I’m not sure how to write about Leningrad. Statements like “I enjoyed it” such as I wrote for my recent review of a book on the Battle Of Midway seem like inadequate platitudes. So I’ve decided to let the book speak for itself by quoting from it. First, a brief description of the book. It recounts the siege of Leningrad during World War II. During the siege, which lasted almost three years, around 750,000 people died, mainly from starvation. Most of deaths happened during the first winter of the siege (1941 – 42) that turned out to be one of the worst severe winters on record.
The main problem . . . was hunger. Oppressive, never-ending hunger. Wherever you went, whatever you were doing, the thought of food never left you.
Once there was a family of six. The father and eldest daughter leave for the Red Army and no more is heard of them. Nobody knows if they are dead or alive. The mother stays on in Leningrad with three children – mentally handicapped Boris, aged eight, Lida, aged thirteen, and Lyusya, fifteen. Bravely she tries to save them from death’s clutches, but can’t do it. In December Boris dies, in January Lida, and then, of hunger diarrhoea, the mother herself. The only one left is Lyusya – on a dependent’s card in a dark cold, wrecked flat, covered in mud and soot. She drags herself to the market, sells things, then as a last resort, starts stealing from the neighbors. She was caught with stolen food cards and arrested; there’s been no news of her since March of last year. Perhaps she’s dead too. And what remains is a frightening dystrophic room, full of filth and rubbish. No family, just two empty beds amid the chaos – all that’s left of a once-cosy home. Oh how familiar this is!
. . . but almost every day you see someone lying propped up against a wall – either exhausted or already dying. Yesterday on the Nevsky, on the steps of the Gosbank, a women lay in a puddle of her own urine. A pair of policemen were hauling her up by the armpits, and her legs, wet and reeking, dragged on the asphalt behind her.
And the children, the children in the bakeries! Oh this pair – a mother and three-year old daughter, with the brown motionless face of a monkey. Huge transparent blue eyes, frozen, staring straight ahead with accusation and contempt. Her taut little face was turned slightly upwards and to the side, her dirty, inhuman brown paw held out motionless in a begging gesture . . . What an accusation of us all – of our culture, our life! What a judgement – nothing could be more merciless.
The fact remains that Russia’s Great Patriotic War – as it is still mostly called – was won at an unnecessarily huge cost. Of this the blockade of Leningrad is perhaps the most extreme example. Nazi Germany initiated the siege, with purposive and inhuman deliberation, but it was the Soviet regime that failed to evacuate the civilian population in time, to lay in food stocks, to stamp out food theft or to organize the Ice Road properly. It was also the Soviet regime that threw away thousands of young lives in the People’s Levy, and continued to imprison and execute its own humblest and most patriotic citizens even as they died of hunger.
Having fought, worked and suffered for their country for four years, they felt that they had earned the right to be trusted by its government. They longed for the ordinary decencies of civilised life – security, comfort, entertainment – but also for freedom to express their opinions, explore the outside world, and genuinely to participate in public life.
These hopes – for comfort, a degree of political pluralism, contact with the outside world and a special role for Leningrad – were almost entirely disappointed after the war. Living standards did – agonizingly slowly – improve, but for Leningraders, as for other Russians, the early COld War years brought only renewed repression . . .