I didn’t know when I started reading Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid that it was such a huge part of Russian and World War II history. I thought it was more of a footnote, not the main event, so to speak. It turns out that many of my other Russian World War II books are about or at least reference this one event.
A Note on History:
Leningrad is Saint Petersburg. Briefly it became Petrograd (1914) and then Leningrad (1924-1991) thanks to the Bolshevik Revolution and Vladimir Lenin, that infamous fellow who helped put Russia on her path as the Soviet Union.
A Note on Geography:
Leningrad is located between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga on the southern side of the Karelian Isthmus. You’d think it would be hard to lay siege to a city with so many outlets—land, air, and water—but it happened thanks in part to Russia’s lack of preparation during World War II and in part to Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe.
Although the invasion of Russia by Germany, Operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941, Leningrad wasn’t attacked until September 1—a terrible flashback to that moment two years ago when war began. The city was shelled, attacked by the air, and laid siege to. The people couldn’t escape on boat because the Luftwaffe bombed them. Lake Ladoga wouldn’t ice over thick enough to drive on it for several more months until the height of winter. The people couldn’t escape across the Karelian Isthmus because Finland controlled it, and they were backing Germany (not that they had much choice). But even if the people wanted to escape—and some did want to and did succeed—there wasn’t much waiting for them outside the city. Germans had already advanced beyond it; many of the villages where children were evacuated to from Leningrad were in the path of the enemy. Plus, Soviet leadership didn’t see a pressing need. The city had food and water. More importantly, the city was Saint Petersburg, one of the biggest in Russia. Its factories were necessary for churning out war machines and munitions.
There’d be no evacuation. Yet.
The Germans bombed the food storage. The bulk of it went up in flames. People started to starve to death in October. That first winter, several hundred thousand people died from starvation alone. Food rationing was terrible, only a few hundred calories per person per day. Unless you had connections. Most people did not.
By the time the lake froze over thick enough to create the Ice Road and bring in supplies (and take away civilians), it was December and many had already died. The next few months saw the evacuation of nearly a million people. That next summer Hitler tried to destroy Leningrad, forcing its surrender, and Stalin tried to keep it erect. Come winter, fewer people starved and froze to death partly because there were far fewer people and partly because Germany was weakening and supplies were leaking through the siege line to the people within the city.
The siege lasted for yet another year until January 27, 1944. During the three years, about 800,000 people died. If you need a comparison, that’s almost the entire population of the Salt Lake Valley or the population of San Francisco.
I was horrified by what I read here. The hunger, the misery, the bitter cold…the bad decisions.
Reid added just enough true accounts from people to make it real to the reader, which was great and disturbing. But maybe the most disturbing part was the inhumanity, the people who turned into ravening animals willing to hurt anyone and do anything for food. Then there were those few shining moments of compassion. They were few and far between, but they gave hope.
The events were fairly sequential so that you had to suffer through the bitterest of winters, the one of 1941-42, with the trapped residents of the city. You also experienced flight across the Ice Road, the final winter thaw, the growth of green things, the never-ending war. The book isn’t gruesome, but it is thorough. You learn about cannibalism (which does happen but isn’t nearly as prominent as you’d think), theft of ration cards and anything else that could possibly be useful, the loss of loved ones and emotion. Most of the book focuses on that first, awful winter, but it does go through the three years of the siege.
Something like this can’t be inexperienced, can’t be undone. Those people who suffered through the Siege of Leningrad were forever changed. Some were guilt-stricken, few were heroes; all had regrets. But they managed to scrape through to the other side:
“He feels ‘the usual astonishment’ at finding the sun still shining, light bouncing off the wet pavements. ‘It is this inexhaustibility’, he thinks, ‘that real Leningraders love so much. The feeling of untouched reserves of life, waiting to be released each day.”
It might not have been our finest moment has humans, but it showed that we can survive more than we think we can. It’s nice to know that we have so much within us carrying us onward and upward.
There are many histories of the Siege of Leningrad, but this one is well-researched and unapologetically written. It’s straightforward, honest, and sad. But it’s ultimately a tale of overcoming, and those tales should be told and heard.
Because it was good, but I wouldn’t want to read it again.