Elena Marttila, an art college graduate, was a gifted young artist, who had already exhibited at the age of eleven. She was eighteen when the war started, and like many other teenagers, worked on digging the defences of the city, and helping in the City’s hospitals. To keep her artistic skills alive, she enrolled in Leningrad’s last functioning art college.
One day, her Professor, Yan Shablovsky, asked her to come into his office. He seemed very depressed and told her he did not expect to survive the siege. He argued that someone should make a record of what was happening: “Go out with a sketchbook and start drawing what you see. You are a portrait artist – so draw pictures of Leningrad’s people under siege – honest pictures, showing how they are suffering in these diabolical circumstances… We must preserve this for humanity. Future generations must be warned of the absolute horror of war.”
In the freezing weather, she developed a working method for her new mission. She would make a rough sketch of anything that interested her, and then fill in the details from memory once she returned to her flat.
Being out on Leningrad’s streets was always dangerous, and when the shelling began, she would take cover in the nearest bomb shelter. There she met civilians of all kinds and young frightened soldiers too, and, once a musician who began to play when the bombing got louder. She commented that the bombing “felt outside now, and inside we had our music, and everyone felt its power.”
As the winter became ever more severe, she still attended art college, but there were no more lessons. One day, she found a fellow student, standing by the Neva “frozen like a statue”. She had lost the will to live. By New Year, Elena was fainting several times a day from starvation sickness, six times a day by February 1942. She became angry at her weakness and at fearing death so strongly, so she decided to paint a self-portrait. A week later, a second one followed. “Now,” she wrote “I want to celebrate being alive.”
When, on 8th March 1942, Women’s Day, women began the clean-up, she joined in and, like others, began to feel that there was hope; the city would remain habitable, Hitler would be defied.
For a while, she was evacuated with her ailing mother across Lake Ladoga to Mordovia, where she worked on a farm, but returned to Leningrad in 1943 to finish her studies.
For years, Elena was unable to show her drawings, but continued to revisit her memories and worked them up into full scale lithographs and engravings on cardboard – a technique she developed to express the blurring which afflicted the eyesight of the malnourished Leningraders. In 1991, a distinguished gallery invited her to exhibit her portfolio. It was in Berlin. It was attended by many German veterans, some of whom asked her for forgiveness. “War is terrible,” she replied, perhaps remembering her own city’s corrupt administration and her own government’s denial of the sufferings endured by its people, “but my quarrel is with fascism, not with the German people. And fascism exists in all of us.”