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The best books on The Siege of Leningrad

recommended by Anna Reid

Glorified by Russia, glossed over by the West, the siege of Leningrad is rarely seen for what it was – a tragic story of tremendous suffering and death. The author of a new book on the subject tells us what really happened there

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  • 1

    Russia at War
    by Alexander Werth

  • 2

    A Writer at War
    by Vasily Grossman

  • 3

    Reflections on the Russian Soul
    by Dmitry Likhachov

  • 4

    Less Than One
    by Joseph Brodsky

  • 5

    Conversations with Stalin
    by Milovan Djilas

Glorified by Russia, glossed over by the West, the siege of Leningrad is rarely seen for what it was – a tragic story of tremendous suffering and death. The author of a new book on the subject tells us what really happened there

Anna Reid

Anna Reid is a journalist and author who writes primarily on the history of Eastern Europe. She was Ukraine correspondent for the Economist from 1993 to 1995, living in Kiev. She has written three books, most recently Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, and lives in London

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For readers not familiar with the history, what was the siege of Leningrad?

The siege of Leningrad began in early September 1941, just over two months after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22nd. The German armies reached the outskirts of the city in late August, having stormed through the Baltics, but at that point Hitler was persuaded by his generals to divert his tanks to the attack on Moscow. Instead of taking Leningrad by frontal assault he decided to besiege it – to surround it, not letting any food in or people out, and wait for it to collapse through starvation.

But Leningrad never collapsed. Though the Red Army endlessly tried to break through the siege ring, the two sides basically remained stuck at stalemate, mired in exactly the sort of static trench warfare that Hitler had sworn to avoid. Finally, in January 1944, the Red Army managed to push the Wehrmacht back all along the front, and the Germans began their long retreat westwards. In the meantime, about three quarters of a million Leningraders – over a quarter of the city’s pre-siege population — died of starvation, most of them in the first siege winter of 1941-2.

What are the myths of the siege from a Russian perspective?

Immediately post-war, while Stalin was still alive, it was talked about remarkably little. The Soviets admitted mass starvation at the Nuremberg war crime trials, but put a lot more emphasis on the Germans’ deliberate shelling of civilian targets, such as hospitals and tram-stops. Stalin didn’t want to talk about the siege because it was such an obviously Pyrrhic victory. It begged too many questions: Why was no mass evacuation of civilians organised before the siege ring closed? Why weren’t food stocks laid in? And why, of course, were the Gemans allowed to get so far in the first place?

Later, Brezhnev created a cult of World War II – the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as it’s still called – to distract from the stagnant politics and lagging living standards of the time. Though the siege now took centre-stage, it did so in highly pasteurised, heroicised form. You get ghastly, toe-curlingly awful language about how everyone behaved impeccably under a wise and trusted Party leadership, and about how the city came out of the trauma renewed and purified. Actual suffering was abstracted down to a few iconic objects: the home-made stoves people used to warm their flats, and the children’s sleds on which they dragged their dead relatives to the cemeteries. Published memoirs and diaries were heavily censored of course. We only started getting the real story with Gorbachev’s glasnost.

You draw on a lot of those materials in your new book, Leningrad.

The most reliable accounts of what actually happened inside the city during the siege (and the core of of my book) are uncensored diaries – some newly published, some lodged with museums or libraries, some handed me by the diarists’ families. There are also masses of government documents which we’ve only had access to since [the fall of the USSR in] 1991. They include stuff from the NKVD [Soviet secret police], reports from government agencies on how everything stopped functioning – the fire service, hospitals, factories – and police reports on cannibalism and crime more generally. There was looting of shops and bread carts; mugging, murder, corruption in the food distribution system; massive theft of food and ration cards – none of which, of course, enters the Brezhnevite version of events. Also, of course, political repression ground on. Ordinary, perfectly harmless people were still being arrested and dragged off to prison even as they were dying of starvation.

Putin is clearly using the siege in the same way that Brezhnev did, as part a cult of the Great Patriotic War. You can see it in action at the Piskarovskoye Cemetery, [site of Leningrad’s – now St Petersburg’s – main siege memorial] on Victory Day [May 9th]. Enormous crowds gather carrying banners – red, but without the hammer and sickle – and wearing little coloured ribbons that are supposed to indicate that you are related to a blockade survivor (which is impossible, they can’t all be descended from blokadniki). Understandably, Russians are very proud of their war record, and in general people still think of the siege as a heroic episode – a testament to the human spirit and a great survival story – whereas for me, having spent years with dozens of unbearably sad diaries, it’s more a story of human tragedy and government brutality and incompetence.

How well is the siege known outside of Russia, in the West?

It’s known about, but like the Eastern Front in general has never been front of mind for British or American historians, who have always concentrated on the bits of the war where our boys fought. It’s only in the last 10-15 years that we’ve begun to realise that World War II was essentially a Soviet-German war; that the Eastern Front was where the outcome of the war was actually decided. Soviet deaths in battle just in the Leningrad region – roughly one million – were more than all British and American military casualties in the war put together. And that’s not counting the three quarters of a million Russian civilians who died inside Leningrad, of starvation.

The siege of Leningrad is one of the great tragedies of 20th century European history. Like the Holocaust and the Gulag, it’s something we all have a moral duty to know about. I’d like to see these five books pressed into the hands of every 18 year old, so they can understand the depths of brutality and stupidity that Europe descended into in the not so distant past, and make sure that nothing like it ever happens again.

We’re beginning with Alexander Werth’s Russia at War.

Alexander Werth was the BBC’s Moscow correspondent through the war. He had been brought up in St Petersburg and emigrated with his family to Britain soon after the revolution [of 1917]. So not only was he an excellent writer, but unlike most of the foreign press corps had the enormous advantage of being bilingual. Part history and part memoir, his book is shrewd, vivid and even funny. Published in 1964, it’s still one of the best general histories of the war in Russia.

What does it tell us about the broader context of the Eastern front?

He’s excellent on the overall picture – especially on scratchy wartime relations between the Allies – but what makes him stand out is his reportage. One example – he’s talking about the wave of patriotism that swept the country on the announcement of war in June 1941. He’s at the cinema in Moscow. Stalin appears on the newsreel and everyone bursts into wild applause. Of course, at public gatherings this was mandatory, but Werth points out that inside the cinema it was dark, so nobody could see if you were clapping or not. He took that to mean that it was genuine applause.

There’s another lovely moment when he describes papier maché hams and vegetables being put on display in the shop windows on May Day 1942, and the cruelty of this when everybody was very short of food. He makes telling little observations like that all the way through.

Now we move from Russia at War to A Writer at War by Vasily Grossman.

These are the notes Grossman took while a war correspondent for the army newspaper, the Red Star. They are true first drafts of history – quick descriptions of what was going on around him as he sat in some truck or dugout, waiting for something to happen. He has a wonderful, cinematic eye, describing the look of burned-out villages, roads full of refugees, and so on. And he gets the voices of the soldiers and officers absolutely right. He famously never took notes as he interviewed people, but had such a good memory that in the evening he could go off into a corner and write it all down verbatim.

I prefer this book even to [his novel] Life and Fate, which was recently dramatised on Radio 4. It’s just so immediate; it takes you right there. The editors, Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, managed to persuade Grossman’s family to give them access to these notebooks, and it’s the first time they’ve been published. They’re so human and open, and Grossman is such an involved, interesting man. It’s rare to find someone in Soviet literature whose writing hasn’t been poisoned by that ghastly Soviet-realist style. So if Life and Fate looks a bit daunting on your bookshelf, all two and a half inches of it, this is just as good and a lot shorter.

Tell us next about Dmitry Likhachov and Reflections on the Russian Soul.

When Likhachov died his obituarists called him ‘the last of the Petersburg intelligentsia’. A scholar of medieval literature at Leningrad University, his life [from 1906 to 1999] spanned the birth and death of Russian Communism. In his twenties, he was one of the first generation of Gulag prisoners – on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, where the Gulag was trialled. And in his eighties, during glasnost, he became a leading pro-democracy activist. His memoir brilliantly takes in the whole period.

What do we learn from this about conditions on the ground in the siege?

Likhachov had medical exemption from the army, so he saw the siege from inside the city. A lot of siege survivors rewrote their memories so as to make them bearable, to make the ghastly experiences they went through possible to live with. He didn’t do that at all; he’s angry and almost painfully clear-eyed.

Can you give an example of this?

A mass evacuation of civilians was finally organised in late January 1942, across frozen Lake Ladoga, to Leningrad’s east. Not everybody was allowed to leave, though – you had to get a permit. Often the mother of a family would get a permit to leave with her children, but without her elderly parents. So she faced an awful choice: Do I stay here with my parents and doom my children and myself? Or do I save my children and abandon my mother or father? Very often people chose the latter.

Likhachov tells the story of a friend of his, an elderly professor, whose wife and daughter are trying to sort out what to do with him as the days tick by to their departure date. They want to put him in a clinic, but it hasn’t properly opened yet. The father is very ill, lying on a sled, and though the doctor tries to turn them away they just leave him there, in a cloakroom. He dies a few weeks later. That kind of thing happened a lot, and to children as well.

People behaved in all sorts of varied and very human ways during the siege. The same person might behave heroically in one instance, but selfishly in another. It gives insight into what happens to human beings – every person of every nationality – under extreme stress, when you are fighting for your barest survival and social norms disintegrate.

Your fourth pick is Joseph Brodsky’s essay collection Less Than One.

Brodsky lived through the first part of the siege as a baby, in a one-room flat on the Liteiny, right in the centre of town. He brilliantly describes the atmosphere of the postwar city: the bombed-out buildings – ‘haggard and hollow-eyed’ – and the feeling of emptiness, of crowding ghosts. He’s good, as well, on how pinched and harsh life continued to be well after the war. One of his earliest memories is of being given a white bread roll – not a common black one – for the first time. It was such an event that he ate it standing on a table, surrounded by admiring adults.

He fell out with post-war Soviet Russia quite dramatically.

Yes, he was expelled in 1972, and went to the States. Earlier he had been arrested and exiled to a collective farm near Archangel. It wasn’t especially harsh and he was only there for eighteen months. His mentor Anna Akhmatova joked that he’d arranged it on purpose, so as to boost his CV.

Finally, tell us why Milovan Djilas’s Conversations with Stalin is on your list.

Djilas was Tito’s number two, and negotiated with the Kremlin on various diplomatic missions. He’s a terrific source on the grotesque late-Stalin court – the ghastly, drunken, late-night banquets at Stalin’s dacha, the bullying, fear and paranoia; the way the whole Kremlin circle was completely cut off from reality.

Stalin had always been suspicious of Leningrad, disliking its Europhile bent and fearing it as an alternative centre of power. After the war he purged the city’s party leadership and cracked down on its intelligentsia, most famously on the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose son, having been released from the Gulag to fight for his country, was sent straight back to the camps. Stalin did not, however, engineer the siege –which is one theory that has been around.

I include this book for the benefit of those who regard Stalin and Hitler as political and military geniuses, albeit perverted ones. Together with Hitler’s Table Talk, (if I can sneak in a sixth title), it’s a reminder that both of were not only psychopaths, but the most god-awful bores. Djilas describes Stalin’s senility and gluttony, crude jokes and inane drinking games. Hitler’s Table Talk is a collection of rants to cronies, taken down by secretaries during mealtimes at his various wartime headquarters.

Should we think of Stalin and Hitler two-dimensionally as monsters?

Monster is too big a word. I like to think of them as poisonous. Hitler was a poisonous little corporal, really – a town-hall Robespierre. He bangs on about Esperanto, about how many lanes his new autobahns should have, about whether polenta is better for you than rice. He’s a bar-room crank, a petty autodidact with an army at his disposal. People can have a sneaking fascination for the great dictators; these books bring them down to earth.

Do you think we will witness any change in Putin’s Russia over the coming years?

[Ed: this interview took place before the recent postelection rallies in Moscow]

I do think there’s the capacity for sudden change. The Orange revolution in Ukraine, for example, came out of nowhere. Did you spot Putin getting booed the other day at the wrestling competition? Things can change suddenly. I think it’s an anachronism that Russia is stuck with this third-world political system, and I don’t think it will last forever.

When I put it to my Russian friends that things are bound to change, they all say – No, the new middle class only cares about the latest model iPad and winterbreaks in Sharm-el-Sheikh. But I’m not sure that will be true forever. Specific issues can still get people out on the streets and very angry. Russia’s quite good at revolutions. I’m always expecting the unexpected in Russia.

Interview by Alec Ash

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Anna Reid

Anna Reid is a journalist and author who writes primarily on the history of Eastern Europe. She was Ukraine correspondent for the Economist from 1993 to 1995, living in Kiev. She has written three books, most recently Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, and lives in London