Murray Polner: Review of Anna Reid’s “Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944” (Walker, 2011)


Murray Polner is the author of numerous books, the former editor of Present Tense, and a book review editor for the History News Network.

Not since Harrison Salisbury’s book The 900 Days appeared in 1969,has an English-language book devoted to the German siege of Leningrad (now renamed back to St. Petersburg) appeared. The longest blockade in recorded history, it consumed 1.5 million people, half of them civilians, many of them children. In merciless, unvarnished detail, Anna Reid’s Leningrad is filled with searing images of starvation, cannibalism, corruption and death in that most Westernized and striking of Russia’s cities.

The siege has essentially been overlooked in the West.  But then, too, we’ve ignored the enormous sacrifices of the Russian people and its military forces in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies.

Reid is a onetime Ukraine correspondent for The Economist and Daily Telegraph, and a journalist who holds an advanced degree in Russian studies.  The heart of her book is the memoirs, archives, letters and diaries of people who lived through the siege.  Her heartbreaking and angry version does not spare the vicious German invaders, though she rightly excoriates the Communist regime for waging a reign of terror against the city’s imaginary dissenters.

Trapped Leningraders would in time turn livid at the sight of well-fed Party bureaucrats while the rest were starving,  Reid is on target in wondering why sufficient food supplies were not stocked before the Germans invaded and surrounded the city.  She also faults Party officials for failing to order a general evacuation until it was far too late.  While admittedly difficult to measure public opinion, Reid’s reading of the diaries and memoirs “show Leningraders raging as much against the incompetence, callousness, hypocrisy and dishonesty of their own officials as against the distant, impersonal enemy.”

Yet Stalin’s purges and punishments never ceased.  The NKVD and two of Stalin’s closest henchmen, Andrei Zhdanov (who once denigrated the great Leningrad poet Anna Akhmatova as “a cross between a nun and whore”) and Georgi Malenkov (who would become one of Stalin’s successors after the dictator’s death in March 1953 and then just as abruptly would be removed and sent, or so it is said, to Siberia for an alleged offense) carried out a reign of fear aimed at domestic “enemies.”

Reid cites a Leningrad NKVD study citing the sort of people punished, among them supposed anarchists, Trotskyists, kulaks, tsarist sympathizers, the rich, and of course, Jews.  She offers a devastating portrait of one roundup of people awaiting banishment.  According to an eyewitness, Lyubov Shaporina.  “…about a hundred people waited to be exiled.  They were mostly old women…  These are the enemies our government is capable of fighting…  The Germans are at the gates, the Germans are about to enter the city, and we are arresting and deporting old women—lonely, defenseless, harmless people.”  Reid’s book is filled with similar examples.  The popular poet Olga Berggolt’s doctor father had, she wrote, loyally served the Soviet Union since the Russian Civil War, but was dispatched, emaciated, to Krasnoyarsk in western Siberia because, Reid speculates, he was Jewish and refused to spy on his colleagues.

Even party officials were not immune, and their personal conflicts resembled a Mafia shootout with the persecutors turning on one another during the darkest days of the siege.  Most notably, Malenkov tried to eliminate his rival Zhdanov, but Stalin spared his sycophant.  Everyday Leningraders were not as lucky while Malenkov, who survived his fight with Zhdanov, and Vyachaslav Molotov (he who disillusioned many Communist Party members throughout the world in 1939 when he brushed off the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact by saying, “Fascism is a matter of taste”) began yet more arrests and deportations of “suspects” inside the city.

While Reid dwells on Soviet crimes and ineptitude, she also turns toward the Germans, who after all, were the primary cause of the city’s misery.  After they captured nearby Pavlovsky and Pushkin, a “fiercely anti-Bolshevik” diarist Olga Osipova, initially believed that compared to the Communists, Hitler and the Nazis were not so bad.  But she quickly learned “that the Nazis were different” after seeing them in action.  All of Pushkin’s Jews were executed.  Another memorist, the composer Bogdanov-Berezovsky, met a former neighbor who described countless examples of hangings and shootings of Jewish civilians in surrounding regions.

In the end, Reid argues, “the war was won at unnecessarily huge cost.  Of this the blockade of Leningrad is perhaps the most extreme example….Had Russia had different leaders she might have prepared for the siege better, prevented the Germans from surrounding the city at all, or, indeed, never have been invaded in the first place.”

Eventually the siege ended and a few years later the war ended.  More than twenty million Russians were dead.  Leningraders, and in fact many Russians, looked forward to a change in direction since “[h]aving fought, worked and suffered for their country for four years, they felt they had earned the right to be trusted by its government.  They longed for the ordinary decencies of civilized life.”

It was not to be and the repression continued unabated.  4.5 million Soviet troops were captured by the Germans and only 1.8 million emerged alive; the rest, especially Jews and Party members, were executed by their captors.  POW returnees were often punished by a government which suspected then of betraying the Party.  Lev Kopelov, a Red Army soldier, publicly objected to the mass rapes of German and Polish women, and was sent to a gulag until 1954, the year after Stalin finally departed this earth.

The oppression that followed rivaled the darkest years of the thirties when leading communists, generals and intellectuals were put to death. At its simplest, most inane level, French bread was renamed Moscow bread, echoed in 2003 by American pseudo-patriots’ transforming French fries into freedom fries after France objected to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  And Soviet propagandists insisted that baseball was really a Russian invention.  Far more seriously, terrified colleagues informed on one another and the camps once again began filling up.  Jews again bore the brunt of the regime's vindictiveness.  Molotov’s Jewish wife was falsely accused of being a Zionist and advocate of group sex and was sent to a camp, after which her husband, ever faithful to the Party and his own personal survival, divorced her.  Not until Stalin died did the terror begin to subside, yet paradoxically millions of Russians publicly grieved for their brutal Georgian leader, though just as many millions were silently thankful that he was finally gone.

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