Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege 1941-44
If the nature of its history books is anything to go by then the twentieth century will indeed prove to be the ‘People’s Century’, as attested by the BBC documentary of the nineteen nineties. Never before has the regular person on the street been better educated and more inclined to keep personal records of their experiences; and so rather than depending upon Suetonius, or Pepys, or Mary Coke to unravel the events of the past for us from up on high their viewpoints of privilege and academia, the historian of the twentieth century can read the diaries of cobblers, privates, mothers, bus drivers, or servants.
Anna Reid, a journalist by trade and a clear Russophile, has trudged through what must be thousands of miles of journals, and conducted extensive interviews with the survivors of the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. She begins her lecture with a long quote from one of the principle characters in her book. The audience is bombarded with grim first-hand depictions of the hardships that dominated the 800 day siege; dead bodies in every room, the first winter dropping to minus forty degrees. They are shocking tales. Reid herself seems a little overwhelmed by her own material at times, in fact; a little more overwhelmed, perhaps, than a rather unengaged audience. If this kind of misery is difficult to convey with statistics – and they are here also; 2 million dead etc – it is less easy to understand why these survivor stories are also strangely unmoving. Perhaps, for all of Reid’s passion she has failed to crack the ice that encases the story of the siege, failed to bring life to the solemn faces of the slides that appear behind her.
The real intrigues lie in the details of survival rather than a litany of poetic attempts at portraying despair. For instance, the authorities added sawdust to the grain to increase the weight of the rationed bread; it had no nutritional value but it gave the people the impression that the Communist Party were fulfilling their patriarchal obligations during time of war.
The story of the siege of Leningrad is ultimately one of supreme triumph in the face of massive odds. The leaders of the Leningrad party were all executed by Stalin after the war just to make sure their success did not translate into a threatening folk-heroism on the political stage at any point.
Reid is clearly attached to her diarists, and I mean this as no criticism of the book, but the ice only began to melt during this presentation when she divulged facts like those two above. For all of the historical and social value of a diary of a Leningradian librarian, not every book-lover in Russia was a Tolstoy, not every man with hunched shoulders in a doorway a Dostoevsky. Today’s great historical writers have a novelist’s skill in creating their world, and imbuing the figures at their disposal with the realism of a great character. The Siege of Leningrad is one of the most significant events of the twentieth century and the definitive history of it has yet to be written. It is quite likely that the enormous amount of research that Anna Reid has put into her people’s history will have a part to play in that as-yet-unwritten tome, such is the impressive list of people she has spoken to that will not be around for too much longer for such conversations. And for that we must be extremely grateful.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis