I recently attended a talk by Anna Reid on her book Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44, held as part of Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival. The US edition of the book is called Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944.
She described the Siege of Leningrad as being one of the great atrocities of World War II. Estimates of civilian casualties range from a quarter to a third of the population of 2.5 million; she says that the best estimate is that 750,000 civilians died, most in the first winter of the siege, 1941-42. This excludes military casualties. The Germans tried to starve the population rather than assaulting the city. The Siege lasted from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1941
The book covers military history, but it is mainly a social history about civilian life in the city. Internal government documents are now available, as are NKVD archives, including informers’ reports. She mainly used diaries written at the time to learn the opinions of Leningraders, although she did conduct half a dozen interviews with survivors. She didn’t do any more because of the amount of information available in diaries. Diarists risked arrest if their diaries were found and contained criticism of the Soviet regime. Many therefore wrote in coded language and hid their diaries. They are still being handed in to museums and archives.
The differences between the traditional Soviet view of the siege and the truth is now being discovered:
- A significant minority of the population at first wanted a German victory as a price worth paying to get rid of the Bolsheviks. These attitudes mostly changed once the brutality of the Germans became apparent. Most people distinguished between the country and the regime and fought for their country rather than for Communism.
- The dreadful military mistakes were not talked about in the USSR. There was criticism of Stalin by Khrushchev and subsequently, but specific actions such as the huge casualties caused by sending the militia, the Opolcheniye, into action with no training and poor equipment were not mentioned. Neither was a naval retreat from Tallinn that was ordered too late because the leadership were in denial over the situation. Half the ships were lost in what was like Dunkirk, but without air cover.
- Stalin considered giving up the city, as it was more important to preserve the army.
- Political repression continued during the siege. The NKVD archives contained a number of diaries whose authors had been arrested. They were harmless people, often denounced by neighbours.
- Contrary to the view that everybody was in it together, there was inequality in the allocation of rations. They were skewed in favour of soldiers and manual workers and against women, infants and adolescents. Some institutions, such as the Hermitage and the radio station, were privileged and their employees did better. Those at the Party HQ did best of all. In the winter of 1941-42, people’s world narrowed and they became interested only in food. In the spring of 1942, some mothers were offered evacuation with their work places. They could generally take their children but not their elderly parents, who were often dependent on them. Some mothers even had to leave their children. Anna Reid told the harrowing story of one mother who was evacuated. Her daughter went with her, but her son was too weak to travel. The mother died, but the daughter survived and returned to Leningrad; she was unable to find out what happened to her brother.
Russian historians now discuss the truth about the Siege of Leningrad, but the general population still believe the Soviet myth. The view that, whilst Stalin was a murderous dictator before and after the war, he was a great war leader persists. Anna Reid employed several Russian researchers and translators who were shocked at what they learnt during the course of their work.
There is some self-censorship in discussion of the Siege because of consideration for the feelings of the survivors. Anna Reid finds their stories inspirational once the Soviet propaganda is stripped away.
Leningrad was the first city that Hitler tried and failed to take. Neither side had the strength to end the siege, resulting in static warfare. It differed from Stalingrad, where fighting took place in the city and most civilians were evacuated. Civilians could not leave Leningrad until the spring of 1942.
Even in the spring of 1942 evacuation was difficult. People not being evacuated with their work place had to bribe the drivers to get onto the trucks that were driving along the Ice Road across Lake Ladoga. The trucks were open so many died on the journey. The presence of feeding and medical stations is a myth, at least in the spring of 1942.. Even once across Lake Ladoga, you still had to get onto a train and find a town that would give you a residence permit and ration card.
The city’s normal death rate of 4-5,000 per month rose to 11,000 in November 1941, 50,000 in December and 100,000 in each of January, February and March 1942. There was a subsequent drive to clean up the city, grow more food and return to normal life. a mass evacuation by barge in the summer of 1942 reduced the population to 600,000 by August, making life more normal in the winter of 1942-43, when things were better organised.
This was a very interesting talk, although my interests are more towards the military aspects of the Siege. The book took three years to research and a further two to write. It is available in hardback and as an e-book. Amazon are taking orders for the paperback, but do not give a publication date.
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