Human tragedy at the expense of triumph

Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44

OF all the great dramas of the Second World War, none is more moving than the siege of Leningrad. In September 1941 the Germans began a siege that lasted for nearly three years. Three-quarters of a million civilians starved to death in blockaded Leningrad.

An important military and industrial target, Leningrad was also the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Hitler, an anti-communist as well as an anti-semite, was intent on the complete destruction of the city when his armies invaded Russia in June 1941. Acutely aware of the symbolic as well as the practical importance of Leningrad, Stalin was equally determined to hold it. In September 1941 the Soviet dictator sent his best general — Georgy Zhukov — to save Leningrad. Zhukov stabilised the city’s defences but was unable to prevent its encirclement by the Germans and their Finnish allies. Soviet supplies to Leningrad had to go by air or via Lake Ladoga, which froze in winter and provided a series of ice-roads to the city. But these lifelines were under constant attack.

Leningrad’s story was well-known during the war itself but only in a somewhat sanitised and over-heroic version. Missing from Soviet and allied propaganda was the full extent of the civilian casualties, the ruthlessness and brutality of the city’s communist authorities towards their own citizens, and Stalin’s mistakes in failing to anticipate and counter effect the German onslaught on Leningrad.

The full story of Leningrad’s ordeal only began to emerge after the war and in 1969 the American journalist and historian Harrison Salisbury, a former Moscow correspondent, published The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. Salisbury told a tragic but inspiring and epic story of triumph over adversity. Much has been published since, including a large amount of new evidence from the Russian archives, but until the publication of Anna Reid’s book, there had been no true successor to Salisbury’s sweeping and magisterial history.

Reid concentrates on the human story of the siege, utilising the personal diaries and memoirs of Leningraders, including those of many who did not survive the war. As the subtitle of her book indicates, she sees the siege as more tragedy than epic: “Yes — Leningraders displayed extraordinary endurance, selflessness and courage. But they also stole, murdered, abandoned relatives and resorted to eating human meat — as do all societies when the food runs out.”

Leningraders, Reid points out, were no strangers to violence, hardship and upheaval. The city’s older inhabitants had lived through the 1917 revolution, the civil war that followed, and Stalin’s mass terror of the 1930s. They also had a ringside seat when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in December 1939. The aim of the so-called ‘Winter War’ of 1939-1940 was to force Finland to concede territory adjacent to Leningrad, an acquisition considered necessary to strengthen the city’s defences. Stalin achieved his aim but at the cost of 50,000 Soviet soldiers’ lives and the enmity of the Finns, who joined in the German attack on the USSR and besieged Leningrad from the north.

When war broke out, the Soviets mobilised a popular militia of Leningrad’s workers and intellectuals. Poorly trained and under-equipped, 70,000 of them died in fierce battles with the Germans on the approaches to Leningrad. Was their sacrifice worth it? Reid is sceptical, arguing that it was Hitler’s decision to divert resources to the German attack on Moscow that made the decisive difference.

Reid also indicts the Soviet leadership for failing to evacuate Leningrad’s civilian population. By the time the Germans arrived, half a million civilians had been evacuated. But left behind were 2.5m more, including 400,000 children. The bread ration fell to 125 grams or three thin slices a day and little or no meat and vegetables — a quarter of the calories the average adult needs to maintain weight. Only factory workers or those serving in the armed forces got a little more. To survive Leningraders ate cattle-food, rats and pigeons, even their own pets. There were hundreds of recorded cases of cannibalism, although most of these were the result of corpse-eating rather than person-killing for food.

The city ground to a halt as the authorities ran out of fuel for transportation and electricity generation. “Sadder, perhaps, even than physical breakdown”, writes Reid, “was the way in which hunger destroyed personalities and relationships. Increasingly preoccupied with food, individuals gradually lost interest in the world around them, and at the extremity, with anything except finding something to eat”.

In the winter of 1941-42 temperatures dropped to as low as -30 degrees centigrade and hundreds of thousands died of hunger and cold. Tens of thousands were buried in mass graves on the outskirts of the city.

Many families perished when their last mobile member was no longer able to collect their rations.

Leningrad was bombed as well as blockaded and another 17,000 civilians were killed by enemy fire. Those evacuated also suffered significant losses en route to safety.

But the city itself did not die and Reid’s book is far more than a gloomy catalogue of death and destruction. Theatres, cinemas and concert halls remained open. Dmitry Shostakovich wrote his seventh symphony during the early days of the siege. He was evacuated in October 1941 but the symphony premiered in Leningrad in August 1942. Universities and schools continued to function. The authorities also took steps to save the Leningrad’s cultural heritage: shipped east were millions of books and works of art from the Hermitage Museum and other institutions. Most of the animals in Leningrad’s zoo survived, either through evacuation or by being given special rations. The most celebrated survivor was Krasavitsa (Beauty) — the Soviet Union’s only hippopotamus, whose keeper washed her daily with warm water and rubbed camphor oil into her skin to stop it from cracking.

Reid describes these achievements as “specks of light in a vast darkness” but in the circumstances it is a tribute to the human spirit that there were any such bright spots.

The suffering in blockaded Leningrad was not equally shared. Communist chiefs looked after themselves and their immediate circle, although not ordinary party members, who died in as large as numbers as other categories of the population. Most likely to survive among civilians were those who worked in the food industry, least likely refugees from outside the city. The casualty rate of members of the armed forces was very high — a million soldiers died defending Leningrad — but they had priority when it came to food supplies and the city’s artistes and entertainers were, for this reason alone, happy to visit them on the front line.

The Soviets cracked down hard on dissent and on sections of the population considered potentially threatening. Thousands of ethnic Finns and Germans were deported, as were “socially alien” and “criminal-felonious” elements — catch-all Soviet categories that included a good number of actual criminals as well as those who might have gripes against the regime, such as the children of purge victims or people from families of the former bourgeoisie. In addition, thousands were arrested for political crimes. One example cited by Reid is Ivan Zhilinsky, a railway clerk, who confided to his diary some very mild doubts about the communist system and its leaders. He was arrested and disappeared into the Gulag.

Support for the Soviet regime waxed and waned in Leningrad during the siege but at no time was there any large-scale political opposition. Most Leningraders were patriots who preferred the communists to the Nazis and saw the difference between a terroristic and a genocidal regime: had Hitler captured the city its population would have been wiped out. The Soviet regime was nasty and inefficient but effective and, in the end, it got the job done. The city and most of its people survived and the Red Army eventually triumphed over the Wehrmacht.

After autumn 1941 there was little danger Leningrad would fall to the Germans but the city continued to be important strategically — pinning down a quarter of the Wehrmacht and blocking the Germans’ northern route to Moscow. The siege was partially lifted in January 1943 and the blockade finally ended a year later.

After the war Leningrad’s ordeal continued as its artists, intellectuals and party leaders fell victim to successive waves of purges, although nothing like the prewar scale of Stalinist repression.

Anna Reid is highly critical of the Soviet authorities, arguing that had the situation been handled better many more Leningraders would have survived. That is almost certainly true but it may be true, too, that without the harshness of the communist regime Leningrad would not have survived the siege. It is an uncomfortable thought but the very defects of the communist system helped ensure its survival in the Soviet-German war — a conflict that claimed the lives of 30m people.

Anna Reid’s book perhaps overemphasises the tragedy at the expense of the triumph of Leningrad’s ordeal, but it is still a worthy successor to Harrison Salisbury’s great work.

nProfessor Geoffrey Roberts is Head of the School of History at University College Cork. His biography of Marshal Zhukov will be published by Random House in April.

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