Victor Sebestyen

City of the dead

City of the dead
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Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44

Anna Reid

Bloomsbury, pp. 492, £

Russian officials today, much like the Soviet authorities of a past generation,  encourage a cult of the Great Patriotic War.

In the national narrative, this was their Finest Hour, still invoked on significant anniversary days as an example of heroism and sacrifice by politicians such as Vladimir Putin.

For Russians the most painful trauma in that conflict was the three-year-long siege of Leningrad. As Anna Reid points out in this  masterly and beautifully written account, the deadliest blockade of any city in history has received little attention in the West. Antony Beevor has been followed by a few historians who focused on the nightmare of the Eastern Front, where most of the fighting and dying against Nazism took place — Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands for example. But by and large British and American historians have concentrated on the war in the West.

After the Holocaust, the Leningrad  siege was arguably the worst war crime in a conflict that saw many atrocities. Around 750,000 civilians, a quarter of the city’s population, starved to death. This was 35 times the number who died in the London blitz, and four times more than in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  

The epic scale of the suffering numbs the mind. Reid never gets bogged down in the numbers. She tells the ghastly story with an eye for the vivid human detail, while never  ignoring the broader context: while the Leningrad siege was unique in its death toll, it was less a tragic interlude than one dark passage of many in the USSR, preceded by the famine in the 1920s and the Terror of the 1930s.

After the German invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941, the Wehrmacht marched through the Baltic States with astonishing speed. One army headed south, over-running Ukraine before stopping near Moscow. The other headed North and by early September encircled Leningrad — now again St Petersburg.

Hitler thought the city would surrender swiftly, but he never understood Russian nationalism as hijacked by Stalin. Anti-Communists were swept along by patriotic  fervour, even figures such as the poet Anna Akhmatova, who broadcast stirring calls to arms. The Germans tightened the noose  around Leningrad. The high command  reckoned it would be starved into submission and then, as Hitler ordered, be levelled to the ground. Mass starvation of civilians was not the unforeseen by-product of a military tactic, but its central objective.

Leningraders were caught between the Nazis and their own incompetent and  brutal regime. The placemen in charge of defending the city, the wheezy Communist Party boss Andrei Zhdanov, and Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, Stalin’s drinking companion but a hopeless military commander, were guilty of near criminal mismanagement.

For weeks they refused to believe that the Germans would reach Leningrad. They failed to stockpile extra food when they could  — by the time the city was blockaded there was only a month’s supply. They refused to evacuate; when, finally, they sent a few thousand children out of the city, they went straight into the path of oncoming Germans. They conscripted thousands of civilians into a people’s militia, sending them with no training and often without weapons as cannon fodder to fight professional German soldiers. The militia were told to face Panzers ‘by the decisive and dexterous use of bayonet, rifle butt, knife, crowbar or axe.’ Around half of the 135,000 conscripts were slaughtered. When catastrophe struck the authorities resorted to the traditional Soviet default position: terror. Thousands were executed for crimes ranging from anti-Party activity to defeatist talk.

One thing they did manage efficiently was the removal of masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum to a place of safety. Curators worked for six days to ensure protection of the art treasures, which were treated with significantly more care than the people of Leningrad.

The book concentrates on the first few months of the  siege, during one of the coldest winters even by Russian standards, when 100,000 people a month were dying of hunger, their corpses lying unattended for days. During that winter ‘the city turned from something quite familiar … into a Goya-esque charnel house’, Reid writes. Her great strength is her skilful and sensitive use of material kept by survivors,  much of it previously unknown. Meticulously, she has drawn from scores of diaries and interviews, so that often the victims tell their own stories — painfully, on occasion, about what it feels and looks like to starve to death. This testimony makes for a powerful sense of immediacy.  

In the Soviet years only one version of the siege story was permitted: the heroic fight of a united populace for survival against fascism. Reid debunks many of the myths. For example, from KGB files she uncovered the extent to which people resorted to cannibalism. There were more than 1,000 arrests, mainly of women trying to feed their children. Thousands more killed themselves. As the poet Olga Berggoltz, an eloquent siege diarist, put it not entirely melodramatically: ‘We measured time between one suicide and the next.’

Propaganda aside, how did people behave? Reid says she wanted to explore human nature in extremis. In one of the diaries she found a very human answer to her question: ‘There were good ones, bad

ones . . . and the rest.’