The number of civilians who starved to death in the siege of Leningrad, from September 1941 to January 1944, has never been verified, but the figure is around three quarters of a million. About two-thirds died during the first terrible winter. It is on this winter - sometimes termed by Russian historians the "heroic period" of the siege - that Anna Reid's Leningrad concentrates, deploying a selection of first-hand accounts.
The deaths continued until the end, though on a less epic scale, there being fewer people left to feed, and with the so-called "ice road" opened up for food deliveries. But towards the end of that first winter, trucks piled high with frozen corpses, stacked in rows like logs, were seen driving through the town to deposit their load at the cemeteries where the mass graves could not be excavated fast enough to receive them.
Immediately after the Great Patriotic War, as Russians still refer to the Scond World War, the attitude towards the siege was one of denial, nothing being allowed to stand in the way of Stalin's image as a great war leader. After his death, and particularly during the Brezhnev era, the tragedy of the siege was acknowledged, becoming part of the mythology of the war, and Leningrad taking on the status of Hero City. But this was a very Soviet history, with no room for ambiguity. Not so today: "Communism's collapse twenty years ago made it possible, in the words of one Russian historian, to start "wiping off the syrup"."
Reid's account, and those of the witnesses she introduces, are not syrupy. "Ask one of the dwindling number of siege survivors today how they remember those months," Reid writes, "and the reply will likely be the words 'kholod, golod, snaryady, pozhary' – 'cold, hunger, shells, fires' - a set phrase whose long, rhyming syllables are both a shorthand and a litany."!
Reid is accurate in her observation that Leningrad during the siege reproduced ordinary Soviet experience "in concentrated miniature". All the elements of Soviet life were there: the misinformation, the bungling bureaucracy, the official fear of doing the wrong thing that led to the "solution" of doing nothing at all, a lack of concern for human life on the part of the authorities. This was one of the reasons – along with Stalin's stubborn refusal to believe the Germans would invade, or at least that they would invade so soon – for there having been no real effort to evacuate the civilian population before the siege ring closed around the city.
An additional problem was that the average Leningrader knew better than to believe official pronouncements. So why should they take any notice of warnings about the Nazis? After picking up an anti-Semitic leaflet dropped by a German plane in September 1941, a female diarist wondered: "Is it possible that we are mistaken, that the Germans really are as bad as Soviet propaganda makes out?"
Part of the tragedy highlighted by Reid concerns the orphaned, lost or abandoned children, a recurring feature of the upheavals of Soviet history. Throughout the desperate months of famine and unimaginable cold, the NKVD continued to fulfil its quotas of arrests. Another diarist recorded bitterly: "The Germans are at the gates, the Germans are about to enter the city, and we are busy arresting and deporting old women – lonely, defenceless, harmless old people."
At the lowest point, some of the besieged inhabitants turned to cannibalism – to "corpse-eating" (when the victims were already dead) or even to "people-eating" (which involved murder). Yet at the other end of the scale, there were examples of extraordinary generosity, of a determination to stay human at all costs and, despite everything, a love of Russia and its history. One of the most engaging of Reid's cast is a young woman in charge of evacuating the imperial palace of Pavlovsk. Roused to fury by the sight of military motorbikes parked in the historic lilac bushes, she berates the exhausted major occupying her office, subjecting him to a lecture on 18th-century landscaping.
Such diarists are, as Reid remarks, "easy to relate to". We feel we come to know these people whose voices we hear: "educated city-dwelling Europeans – writers, artists, university lecturers, librarians, museum curators, factory managers, bookkeepers, pensioners, housewives, students and schoolchildren". In her sensitive and skilful orchestration of these voices, Reid has produced both a memorable and a magisterial work.
Virginia Rounding's life of Catherine the Great is published by ArrowReuse content