Leningrad

On Friday evening, Tom and I went to see Neeme Järvi conducting the RSNO in Shostakovitch’s 7th. I don’t think I have ever seen the Usher Hall so full – there wasn’t a spare seat to be seen – with many emotional Russians among the audience. Personally, I think it is very hard not to be emotional when listening to the Lenigrad symphony – I hear it as a sort of musical equivalent of Hannah Arendt – and its direct context in 900 brutal and evil days is inescapable and terrifying. In all senses, it was a tremendous occasion, heightened for me by what I had been reading about the Leningrad album.


During the siege, there was a massive upswell of support for the people of Leningrad among British women – particularly those of the West of Scotland. In Airdrie and Coatbridge, the women members of the Anglo-Soviet Aid Committee raised a substantial amount of money to support those suffering under the siege. They wrapped this money in a tartan-covered album, prefaced it with a quotation from Burns’s famous song about solidarity, and sent it, together with five thousand signatures and messages of personal support, to the women of Leningrad. The album traveled across Lake Ladoga’s notorious ice road to reach the besieged city, where it and its contents were gratefully received. The women of Leningrad were so touched by the album, that, even in the midst of their hardship, they produced their own gift book to return to their friends in Scotland. This book was bound in gold damask embroidery, and filled with photographs, signatures, and drawings in watercolour and pencil. An inscription on the first page of the album read:

“We have been moved to the depths of our soul by the words of love and greeting from those distanced from us in far-off Scotland. We thank you for the help you are giving us in the struggle with Hitler’s Germany. Our husbands and brothers are cut off from us, our homes are in danger, our children are doomed to destruction or bondage. The women of Leningrad, just like the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge, have risen to the defence of their homes. We are proud that we have such a worthy ally as the people of Great Britain.”

The gift book from the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge is now in the Museum of Leningrad History, while the Leningrad Album is usually housed in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. However, to accompany the RSNO’s performances of the Leningrad Symphony, it is on display for a few days in the Royal Concert Hall. Manuscript gift-books are a special interest of mine as you may know, and this one is very special indeed. We went over to Glasgow yesterday to see it. I found it incredibly moving. I also found it heartening to be reminded of women’s solidarity on a day like yesterday.

If you are in or near Glasgow, the Leningrad Album is on display in the foyer of the Royal Concert Hall (at the top of the stairs near the gift shop) until tomorrow. If you are not in Glasgow, the RSNO have displayed a selection of pages from the album here.

(Yes, that is me above the jolly mêlée on Buchanan Street. I actually managed to pick my way through that crowd in flat shoes without a stick — at least as challenging for me as any hill. After two days of Leningrad-fueled emotion, I came home feeling quite uplifted).

40 responses

  1. I check every morning and am so pleased when I see an update from your on my bloglines list. Your post today has given me a lot to think about – and to research further – thank you for broadening my knowledge and perspective.

    And congratulations on the “no stick” on Buchanan Street – great photo!

  2. This is fascinating. I am in Glasgow but had no idea about the Leningrad album being on display, unfortunately I have to head to Edinburgh today so won’t have the chance to see it. My Dad was at the concert but I haven’t asked him what he thought of it yet.

    Also talking of solidarity and cuts if you are in Glasgow again any time you might be interested in checking out the free hetherington occupation. http://freehetherington.wordpress.com/about/

  3. What an amazing exchange.
    The last photo is really interesting/funny, the woman to your left who has stopped seems to be thinking the photo is meant to be of her, and it looks like a man to your right is looking at her looking at the camera… :)

  4. I loved the story of the gift book, but for whatever reason I am fascinated by the last photo–specifically the guy in the green short sleeved shirt. Everyone around him is wearing coats and heavy sweaters, and I can’t help but wonder why he isn’t cold!

    • ..I think he could be scottish…some of the tougher species wear short sleeves all year round and it was actually quite mild yesterday afternoon. I went out without a jacket for first time this year and I think that is a record . I usually dinnae cast a clout until May is oot

  5. Great comments, great post…laughed at “American Tourist” comment. Reminds me of the saying “they are all out of step except oor Jock”. Buchanan Street’s John Lewis is where I head to first to get some yarn and pattern books when I arrive in Scotland ( from Canada) just because I know where it is and I can’t wait a minute longer. So I am so envious of your position in the pic, I can feel and smell it. I will check the airline tickets later. You look great…still luving the shoes and knowing you are out there taking it all in is amazing and then sharing it with us…how great is that!! It’s an education to say the least and I enjoy every minute of it. Thank you Kate.

  6. That is an amazing album – I would love to see it. It always astounds me that people can produce such fabulous art and craft when they are in the midst of great hardship.

  7. I may just be feeling a tad emotional at the moment, but the story of the gift book and photos brought me close to tears. What a beautiful story. Anushka x

  8. heh, I love that woman on the left-hand side of the frame just standing there (trying not to disrupt the photo I guess?), while everyone else is moving freely around you.

  9. Having been born and brought up in Lanarkshire I’m amazed I have never heard of the support given by the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge or the gift to them from the women of Leningrad. I must ask some of my relatives who are still in that area if they are aware of it. Thanks for this Kate.

  10. Thanks so much for this blog post- it is so interesting to see historical solidarity between British people and the Soviet Union, espeically at a time when there are such important social movements going on in Britain. I can tell you that here in Canada we are watching these fights against neoliberalism and cuts and hoping that the Canadian people develop the same capacity to resist. I heart this bog! So many people take either women’s issues or class seriously, and so few do both. Thank you!

  11. What a wonderful story! It’s amazing to think of so many women working together to send such moral and tangible support. That the women of Leningrad were able to respond as they did is equally incredible. Thank you for the links – I’m heading to work this afternoon for our concert here (a family concert that will be uplifting in an entirely different way) but will look later. xoE

  12. Thank you for the story – I’ve never heard of it and it’s very touching. I need to tell it to my grandma who made a dreadful trip from the besieged Leningrad on the Life Road through Ladoga Lake.
    Although gold damask seems like a miracle to me and I guess that the album was sent back when the siege was over?

  13. wow, i didn’t know anything about a scottish/leningrad connection much less the album books. there’s nobody like the russians. or indeed the scots. must be the cold.
    this post brought tears to my eyes.

  14. “Résister est un verbe qui se conjugue au présent” – to resist is a verb with only one tense, the present, said French Resistant against nazism Lucie Aubrac. We do not have to face such abominations, but remember that our welfare system was brought about so that they would never be possible again. The present cuts are a step into that direction, sadly, which is why posts such as yours are so necessary. You did your share in the march you couldn’t attend, congratulations and thank you.

  15. Having been born and brought up in Airdrie, I have to admit that I have never heard about this! Lovely to see you looking so good in Buchanan Street ……. and that’s another connection, as I used to work near where you are standing, many, many years ago!

  16. Your blog is wonderful and I look forward to your posts. I’ve never been to Scotland but, after reading your blog and seeing your photos, I hope to visit. Thank you for sharing your many talents.

  17. I’m a university employee from Wisconsin. I visited England for the first time last week and was privileged to walk through Hyde Park on Saturday as the March for the Alternative was arriving. I also saw the splinter groups moving through Oxford Street and Soho. As someone who has taken part in anti-austerity protests in her home state in recent weeks, it was so heartening to see people pushing back in the same ways against the same issues in another part of the world. I think we should be mindful of the example of the Leningrad album and strive to be aware of how our own struggles are echoed elsewhere.

  18. Thanks for telling me about this, I just spent an hour reading about the siege and protests from your links. I had no idea. Let it never happen again.

  19. Luv all things Russian, the ballet, the dancing cossacks, the spirit of the people. I did a project on Russia when I was 7yrs old, and some thought it odd in my conservative little country town in Victoria Australia. lol
    The Scottish, and Russian women who did the album swap are/were wonderful, what an uplifting and time honoured thing to do, amazing.
    Great picture of you captured in the midst of all those people, luv pics like this. Fantastic that you didn’t need to any support, only your determination :-)

  20. It’s a while since I listened to this piece, but your blog reminded me of how much it moves me, but it’s not one I can listen to while doing anything else. I was lucky enough to visit Leningrad as part of a school trip in 1985 and we visited the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery where about half a million people who died in the siege are buried in mass graves. I remember the size but simplicity of the memorial park conveying very powerfully the scale of the suffering it represents. A timely reminder of how individual actions can re-insert humanity into the most inhumane situations.

  21. This post really touched me. I have a special fondness for Russian history, particularly during WWII. It’s such a wonderful story, and I love the pastel of the boats.

    I wish, wish, wish I lived near enough to go see it, but that would involve traversing a large body of water, so I shall rely on this post and the links to satisfy my curiosity. Thanks so much for posting!

  22. That book is beautiful and the story is absolutely fascinating. I’ll have to take a look at your full album when I have more time.

    I’m glad you’re doing better :) Congrats on the stick-free walk.

  23. I love your bits of history! I always get so excited as I click to open your blog and see what new story or knitterly tid-bits await!

  24. I didn’t know about the Scottish connection, either; the Siege is a terrible and fascinating piece of Russian and Soviet history. There is a small Siege Museum in St. Petersburg (in the city center, so easier to get to than the cemetery). Also, there is a very good documentary about the composition and performance of the Leningrad Symphony that is available here:

    http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/war.html

    I have no affiliation with the film or its distributors, beyond having shown it many times to students. It’s too expensive for individual purchase, but worth seeking out at the library.

    • I got to see the Albums at the Mitchell Library last year and also to meet some of the Siege survivors in St.Petersburg.
      A moving story and it’s amazing just how many Scots don’t know about the Albums. I’m working on making a film documentary later this year as the story of friendship and solidarity between two countries during terrible times should be told.

  25. Hi Kate! I love your patterns, and discovered your blog/designs/and all a few days ago by mention, and have read through the past year’s blog. I am glad to see you are out and enjoying yourself, and knitting well, too. These stories behind the patterns are lovely to read, and interesting to me also. I am Scottish as well! So I am learning a lot just though reading your blog. And — discovering I can too knit more than I thought. I am inspired by your creativity and perseverance. I subscribed so I will also be glad to see that pop into my inbox, or as it is, I have this page up daily anyway to check ;-)

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