petrograd in the family of Oskar Antonovich Marttila, a military cadet from the Finnish town of Kotka, and Evdokiya Vasilyevna, who worked at a local factory. Elena started painting from an early age when her father bought her the first set of paints. The girl was frequently seen drawing, sketching and making shapes and arrangements from any manageable substance she could find, including snow, sand and stones. At eleven she took part in the first All-Russian competition for young talents and was admitted to the Secondary Arts School of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in Leningrad. Disaster struck in 1937 when Oskar Antonovich was arrested, never to be seen again by his daughter. He was later acquitted posthumously.

On 20 June 1941, only two days before the German invasion, Elena successfully graduated from the Art School and was preparing to sit her entrance exams for the Academy, when the war disrupted her plans – instead she began attending Red Cross classes for nurses together with other girls from her school. She was determined to go to the front; however, due to her poor health she had to stay with her mother in the city.

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Elena graduated the day before the German invasion on 22nd June 1941.  This piece was dedicated to her classmates, most of whom did not survive the siege

During the siege, she worked as a medical orderly and a nurse at the children’s hospital; she helped evacuate children, and as long as her health permitted, continued to practice drawing at the Leningrad Arts School named after S.V. Serov. Located in the city centre on Tavricheskaya street, it was the only art college that remained open. Its headmaster, Yan Konstantinovich Shablovsky, welcomed young artists and students remaining in the city and turned the school into an oasis amidst suffering and death. When public transportation stopped functioning, students walked miles across the city to attend their art lessons and collect bread coupons.

Food rationing had been part of Soviet reality even before the war, but extreme disruption of supply and production in the wake of the invasion brought many localities throughout the country to the brink of starvation. Ration allowances depended on local food availability, and since Leningrad had almost none, city residents were hit the hardest. The meagre supplies that did get through the blockade ring could not sustain the biological needs of the overworked and overstrained population. In the majority of cases, food allowances offered less than a third of the required calories and protein, but even this minimum was rarely available. Bread was the only guaranteed product. To sustain the workforce, it was decided to wean the least productive members of society (except young children) off state-supplied provisions.

Darya Vasilyevna Bogatyreya, the aunt of Elena Marttila.  In the winter of 1941 she was found dead in her room, killed by neighbours who had stolen her bread rations

As winter approached, the dependants’ bread rations were progressively reduced to a mere 125 grams a day. The students and staff of Elena’s art school, however, received increased bread rations on a par with workers, which helped save young artists from starving to death and bolster their spirits. Elena recalls that ‘when we would finally reach the building of the art school on foot, saw the place undamaged and met Yan Konstantinovich, we felt wanted and looked after. We were together and started to believe that our sufferings were temporary, that there was a future. Beautiful halls, marble stairs, mirrors and statues welcomed us…’ While their physical state permitted, students took drawing classes and studied art history. Tutors inspired and emboldened them to record their impressions on paper in order ‘to tell them to the rest of the world later’, thereby encouraging thoughts about the future and distracting from immediate pains.

To sustain the workforce, it was decided to wean the least productive members of society off state-supplied provisions

Elena lived with her mother and two other families in a kitchen, because it was the warmest and safest room in the flat as it had no windows. After a bomb destroyed their dwelling, the group of eight relocated to another building and they continued living and moving together, sharing ‘common sorrows and joys of the besieged life’. Throughout the siege, the city was subjected to massive artillery and aerial bombardment, targeting industries, residential areas, schools and hospitals. The destruction of major food warehouses in an air raid in early September 1941 spelled disaster for city residents; by the end of the year the daily death toll was up to 7,000 civilians. Naturally, desperate thoughts of food preoccupied the survivors’ everyday activities. One of the brightest memories of the siege for Elena was the New Year’s feast of 1942, consisting of a fish soup with traces of millet, half a loaf of bread and a small bar of chocolate to share among her friends from the arts college. They sat near the stove covered in blankets, listening to music on the gramophone and reciting poetry.

A body in the crossroads, it had been laying there for many days

The New Year did not bring relief. Indeed, January and February of 1942 turned out to be the hardest time for Leningraders, utterly exhausted by work and everyday survival in the darkened city with no electricity and running water, nor functioning heating and sewage system; the daily victim count was now in the tens of thousands. Like many of her fellow students, Elena continued her pilgrimage to the art college braving severe winter frost to collect ration cards and meet her friends. Their numbers dwindled rapidly, and it became increasingly difficult both for the students and lecturers to hold lessons. Sometimes they had to help each other to walk back home. Some never made it. One evening, on her way from the college Elena came across a body sprawled in the snow at a crossway. Partially-clad cadavers in the streets were a familiar sight in the dying city. Victims of hunger and fatigue, they would lie there until half-starving burial companies, organised by borough soviets, dragged them to a nearby cemetery, where the bodies would be thrown into communal graves or piled up until spring thawed the ground. Many of them were missing parts of their bodies, for corpse-eating and cannibalism occurred more often than the authorities were prepared to admit publicly. Upon her return home, Elena sketched what she had just witnessed.

Corpse eating and cannabalism occured more often than the authorities were prepared to admit

Elena’s health was deteriorating as well. Acute hunger and malnutrition led to frequent loss of consciousness, from which she took longer to recover. After one of her fits, Elena overheard neighbours telling her mother that she might not survive the winter. This made her feel very sorry for her parent. It was on one evening in February 1942 when the girl realised that her energy reserves had been completely depleted, and she would likely not live through the night. Elena decided not to go to bed but to start painting her self-portrait instead. This is what she wrote in her diary that night: ‘…If I have to die, I will do it as an artist – not in bed, but with a brush in my hand…’ She held a small mirror to her face and intently studied her features by the light of a self-made oil lamp. ‘…I distracted myself from thinking about death, I was drawing nature… Suddenly, I noticed a ray of light coming through the slit in the blinds. I realised that a new morning had come – the one I had not hoped to meet. I won! I conquered death and did not support Hitler in fulfilling his plans to exterminate Leningraders. Every cell of my exhausted body was charged with the realisation that I was alive and will not die, and that gave me energy… I felt joy and calm. My work and conviction became my daily bread.’ Thus, art literally helped save Elena’s life. Her refined perception, attention to detail and a natural calling for artistic expression, which she nurtured from a very young age, allowed her to regain her strength and prevail.

If I have to die, I will do it as an artist – not in bed but with a brush in my hand – Elena Marttila

Elena dedicated her life to her craft, as well as her mother. In April 1942 Evdokiia Vasilyevna suffered severe shell shock, and Elena had to accompany her mother to evacuation in Mordovia. She records in her diary: ‘I did not want to leave Leningrad, but my mother had become a helpless child. She was unable to dress herself and was fearful of everything. She somehow lost the knack to live. I convinced her that I would be her mother, whilst she would become my daughter instead. I could see in her eyes that she was grateful to me for that. I became mature and responsible for her as well as for the rest of our neighbours we shared the room with…’

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Traversing the Road of Life over the frozen Lake Ladoga.  It was the primary evacuation path for wounded military personnel and for thousands of civilians trapped in the city.

Elena arranged for Evdokiia Vasilyevna and her neighbours with little children to go by truck across Lake Ladoga to the place called Kobona. The frozen lake was the only major (land) supply route to Leningrad, as well as the primary evacuation path for wounded military personnel and thousands of civilians trapped in the city. Called the Road of Life, the ice route was extremely dangerous due to the unpredictability of ice and the proximal German bombardment, which, over the course of operation, sent hundreds of trucks to the bottom of the lake together with their human and material cargo. Elena and her mother were among the last group of people to be evacuated from Leningrad via the Road of Life that year. It stopped functioning at the end of April until next winter. The ice had begun melting and the trucks were almost floating, with streams of water coming up high on both sides of the truck as they moved through the mushy snow, evading the shells raining down on them from above.

Called the ‘Road of Life’ the ice route was extremely dangerous due to the unpredictability of ice and the proximal German bombardment

In Mordovia, Elena, a slight city girl unaccustomed to hard labour, worked on a farm, ploughing, felling timber and caring for her mother. Evacuation was a traumatic experience for all the parties involved. The movement of millions of people across the country threw the home front into chaos. The populations of the receiving towns swelled considerably, but the housing and medical provision, food supply and employment opportunities remained very limited. To alleviate the difficult situation in the cities, many evacuees were assigned against their will to collective farms, where they did not always succeed to establish rapport with the local populace. Evacuees from Leningrad especially evoked mixed feelings in their new localities. On the one hand, seeing their emaciated bodies, prematurely aged faces and ragged appearance, the locals could not but feel sorry for them, and many went out of their way to help. Yet the preferential treatment the survivors of the blockade generally received from the authorities, their marginally higher rations and employment priority also provoked anger amidst severe shortages and near starvation experienced by the majority of the home front population.

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‘A worker 1941-42’ – There is no record of his name, it could be a collective image of Leningrad workers who kept industry going even during the hardest months of the siege

Finding themselves in unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environments, many Leningraders sought to leave and some even managed to sneak back into the city once the siege was partially lifted in 1943. At the first opportunity Elena and Evdokiia Vasilyevna also returned to Leningrad, back to their room on Vasilyevsky Island and her studies at the Leningrad Arts School. In 1944 she sketched Dmitrii Shostakovich during the performance of his Seventh Symphony in Leningrad Philharmonic Hall.

After the war Elena graduated with honours from the arts college and was accepted to the faculty of graphic art at the Leningrad Academy of Arts. However, she decided to give up her studies and seek employment instead in order to support her family. She worked as a poster designer, created theatre decorations, and staged performances for a puppet theatre at a Pioneer Palace; she taught at her alma mater as well as Herzen Pedagogical Institute and the art studio at the Kalinin Polytechnic Institute. She authored and designed over fifty theatre and puppet shows where she acted as director and/or stage and costume designer.

Elena Marttila with the poster for her exhibition

During these years, she has been searching for the most suitable way to revive her drawings created in besieged Leningrad and tell about her experiences. She explored the technique of engraving on cardboard and decided that a combination of graphic art and painting was the most appropriate medium to achieve her goal. This method allows for the best expression of what she observed then. While predominantly black and white, the images do not have defined edges and sharp colour contrasts, while objects appear almost blurry as this is how starving Leningraders perceived them.

In the early 1980s, during an exhibition marking the Victory Day, where Elena’s works were on display, she overheard a group of women survivors of the siege discussing her work, Leningrad Woman on duty, 1942. It featured a woman with a child resting his head on her chest, while she is guarding against air raids. They referred to this work as ‘Leningrad Madonna’ or ‘Bereginya’, a collective image of all mothers, who tried to protect their children and to preserve life during the siege of Leningrad.

Elena was deeply moved by the conversation, which evoked her personal memories from the time, and decided to refine the drawing to reflect better its title and associations it induced in viewers. Almost 30 years later she reworked the image which can be seen now as an eternal symbol of self-sacrifice and love. A mother protecting a sleeping child, sheltering him with her shawl from any troubles, preserving this precious moment of peace. She stands in an archway, a characteristic architectural feature of Leningrad, and in the background one can see the familiar pavement, a lamp post and a façade of another house with more arches. ‘Leningrad Madonna’ depicts the depth of the suffering experienced by Leningraders, as well as love and belief that helped Elena and her mother to withstand such a severe test of life. It is both a testimony to wartime sacrifice and a plea to preserve peace for future generations.

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The Leningrad Madonna created 40 years after the end of the year which became a symbol of self sacrifice and eternal love

Elena Marttila’s works powerfully convey the emotions and experiences she lived through as a young artist during the siege of her beloved city. They do not comply with the realistic school of painting prevailing in Soviet art of the time. They also do not contain heroic images of ‘defenders of Leningrad’ as city residents were often referred to in official discourse. Her drawings were slated for destruction in the wake of the war for non-heroic depictions of the blockade which went against the official narrative. Elena Marttila was also initially refused membership in the Leningrad Union of Soviet Artists due to the fact that her art did not meet the required ideological standards. It was only in 1981 that she was finally admitted in the Artists’ Union of the USSR. Her works were exhibited in Russia, Germany, France and Finland. Elena now lives in her father’s native town of Kotka in Finland. She is turning 94 in January 2017 and deeply regrets that poor eyesight prevents her from working. Yet, her imagination is as powerful as ever, and her memories are as vivid as they were in the Leningrad of her youth. She is passionate about life, art and her native city. Although she gets fewer opportunities to visit it these days, in her mind she is there with her friends, most of whom have passed away.

The exhibition of Elena Marttila’s works ELENA MARTTILA: ART AND ENDURANCE IN THE SIEGE of LENINGRAD were on display at Darwin College in Cambridge from 20 January to 19 March 2017. It featured drawings, engravings on cardboard and lithographs conceived during the Siege of Leningrad.

The exhibition was curated by Ksenia Afonina – an independent curator and researcher into the art of World War II and Libby Howie, an independent curator with a specialised knowledge of graphic art.


    1. Sorry I’ve checked in the archive and I don’t have a copy of her drawing of Shostakovich. Also thanks for the spot on the spelling mistake, I have updated 🙂

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