Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944by Published 30 Aug 2011
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On September 8, 1941, eleven weeks after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his brutal surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Leningrad was surrounded. The siege was not lifted for two and a half years, by which time some three quarters of a million Leningraders had died of starvation.
Anna Reid's Leningrad is a gripping, authoritative narrative history of this dramatic moment in the twentieth century, interwoven with indelible personal accounts of daily siege life drawn from diarists on both sides. They reveal the Nazis' deliberate decision to starve Leningrad into surrender and Hitler's messianic miscalculation, the incompetence and cruelty of the Soviet war leadership, the horrors experienced by soldiers on the front lines, and, above all, the terrible details of life in the blockaded city: the relentless search for food and water; the withering of emotions and family ties; looting, murder, and cannibalism- and at the same time, extraordinary bravery and self-sacrifice.
Stripping away decades of Soviet propaganda, and drawing on newly available diaries and government records, Leningrad also tackles a raft of unanswered questions: Was the size of the death toll as much the fault of Stalin as of Hitler? Why didn't the Germans capture the city? Why didn't it collapse into anarchy? What decided who lived and who died? Impressive in its originality and literary style, Leningrad gives voice to the dead and will rival Anthony Beevor's classic Stalingrad in its impact.
"Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944" Reviews
One might say that Leningrad is particularly well suited to catastrophes. That cold river, those menacing sunsets, that operatic, terrifying moon.
- Anna Akhmatova
When the Wehrmacht attacked Leningrad in 1941, Leningraders had yet been generously endowed with war, terror and famines. Still, the worst was yet to come. Relying for most part on diaries, memoires and interviews of survivors, journalist and historian Anna Reid chronicles Leningrad’s ghastly blockade fate during WWII. The city had to endure an appalling siege that would last from September 8th, 1941 to January 1944 and would take the lives of about 1,5 million people, of which approximately 750.000 were civilians.
From its conception on, Hitler’s Barbarossa campaign was to be conducted with unprecedented harshness. ‘This war will be very different from the war in the west. . Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples.’ The army got a license for summary executions, rape and murder of civilians. Food was to be ruthlessly requisitioned, even if this meant that civilians had to starve.
Apart from the rational justifications for the attack on the USSR - securing Lebensraum and destruction of the Bolshevik regime - it was also meant as an outright Vernichtungskrieg, a war of extermination of Bolsheviks, Jews and Slavs alike. Russian towns were to be looted and demolished (Moscow was to be replaced with an artificial lake), and to be populated with Aryan settlers. The Russians were to be deported to Siberia, reduced to serfdom, or eliminated, like once the native Americans. Hitler dreamed about making ‘the beauties of the Crimea’ accessible by means of an autobahn and turning the Crimea into the German Rivera , making Croatia into another German tourism paradise. About Moscow and Leningrad, Hitler decided they had to be levelled and made uninhabitable, in order not to have to feed their populations through the winter. The cities had to razed by air force.
It is of sad notoriety that the USSR wasn’t ready to counter the invasion. As Stalin disregarded the warnings of his diplomats, the army was totally unprepared, even still recovering after literally having been decapitated by Stalin’s purges. Soldiers were sent into battle untrained and unarmed and leaderless. By the end of September 1941 the Red Army has lost 142,000 out of its total 440,000 officers. Anthoy Beevor wrote‘The waste of lives was so terrible that it is hard to comprehend: a carnage whose futility was perhaps exceeded only by the Zulu king marching an impi of his warriors over a cliff to prove their discipline.’ One of the surviving volunteers of the Leningrader People’s Levy wrote ‘It was mass, completely unjustified, senseless sacrifice, at the pleasure of our moronic command’.
Still Leningrad was the first city in Europe that Hitler failed to take. When neither side could positively beat the other and the war got stuck in the deadlock of positional trench warfare, the Wehrmacht changed strategy and shifted from ground assault to starvation and air raids, so it could focus itself on Moscow. All supply routes were blocked. A directive by Hitler to Army Group North was very clear about Hitler’s determination to raze Leningrad to the ground and extinguish its population:
The Führer is determined to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth. After the defeat of Soviet Russia there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban centre. Finland has likewise shown no interest in the maintenance of the city immediately on its new border.Reid’s central focus is on the months of mass death by starvation and freezing during the first winter - the unusual harsh winter of 1941-42. Vividly she depicts daily life – or actually death – under the siege.
It is intended to encircle the city and level it to the ground by means of artillery bombardment using every calibre of shell, and continual bombing from the air.
Following the city’s encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for our very existence, we can have no interest in maintaining even a part of this very large urban population.
Over the course of three months, the city changed from something quite familiar — in outward appearance not unlike London during the Blitz — to a Goya-esque charnel house, with buildings burning unattended for days and emaciated corpses littering the streets. For individuals the accelerating downward spiral was from relatively ‘normal’ wartime life — disruption, shortages, air raids — to helpless witness of the death by starvation of husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and children — and for many, of course, to death itself.The first hand testimonials Reid quotes and comments convey the horror in an often eloquent way; the book brims with harrowing and detailed descriptions about the mass graves, the corpses dragged on sledges through the frozen streets, the struggle to survive, the rationing system, the hunt for food, the mental state of the citizens trapped in hell, eating pets and wallpaper glue, desperately cooking leather belts or an extract of fermented birch sawdust, hoping it to turn into soup. The food obsession, the excruciating starvation process, euphemistically called ‘dystrophy’ , a pseudo-medical term, the despair and grief for the dead - the staggering facts and figures are piercing and bewilder.
Fighting the cold was of great importance to survive too, as water and energy were cut off. Books turned out to be quite useful, not only to read, but also as fuel. Observations go from the constatation that prose provided more heat than poetry and that nineteenth century paper gave out more heat the flimsy Soviet sort. A family started with burning reference works and technical manuals, moved on to the German classics, then to Shakespeare, and finally to their blue and gold-bound editions of Pushkin and Tolstoy.
Reid analyses the failure of the authorities to evacuate the population before the siege ring closed or stockpile extra food when still possible, calling it ‘one of the Soviet regime’s worst blunders of the war’, leading to more civilian deaths than any other save the failure to anticipate Barbarossa itself – comparing it with the 660.000 civilians that got evacuated from London in only a few days. She suggests an amalgam of causal factors, from not getting the priorities right, combined with an all-pervading culture of fear – the fear to be labelled a defeatist, which was life-threateningly dangerous, as the political terror and purges relentlessly continued during the siege. Deciding to leave the city was made harder by the semi-official disapproval of those who did. People didn’t believe the Nazi’s could be worse than the Bolsheviks, dismissing the warnings of the authorities as propaganda. Industrial and institutional evacuation was preferred over that of the non-working population. Whole factories were moved and masterpieces of the Hermitage were saved in time, many people weren’t.
Reid concludes that Russia’s 'Great Patriotic War' was won at unnecessarily huge cost, the blockade of Leningrad being perhaps the most extreme example of this, blaming both Nazi Germany and the Soviet regime - the first for initiating it, the second for exacerbating it.
Roughly chronological in general, Reid structures her narrative around themes (the corruption, intellectual life under the siege, cannibalism, purges, the Ice Road, the transport of the dead, emotions) . This approach is working well but at times slows down the pace of the narrative or blurs it. Not every topic is as thoroughly dealt with (the chapter on Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was fairly uneven as well as the chapter on the corruption as a means to survive). Though the focus is on daily life of the citizens, Read skillfully intertwines civil life recounts with the military peripeties so the reader can keep track of the events (a timeline would have been nice too).
Powerful, very well-written and compelling it is, I wouldn’t go so far as affirming the acclaim that this book undermines Soviet myths about the siege which haven’t been demystified before, or fills some essential gaps in historiography or is of the revelatory kind as to the mass starvation facts, because I honestly don’t know. Recalling one of the best now classic youth novels I ever read, The Ice Road, first published in 1966 by the Dutch author Jaap ter Haar, a Dutch novelist and historian, plausibly conveying the hunger and the moral quandaries the siege bestowed upon the starving population from the perspective of a 12 year old Russian Boy living through the siege, I’d be slightly surprised.
Exposing some of the darkest sides of human nature, this is an utterly engrossing history book which is very hard to put down. However common as a war strategy in the past (Rouen, Munster), starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited under international humanitarian law and considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Recalling the news on what was happening in Syria in January, we learn from history that we do not learn from history.
Author Anna Reid sets out to disprove some of the myths of the siege of Leningrad (ones that say everyone endured stoically), so the focus of this book is about people starving to death (about 650,000 to 800,000). It’s not a happy book.
The siege would have been a tragedy regardless, but Soviet leadership made it worse (one could argue that if it wasn’t for the purges in the late 30s, the Red Army might have been able to stop the Nazi invasion sooner, thus eliminating the siege altogether). Not enough civilians were evacuated, not enough supplies were brought in, corruption kept the distribution of food uneven, and inadequate training doomed the local levys/militias to quick military defeat.
Of course, no one was expecting a siege, let alone one that lasted almost 900 days. Most people thought either the Red Army would stop the Nazis, or the Nazis would take over. Many in the city hoped that would happen—surely the Nazis couldn’t be that much worse than the Bolsheviks. Reid does a good job showing that the siege was just one horrible incident in a series of horrible incidents (famines, purges, crack-downs) for St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad.
The first winter of the blockade, from 1941-2, was by far the worse in terms of hunger and mass deaths, and it’s the focus of the book. Some things were heartbreaking to read about. There was the woman who refused to share with a neighbor, even though the neighbor’s child was dying, because she feared that if she did, her own weak mother would die. There was the husband who began the siege bringing home food from work for his nursing wife and baby, then started stealing food from them as the winter passed. Then there was the mother who was too weak to carry her sick teenage son from his apartment to the train station, so she took her daughter, left her son, and evacuated.
Hunger does scary things to people. Definitely not something I’d want to live through. Is survival at all costs worth it, even if you become a monster? And what happens when you have a family to try to keep alive?
During the siege, some took to theft, some to cannibalism. The large number of orphans left in the city suggests that many parents sacrificed their own health for their children. Death was common, public services broke down, and so did normal rules of right and wrong.
The book’s strengths are the frequent quotes from diaries and interviews with survivors. Its weakness is its narrow focus on civilian life, especially that of the academic people who were more likely to keep diaries. Reid does cover some of the military campaign, but not much of it. Overall, the first-hand accounts make this a useful addition to books about Leningrad. Readers who want to read just one book about the siege may want to pick something that balances civilian life with the military situation.
“Perhaps I’ll be able to understand Beethoven’s music better, and the genius of Lermontov and Pushkin, once I’ve been to war…” Heartbreaking words of 18-year old Oleg to his girlfriend at the advent of operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s attack on Stalin that would see Leningrad besieged for years by German and Finnish troops and reliant on the incompetence, corruption, paranoia, and callousness of the Soviet Union.
This is an expertly written book about a terrible time. Caught between the two monstrous regimes of the European 20th century, besieged Leningrad quickly plunges into starvation and apathy. The amount of human suffering is unbearable, the injustice and incompetence of Soviet authorities is galling. At the height of the hunger, in the winter of 1941-1942, everything gets eaten: bark, the glue off old wallpaper, sawdust, Pavlov’s slavering dogs at the Physiological Institute, corpses. The physiological effects of starvation are combined with the psychological pressure from living in an environment of constant shelling by the besiegers, NKVD terror, collapse of the civil society, lack of water and electricity, temperatures down to −30 °C, theft, corruption, jealousy, guilt, and the gradual erosion of compassion and trust between family, lovers, and friends.
What makes this book highly readable is that Reid leaves most of the observations and commentaries to contemporary Leningraders: many of her sources are excerpts from diaries and other writings of besieged intellectuals, some of them published only recently. Leningrad’s intelligentsiya keeps writing through the siege; literate, lucid, poignant, sometimes sardonic. (Those who didn’t die from starvation. Those who weren’t shot or sent to the Gulag on random charges of anti-soviet activity.) Reid’s own prose is effortless and precise. An impeccable book.
The epic Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War is an event that, while not exactly overlooked, seems to be given less importance when compared to the Battle of Stalingrad, or the massive tank clashes of Kursk, or the desperate last-gasp defence of Moscow. Anna Reid sets out to describe exactly why the Siege was so important, illuminating lesser known details and dispelling popular Soviet myths that sprang up in the years following the war. She traces the Siege from the very beginning of war on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1941, the sudden invasion famously taking Stalin and, seemingly, most Russians by complete surprise, through the disastrous early campaigns, as the Red Army was chewed to pieces and the Germas swallowed great swathes of territory, through to the investment of the city itself, it’s liberation nearly three years later, and the legacy of the siege, and it’s many transformations as a monument of Russian and Soviet History. She gives particular attention to the first horrific siege of the winter, when the food shortages hit the city’s population hardest, and the vast majority of Leningrad’s casualties fell (over 100,000 citizens died of starvation in each of the months of January, February, and March)
This isn’t a military history. Though Reid does highlight several incident’s that she thinks haven’t received the attention they should, such as the “Russian Dunkirk” (the disastrous retreat of the Soviet Baltic Fleet from Tallinn), or the grim and tragic tale of the near extermination of the 2nd Shock Army, the campaigns, strategies, and equipment of the various armies are not dealt with in depth. Instead, Reid focuses on the people and their experiences, using diary excerpts, letters, official records and interviews, and devotes as much attention to the civilians trapped inside Leningrad as to the soldiers fighting outside it.
It’s very grim stuff. Spoiler alert - a whole lot of people died. The sheer scale of suffering on the Eastern Front during WWII can be hard to process at times. Germans brutalised Russians. Russians brutalised Germans. Russians brutalised each other. Both sides brutalised Jews, and various other ethnic minorities unlucky enough to be caught in the middle. And the vicious Russian winter of 1941-42 brutalised everyone, showing mother nature’s bloodthirsty sense of equality. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, and let them become meaningless. This many people died. That many were wounded. This many starved to death. Reid does an excellent job of giving faces, names, and personalities to these anonymous numbers. The vivid and lively personalities of these Leningraders (and it’s nearly entirely Leningraders whose personal accounts are recorded, though a single German soldier is also given some time) come to life in the pages of this book, making individual tragedies out of the statistics.
This isn’t a happy story. Close to one-in-three Leningraders did not live to see the Siege broken, and victory for the Russian people did not bring true liberty (Stalin’s ruthless purges actually increased after the war, and continued, in fits and spurts, until his death) There are villains and heroes, but most of the ordinary people are just that, normal people swept up in something so vastly bigger than they are, struggling to survive and often completely helpless to the whims of the war. It’s a very compelling and intense account of incredible atrocity.
The books focuses mostly on the civilian experience of the siege, and - probably because of a bias in the availability of sources - on the experiences of educated middle class people. Who wrote. A lot.
Diaries are a major source, along with interviews conducted many years later, and for me that was the most fascinating aspect of the book. Once all the staggeringly grim statistics, the disgusting politics and the bureacratic incompetence are processed, there's this absolutely riveting thread of individual and collective human experience still to take in.
An entire city is locked up and starved. Is it a universal story? Maybe? (let's never find out) maybe not. Leningrad is not everycity, it's a particular, specific place. It's a grand, historical city, a highly educated one, a cultural and political center. It is a Russian city, and it's a city with its own, ineffable, character.
So what happens when everything is peeled away, bit by bit, from the human experience, and this city is sent down Maslow's pyramid? Security, safety, warmth, food and pretty quickly, life, all go. What remains? An easy myth is that everything is fine, people struggle nobly on in dignified, honest misery. But the notion that it's three meals to barbarism also appears to be an oversimplification. The reality is complicated, changeable and difficult to summarize.
I don't know that there's any particular conclusion to take away, but the collection of diaries, conversations and memories presented here are simply impossible to look away from. The thoughts and feelings of people being reduced down to corpses and then, for some, coming back. The small things that become vast outrages and vice versa. What stays important and what loses all meaning. Are people the same people through all that? Does a city stay a city?