An interview with... Anna Reid on the Siege of Leningrad
Glorified by Russia, glossed over by the West, the siege of Leningrad is rarely seen for what it was – a tragic story of tremendous suffering and death. The author of a new book on the subject tells us what really happened there.
For readers not familiar with the history, what was the siege of Leningrad?
The siege of Leningrad began in early September 1941, just over two months after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22nd. The German armies reached the outskirts of the city in late August, having stormed through the Baltics, but at that point Hitler was persuaded by his generals to divert his tanks to the attack on Moscow. Instead of taking Leningrad by frontal assault he decided to besiege it - to surround it, not letting any food in or people out, and wait for it to collapse through starvation.
But Leningrad never collapsed. Though the Red Army endlessly tried to break through the siege ring, the two sides basically remained stuck at stalemate, mired in exactly the sort of static trench warfare that Hitler had sworn to avoid. Finally, in January 1944, the Red Army managed to push the Wehrmacht back all along the front, and the Germans began their long retreat westwards. In the meantime, about three quarters of a million Leningraders – over a quarter of the city’s pre-siege population - died of starvation, most of them in the first siege winter of 1941-2.
What are the myths of the siege from a Russian perspective?
Immediately post-war, while Stalin was still alive, it was talked about remarkably little. The Soviets admitted mass starvation at the Nuremberg war crime trials, but put a lot more emphasis on the Germans’ deliberate shelling of civilian targets, such as hospitals and tram-stops. Stalin didn’t want to talk about the siege because it was such an obviously Pyrrhic victory. It begged too many questions: Why was no mass evacuation of civilians organised before the siege ring closed? Why weren’t food stocks laid in? And why, of course, were the Gemans allowed to get so far in the first place?
Later, Brezhnev created a cult of World War II - the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as it’s still called - to distract from the stagnant politics and lagging living standards of the time. Though the siege now took centre-stage, it did so in highly pasteurised, heroicised form. You get ghastly, toe-curlingly awful language about how everyone behaved impeccably under a wise and trusted Party leadership, and about how the city came out of the trauma renewed and purified. Actual suffering was abstracted down to a few iconic objects: the home-made stoves people used to warm their flats, and the children’s sleds on which they dragged their dead relatives to the cemeteries. Published memoirs and diaries were heavily censored of course. We only started getting the real story with Gorbachev’s glasnost.
You draw on a lot of those materials in your new bookLeningrad.
The most reliable accounts of what actually happened inside the city during the siege (and the core of of my book) are uncensored diaries – some newly published, some lodged with museums or libraries, some handed me by the diarists’ families. There are also masses of government documents which we’ve only had access to since [the fall of the USSR in] 1991. They include stuff from the NKVD [Soviet secret police], reports from government agencies on how everything stopped functioning – the fire service, hospitals, factories – and police reports on cannibalism and crime more generally. There was looting of shops and bread carts; mugging, murder, corruption in the food distribution system; massive theft of food and ration cards – none of which, of course, enters the Brezhnevite version of events. Also, of course, political repression ground on. Ordinary, perfectly harmless people were still being arrested and dragged off to prison even as they were dying of starvation.
Putin is clearly using the siege in the same way that Brezhnev did, as part a cult of the Great Patriotic War. You can see it in action at the Piskarovskoye Cemetery, [site of Leningrad’s - now St Petersburg’s - main siege memorial] on Victory Day [May 9th]. Enormous crowds gather carrying banners – red, but without the hammer and sickle – and wearing little coloured ribbons that are supposed to indicate that you are related to a blockade survivor (which is impossible, they can’t all be descended from blokadniki). Understandably, Russians are very proud of their war record, and in general people still think of the siege as a heroic episode – a testament to the human spirit and a great survival story – whereas for me, having spent years with dozens of unbearably sad diaries, it’s more a story of human tragedy and government brutality and incompetence. More here.