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
the disintegrating personal lives of people who emerge from her pages as living, breathing individuals, sympathetic in their personal agonies, their changing attitudes to family and friends, their doubts, delusions and imperfections. What is more, Reid writes about the horror of mass death with a restraint that allows the voices of the blokadniki to reverberate across her pages. They relate in excruciating detail the physical effects of starvation: the loosening of the teeth, the grey, dead taste in the mouth, the bloating of the body. Many also dwell on the psychological effects of hunger. Increasingly preoccupied with food, individuals gradually lost interest in the world around them and, at the extremity, anything except finding something to eat. Spouses began to hide food from one another. One young woman saw the hunger as laying bare people’s essential characters. Yelena Kochina wrote in her diary as early as 3 October 1941 that ‘before the war, people adorned themselves with bravery, fidelity to principles, honesty – whatever they liked. The hur r icane of war has tor n off those rags: now everyone has become what he was in fact, and not what he wanted to seem.’
By December 1941 the sight of corpses was commonplace. A dance teacher at the Mariinsky ballet school noted the gradual stripping of a corpse that leant against a lamppost:
With his back to the post, a man sits in the snow, wrapped in rags, wearing a knapsack … For two weeks I passed him every day as I went back and forth to the hospital. He sat, 1. Without his knapsack; 2. Without his rags; 3. In his underwear; 4. Naked; 5. A Skeleton with ripped out entrails. Cannibalism remains one of the great taboos of Russian narratives of the blockade. Reid is careful to draw the distinction, which exists in Russian, between the eating of corpses, trupoyedstvo, and murdering for flesh, lyudoyedstvo, and treats the former practice, far more common, with compassion. Some people, delir ious with hunger, murdered their siblings or colleagues for their ration cards, but overwhelmingly people ate corpses rather than killed for food. The scale of the practice has only become known in the last few years following the declassification of police files in 2004. By December 1942, 2,015 ‘cannibals’ had been arrested. Reid notes that the demographic information available suggests that: ‘the typical Leningrad “cannibal” … was neither the Sweeney Todd of legend nor the bestial lowlife of Soviet history writing, but an honest, working-class housewife from the provinces, scavenging protein to save her family.’ Only the Ice Road – a stream of trucks that delivered meagre supplies to the city in the winter of 1941–2 across the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga to the north of the city – cast the population the thinnest of life lines. Conditions improved in the summer of 1942: the following winter was not nearly so harsh so there was no repeat of the mass starvation of the first, although people still continued to die from the aftereffects of illness and malnutrition.
There is a slight r isk, in Reid’s focus on the city’s intelligentsia, of extrapolating from their experiences a view that the majority of Leningraders spent their time burning nineteenth-century books on Roman law for heat and teaching their children to memorise Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as a way of distracting them from their hunger. The city’s working classes undoubtedly responded rather differently to the challenges of survival. In essence, however, life for all had become a gr inding daily struggle against cold, hunger and despair.
For all the iniquities, bitterness, betrayals and horror of the blockade, it is hard not to come away from Reid’s book with the impression that there was something overwhelmingly humbling in the Leningraders’ defiant, desperate c l ing ing to l i fe. Institutes and f actor i es remained open, performances continued to be staged in sub-zero temperatures in unheated theatres in winter (the applause silent because the audience was clapping through mittens and gloves), and hundreds of thousands of family members sacrificed rations for each other. Yes, thousands fell into torpor, moral abasement and even murderous desperation but most, somehow, did not. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 20
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