24th Oct 2012
Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44 by Anna Reid
We all think that we know the story of the Second World War, but sorely under represented in British historical memory, writing and literature is the importance of the Soviet city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and the siege the city faced.
Throughout the 900 days of the Nazi siege between 1941 and 1944, over 800,000 people died from starvation, cold, brutality and isolation. In a direct, engaging and informative style, Anna Reid delves into the whats, whens, hows and tries to touch on the whys of the tragedy that befell Leningrad.
The writing in Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege is detailed but never overbearing, and Reid’s explanations of why the Soviet propaganda or other historical explanations fail to tell the whole story makes for excellent historiographical context, without verging too far into the academic.
This is much more than an account of what happened. Reid exploration of questions such as whether a more effective leadership could have altered the situation, what Stalin’s role was, and how close Leningrad was to falling means that t the book goes far beyond facts and figures.
What is most striking, and what Reid manages to convey so well, is that this is not just history. It is the present.
Modern-day Russia continues to struggle to come to terms with the shocking events of the siege, and its impact on both the individual and collective consciousness.
Reid weaves the vast array of archival information and government statistics together with comments and memories, drawing effectively on primary sources such as diaries and letters, combining the personal and political together to create a narrative that is both educational and empathetic.
Daily life, including scrambles in the ice for food, attempts to warm and ‘kholod, golod, snaryady, pozhary‘ – ‘cold, hunger, shells, fires’ – are interspersed with vignettes shocking in their barbaric simplicity, such as that of woman who has just buried her father noticing how cemetery guards have used a frozen corpse with its outstretched arm and cigarette between its teeth as a signpost to a nearby mass grave.
The effects of the Nazi campaign to starve the city to death were exacerbated, argues Reid, by the Soviet ‘denial, disorganisation and carelessness of human life’. She does not shy away from taboo subjects such as cannibalism, but reveals the dreadful circumstances in which the fight for survival and animal instinct for life becomes all.
Yet despite all this, Leningrad did not fall, and the Nazis did not win. That more than anything is the triumph of this book – while Reid tells the tale of a despicable and desolate period in history, the reader is still left revelling in the tenacity and power of the human spirit.
Recommended for: Those interested in history and humanity.
Other recommended reading: Try Reid’s Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Urkraine, Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad or Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate.