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
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011