Anna Reid “
So it was with the wartime history of
The truth, as ever, was rather more complex. Anna Reid’s book
is one of comparatively few that have approached the subject in English since
Harrison Salisbury’s seminal 900 Days
of 1969. She has a number of advantages,
not least as a Russian-speaker, but also in benefiting both from post-Soviet
archival revelations and from the work of Russian historians in recent decades
uncovering the unglossed truth of the siege.
The narrative that she presents is certainly not for the faint of heart,
but it is all the more important for that.
It portrays a populace caught between the rock of a merciless Nazi
enemy, and the hard place of a brutal, often incompetent, Communist
Reid uses first-hand accounts to tremendous effect, drawing on memoir and archival sources to weave a vivid, sometimes disturbing tapestry. Many of those that she quotes will be comparatively well-known; the poet Anna Akhmatova for instance, or Trotsky’s cousin Vera Inber. But it is the ordinary, unremarkable diarists that make the greatest impact; the 12-year-old schoolgirl starving to death or the young apprentice pressed into the city’s militia. Through such commentators, all the horrors of the siege are represented; from the mendacity of the Soviet authorities to the fear and paranoia of a populace forced to the very limits of their endurance.
Though the winter cold and indiscriminate German shelling took many lives, starvation was the greatest peril. Hitler had no intention of his forces actually ‘taking’ the city, preferring them instead to inherit it after the ravages of hunger had killed off its population. He nearly got his wish. When the Nazi ring around the city closed, it was estimated that
had only a month’s worth of food stores.
As the rationing system then collapsed, Leningraders first ate household
pets, before resorting in desperation to the consumption of anything suspected
to hold a modicum of nutritional value: from leather belts to cellulose,
linseed oil to wallpaper. Leningrad
In addition, in the first winter of the siege in particular, the corrosive, dehumanising effects of starvation soon made themselves felt, with theft and looting becoming commonplace, and pushing
to a complete breakdown. Even
cannibalism – vehemently denied by the post-war authorities – was documented,
with women from the suburbs, strangely, being most prepared to break the
ultimate taboo and consume the flesh of those already deceased. Leningrad
For those less squeamish, death from starvation was a real fear. Entire families succumbed. Corpses would be dragged through the frozen streets on children’s sledges to be stacked for burial in mass graves when the thaw allowed. Countless others were left where they fell. The total numbers killed in the city during the siege are still disputed, but are thought to amount to at least three-quarters of a million.
Despite such tribulations,
’s people were
not spared the additional horrors inflicted by their own authorities. The Soviet secret police – the NKVD – scarcely
drew breath with the Nazi assault before continuing its campaign of persecution
against its real or imagined opponents within the city: ‘kulaks’, ‘defeatists’
and ‘spies’. Many thousands would fall
victim to their state-sponsored terror and institutionalised paranoia. Leningrad
Reid tells the story of
with considerable flair, providing a compassionate and sympathetic account of a
city enduring unimaginable suffering.
Impeccably researched, well-paced and beautifully written, Leningrad
marks a new benchmark in the study of the subject, and a more nuanced,
objective interpretation for a new century.
© Roger Moorhouse 2011