War up Close -- Irena Galina

by Harrison E. Salisbury

Excerpt of his book, "The Northern Palmyra Affair"


[Ed. The siege of Leningrad in WWII lasted 900 days. The privations of the people and slaughter which attended are among the most horrifying stories of war. Harrison Salisbury, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting from Russia in and after WWII, wrote this novel to say what he otherwise couldn't about the leadership and quality of Leningrad's defenders and those who bolstered courage and dedication when all was devastated. The main character is a woman artist and sculptor, Irena Galina. That many of the survivors of Leningrad later were lost to Stalinist intrigues is history. This novel tells about such things, one of which consumed Irena and many of her closest comrades. Smirnoff, the writer and head of the writers' union, is a survivor, one who will do anything to anyone to protect himself. His type seems to be a constant everywhere. This excerpt begins with Smirnoff reacting to the return of Irena's son bringing her body from Tashkent, where she was exiled, to Leningrad. Her son had been contacting many of Irena's friends and associates to arrange the funeral. His visits inspired some and terrified others. Smirnoff is among the terrified. Smirnoff also was the one who denounced Irena. We flashback to the precipitating event.]

". . . Quickly a small panel slid back and he put his hand into the shallow compartment and drew out a slender sheaf of documents. This was what he referred to in his mind as his 'life insurance policy,' the small and secret hoard of papers . . . which he had put away over the years, the papers which might give him some hold or leverage over this individual or that; the little bits of evidence which, in time of need, might serve either as blackmail or testimonial . . . he leafed it through. You never knew. Things sometimes sprang at you from the strangest sources and the most unlikely moments. He looked again at the smudged and murky design of Irena's war memorial. There was an example, a prize example. Looking at this sketch one could make nothing of it. And yet he held in his hands the very source of the terrible woman's downfall. . . .

[flashback][He wandered about Irena's studio, picking up this and that, looking at various works in process]

Next to the Tsaritsyn group there was what appeared to be another group over which a much-spattered canvas had been thrown. It was the most massive work in the studio. Smirnoff tugged at one end of the canvas, trying to get some idea of what lay underneath. . . .

He was struggling with it when a voice which caused goose pimples to rise on his neck said behind him: 'Perhaps I can help you with that.'. . . .

'I had not intended to show you this. . . . But on second thought I know of no one I would rather view it.'

. . . .'All right. Now you may turn around.'. . .

She stood, her eyes ablaze with green fire, her breast slightly heaving, her face flushed and a kind of light emanating from her brow. Slowly he turned his eyes from her to the group of figures exposed before him he looked and his eyes started in horror. He could feel the hair on his head rising like a dog's and an involuntary cry sprang from his throat. The horror smashed into his brain like the blow of a rough fist. Here was a young woman pinned against a rough bench or table by the powerful arm of a figure so primitive and brutal that it was impossible to say whether it was man or ape. Flinging her skirts back with a powerful paw, the half-naked monster stood on the edge of an act of rape, his body crouched, his loins ready. The horror was heightened by the look of pure innocence and pure fear that Irena had captured not only on the girl's face but, somehow in the virginal mold of her limbs. She was about to suffer a degradation which her soul had never known existed in the world. But that was not all. Under the feet of the anthropoid lay an infant, a child of three or four, its body hideously smashed by the monster's jackboots. This was what Smirnoff grasped at first glance. Then he became aware that there was another figure in the group, a heroic female figure, possibly the mother of the child, stripped to the waist, with powerful hips, arms of a peasant and the breasts of a goddess. In one arm she brandished a rifle butt which was about to crash down upon the ravisher.

'Look well upon that figure, Simon Simonovich,' said Irena in resounding tones. 'Look well. I want every man in the world to stand in meditation before this statue.'

His voice half-choked, Smirnoff asked, 'What do you call this group, Irena Mikailovna?' I call it 'The End of War,' she said. 'And I mean to make it the end of war. We women will halt the rape of humanity, if we have to drag every male in the world, screaming and kicking, to stand before this statue.'

Smirnoff cast his eyes to the floor. He could not bear to look at the scene of horror. But he could not keep his eyes from it either. They were drawn back to it with the irresistible fascination of a powerful magnet. He was drawn again and again to the look of innocence captured in the girl's face, the animal paws which crushed her shoulder, the ape's bestiality of the attacker, the frozen horror of the trampled upon infant, the majesty of the valkyrie and the savage brutality of the monster's loin as he pressed toward the virgin maiden.

Smirnoff felt he could not stand there another moment without hysterics. He could feel the screams stifled in his throat, but somehow he controlled himself. . . . All he could do was ask his questions and get away as soon as he could. Finally, he found himself outside in the golden sunshine. . . . As he looked out on the familiar and peaceful scene he felt that for the rest of his life he would bleed internally as if from a physical would. It was not only the savage power of Irena's concept which left him gasping. For what he had seen in the moment of supreme horror was himself, standing in the jackboots of the beast, his hairy chest bared, his loins ready to ravish the virgin grasped in his course paws.

He walked the streets of Leningrad for hours before he went home that evening. What thoughts passed through his mind he could never have told. But when he finally reached the sanctuary of his apartment one thing was clear beyond a doubt. Irena must be destroyed and he knew how this would be accomplished. [Nothing] would save her. She thought, no doubt, that she had constructed a supreme weapon against war. She thought that by conceiving this horror in stone or bronze she could turn man's revulsion again man's bestiality into a passion for peace, that she could rouse womankind to stand against the bayonets and bugles. Perhaps she was right. But she would never get a chance to test her power. He, Smirnoff, would see to that. For what she was preaching was not Communism, not the triumph of Socialist society, not the militant force of Marxism which would prevail against a decadent and dying capitalism. No. What she preached was heresy. She was preaching the horror of war of all war, not merely imperialist war. Her figures had no nationality. They were the male and female of any nation, any age. The hand which was striking down the ravager was not a Russian hand striking down a Hun. It was not a Communist striking down a colonial despot. It was Woman striking at brute man, the eternal Female striking at the eternal Male. And this was heresy. This was preaching against all war, all uniforms. It was a blow at the Red Army; at the Party, at the state; at Stalin himself. Irena had crossed the bounds of Soviet art. She had crossed the bounds of Soviet society. She had trespassed beyond the freedoms of the Soviet state. This was not just heresy. This was treason. This was an indictment against the power of the state itself, against the dictatorship of the proletariat and its armed forces.

Smirnoff sat down at his desk, dipped a scratchy pen into the rusty ink of his inkwell and began to write: . . .

The document which Smirnoff compiled that night became, as was widely known, the foundation of the Party's famous 1946 Decree on Art, citing Irena Galina, not merely for artistic deviations, not merely for foul distortion of the doctrine of Soviet realism but for what were called creative crimes again Socialist humanity. . . .[In his accusatory speech at her trial, Smirnoff railed against 'the obscene and ignoble' distortions. . . . 'Like an animal which devours its young, . . . she has turned against all that she by ties of blood and passion should have held most dear.'. . .]

It was only a matter of days after the ideological indictment of Irena Galina before she was summoned to the State Prosecutor's office and quietly sent into exile."


"The Northern Palymyra Affair," Harrison E. Salisbury, Harper and Brothers, NY, 1962

Harrison E. Salisbury [1908-1993] was a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal, United Press, and The New York Times. He wrote some 29 books, almost half of them late in life. Read what the Minnesota News Council has to say about Salisbury. For instance: "A hundred lessons lay ahead of me -- in Moscow; in Birmingham, Alabama; in Hanoi...the message was always the same: Shut up! Don't rock the boat. Keep those unpleasant truths to yourself. The truth, I was ultimately to learn, is the most dangerous thing. There are no ends to which men of power will not go to put out its eyes." If interested, here are additional resources about Salisbury.

Published under the provision of U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.


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Published March 25, 2002
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