A l l H e a r t s We r e C h i l l e d LENINGRAD: TRAGEDY OF A CITY UNDER SIEGE, 1941–44
By Anna Reid (Bloomsbury 492pp £25)
clear that mass starvation was a declared end in itself, not an unfortunate by-product of a broader military strategy. German air raids and artillery targeted the city’s water supply and stockpiles of food with the deliberate intention of ‘relieving us of the necessity of feeding the population … through the winter’. The raw figures defy the imagination. When the final road to the city was cut on 8 September 1941, there were approximately 3.3 million mouths to feed in the city, with enough food supplies to last a month. The city was blockaded for two and a half years and by January 1944 approximately 750,000 had starved to death – four times more deaths than resulted from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
ANYONE DRIVING FROM Pulkovo Air por t i nto S t Petersburg today passes an enormous memorial to the siege of Leningrad at the edge of the city. A vast obelisk is fronted by ranks of soldiers and workers, men and women who march out fearlessly in the direction of the front line only a few kilometres to the south. Erected in the early 1970s, the monument symbolises an official Soviet and now l a r ge l y unaltered Russian nar rat ive o f t he s e l f l e s s and united blokadniki defendi ng t heir bes i eged c i t y. Leningrad does not seek to over t u r n t h i s powerful s t o r y o f heroi sm completely but it does argue that the reality of the siege was a good dea l more complicated and ambiguous. In a magisterial telling of the story that is by turns inspir ing and appalling, Reid reconstructs the lives of those caught up in one of the key conflicts of the Second World War and one of the twentieth century’s greatest human tragedies.
As the famine began to take hold, the authorities found desperate and ingenious sources of calories. For example, flax-seed cake found in the freight yards, ordinarily used as cattle feed, was used to make ‘g rey’ macaroni. The rationing system became ‘the key to each person’s fate during the siege, the basic template against which life unfolded’ and was tied to productivity, a system trialled
(unsuccessfully) in the Gulag: ‘it tended to preser ve ( just) the l ives of those vital to the city’s defence – soldier s and industr ial workers – and condemn office workers, old people, the unemployed and children to death’. By October 1941, a ‘dependant’ such as a child between twelve and fourteen or a ‘non-working’ mother (in practice a woman who spent hours ever y day queuing for bread and hauling fuel and water) was allowed a mere 250g of bread daily. The nickname for a depen-
Listening horns on the walls of the Peter and Paul fortress
The siege need not have been quite so devastating. The Soviet leadership had been caught unawares by the speed of Army Group North’s extraordinary, violent advance through the Baltic and failed to coordinate a proper evacuation of the city in the crucial window in August 1941 before the Wehrmacht closed in. Reid argues that while responsibility for the mass death lies squarely with the Germans, its lethal power was magnified by Soviet ‘denial, disorganisation and carelessness of human life’.
Deciding against a costly frontal assault on the city, the Germans chillingly set about the business of starving it not simply into submission, but to death. Reid is dant’s ration card was the smertnik, from the Russian for death, smert’.
Abuses were widespread. Every combatant nation had rationing systems and all spawned cor ruption, black-marketeering and fraud, but in the extreme case of Leningrad they ‘meant unaccountable extra deaths’. Every diar ist recalls corrupt bosses and well-fed canteen workers and shop girls, and each one also remembers obtaining extra rations themselves by whatever means possible.
The great strength of Reid’s story is that the appalling dilemmas and suffering thrust upon ordinary people are not drawn in broad brushstrokes on a huge canvas of countless names and statistics. They are related through
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011