Thursday, 20 September 2012

Anna Reid's "Leningrad: City under Siege" - a review

The Siege of Leningrad began 71 years ago this month - the bloodiest and most murderous siege in history.  To mark this grim anniversary, here is my review of Anna Reid's excellent book on the subject, which was published last year. (This review first appeared in the Financial Times, on 27 August, 2011)

Anna Reid “Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44”,
Bloomsbury, £25.00, 492pp, bibliography, index, plates.

Everything in the old Soviet Union had a political aspect.  Individuals could be lauded one moment, then swiftly denounced when the political tide turned.  Historical events could be subject to similar ideological vicissitudes; held up as salient examples of ‘world-historical forces’, then derided as irrelevant.

So it was with the wartime history of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  The longest siege of World War Two and the most murderous siege in history, the Nazi blockade of the city should have been a straightforward case of astonishing human suffering and heroism in the face of a barbaric invader.  Yet, post-war Soviet historiography at first proclaimed the fiction that nothing extraordinary had happened in the city that bore Lenin’s name, before switching to a mawkish and rather disingenuous commemoration of the martyrdom of a model metropolis – a latter-day communist passion-play. 

The truth, as ever, was rather more complex.  Anna Reid’s book Leningrad 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 regime.   

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 Leningrad 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. 

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 Leningrad society close 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.  

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, Leningrad’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.

Reid tells the story of Leningrad under siege 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 

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