Victor Sebestyen

City of the dead

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.

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