New Book Challenges Leningrad Siege Myths
Published: November 2, 2011 (Issue # 1681)
Anna Reid’s book compiles information from archives, interviews and diaries.
Seventy years after the events and with only a handful of survivors left, there are still new angles to approach the tragedy of the 872-day World War II Siege of Leningrad.
In “Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege,” British journalist and writer Anna Reid has compiled information from recently opened archives, literary works, interviews, recent research and diaries. It gives a sweeping overview of how civilians, about 750,000 of whom died, experienced the siege. Hunger killed most of them.
Reid also addresses the mishandling of the defense of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, by the fat cats in power.
She challenges myths about the siege, particularly the Soviet line of continuous and heroic defense that is still believed by many. In fact, after switching focus to Moscow in late 1941, the Germans had little chance of seizing the city and would not have accepted any surrender. Nevertheless, the siege dragged on until January 1944.
“Yes, the regime successfully defended the city, devising ingenious food supplements and establishing supply and evacuation routes across Lake Ladoga,’’ Reid writes.
“But it also delayed, bungled, squandered its soldiers’ lives by sending them into battle untrained and unarmed, fed its own senior apparatchiks while all around starved, and made thousands of pointless executions and arrests.’’
In one photo in the book, a well-fed man in uniform is pictured close to a starving and exhausted Leningrad survivor.
As for ordinary citizens, some “did turn out to be heroes, others to be selfish and callous, most to be a mixture of both,” Reid writes.
Most of the civilian deaths occurred in the winter of 1941-42, an especially cold one in which the mercury dropped below -30 degrees Celsius.
While attempts were made to release the city from the grip of the Germans and the Finns in the north, none were successful, even after the Road of Life was opened across Lake Ladoga. A rationing system was introduced, but supplies fell well short of what was needed.
A well-fed man in uniform and less healthy-looking citizen in December 1941.
Reid describes people’s ingenuity: “Zoologists survived … because they knew how to catch rats and pigeons. Impractical mathematicians died.” They used their contacts, called in favors and sold off valuables. The most desperate robbed, killed and ate human flesh.
Neglected by the authorities, almost all the peasants who took refuge from the Germans in overcrowded and disease-ridden villages around the city died.
Among the dead as a whole, “mortality rates were particularly high among men (71 percent of the total), over-sixties (27 percent of total) and babies (14 percent),” Reid writes.
Whole families were wiped out with the order of death typically being grandfathers and infants, then grandmothers and the father (if not at the front), and finally the mother and older children.
“The point at which an entire family was doomed was when its last mobile member became too weak to queue for rations. Heads of households, usually mothers, were thus faced with a heartbreaking dilemma: Whether to eat more food themselves so as to stay on their feet or to give more to the family’s sickest member — usually a grandparent or child — and risk the lives of all. That many prioritized their children is indicated by the large numbers of orphans they left behind.”
By the next winter, after so many deaths and with most civilians evacuated, conditions improved vastly.
Reid is less successful at addressing the perspective of Germans, who, she suggests have been loath to discuss the atrocities, maltreatment or war crimes committed in their name. However, excerpts from Fritz Hockenjos’ diaries give some idea of the experience of an ordinary soldier.
Reid’s work puts the siege, one of the greatest tragedies of the last century, a century marked by inhumanity, in its rightful place and is likely to be the most authoritative English-language source for many years to come.
The book is written in the tradition of British writers Orlando Figes (“The Whisperers”), Simon Sebag Montefiore (“Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” “Young Stalin,” “Sashenka”) and Anthony Beevor (“Stalingrad,” “Berlin — The Downfall 1945.”) All three are listed as having advised her.
“Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44,” by Anna Reid (416 pages), is published by Bloomsbury, priced at about $18.