by Jennifer Phillips
Nina Kosterina was born in a revolutionary camp as the Bolsheviks took over Russia in 1920s. She beat the odds of survival during the harsh early years and emerged in the 1930s as a young Communist woman in love with her country, her family, her city, her friends, politics, art and life. Even when Joseph Stalin’s regime tore apart her family and imprisoned her father, she remained loyal to her country and joined an elite group of young women turned guerilla soldiers when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941. Nina perished in a Nazi ambush behind enemy lines. After the war, her family found her diary hidden in a wardrobe. Years later, the diary was released as a book and became an international bestseller. Written from ages 15 to 20, the diary revealed a teenager transforming into an adult juxtaposed against one of the most dangerous and tumultuous periods in world history.
Nina’s biography opens a window into 1920s and 1930s Russia through the eyes of someone who considered herself just an “ordinary girl.”
Diary of an Ordinary Girl
If I should not return, give all my personal papers to Lena.
I have a single thought: perhaps my action will save father?
To you and Grisha, my only friends, I leave all my personal belongings--my diary and letters from my friends.
Lena, dear Lena, why did you leave, I want so much to see you.
Nina Kosterina, age 20,
Final entry in her diary, November 14, 1941
Nina Kosterina penned this simple will and other final thoughts while hidden away in her family's cramped, abandoned Moscow apartment. Bombs chipped away all around her, destroying centuries-old buildings and taking lives. She blocked out the sounds of incoming artillery and nerve-rattling air-raid sirens while fretting about her two best friends, Lena Gershman and Grisha Grinblat. She didn't know where they were. She could only hope they were safe.
The German army was less than twenty miles away. Most citizens had fled to the country and other cities, including Nina's mother, sisters and Lena. Nina insisted on staying in Moscow to prepare as a guerilla soldier in the Red Army. Grisha was already in the fight, making her envious that she wasn't shoulder-to-shoulder with him on the battlefield. She felt lonely and fearful, even as she ignored passionate pleas to turn back sent by her lover, a young man left behind in a student camp outside the city.
It seems like a paradox, but it is true: this is why I am going to the front--because living is such joy, because I want so much to live, to work, to create…to live, to live!
She wove in reflections about her father, who fought to help the Communists gain power under Vladimir Lenin but was now imprisoned by dictator Joseph Stalin's regime as a "dangerous social element."
On November 16th, I am joining a partisan detachment. And so my life is entering upon the path my father traveled…
Nina then tucked her diary into a pile of her meager belongings, hid them away in the apartment and waited to begin her dangerous mission. Two days later at noon, she joined others near Moscow's Coliseum Movie House and left for the combat zone. Nina's time as a soldier was short. By the end of December, she had perished in what became one of the bloodiest wars of all times.
What survived was her diary, providing an inspirational window into the unedited feelings, hopes and experiences of a teen who considered herself just a run-of-the mill, dark-haired, dark-eyed, plain-looking girl.
Thinking of how untalented I am, I decided to call my diary 'The Diary of an Ordinary Girl,'
Nina's Diary, June 20, 1936
But the diary, written moment to moment with no goal of ever being published, revealed Nina as a girl bursting with emotion, energy and courage. Even though she lived in a society where citizens had few choices, she still chose to be guided by her intelligence, idealism and commitment to honesty.
The diary also offered a unique view of the grand social experiment playing out in Russia. Nina was born at a historic moment as the Bolsheviks launched their new government. She then lived in the thick of history as the country tumbled through Stalin's tightening dictatorship and war began to loom on the horizon. While Nina transformed from a young girl to a young woman, Russia transformed from a country full of revolutionary determination to a ravaged police state with fearful, oppressed citizens forced into war.
She relished her study of Marxism and work with the Young Communist League, but she struggled with issues of truth and patriotism as Stalin's paranoia began to tear apart her family and friends. Could she live her ideals and be a proud Russian while also serving a government that became more confusing and dangerous each day?
An ordinary girl? Perhaps. An extraordinary life? Definitely.