Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944

Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944

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by Anna Reid

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On 8 September 1941, eleven weeks after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his brutal surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Leningrad was surrounded. The siege was not lifted for 2 1/2 years and during the 872 days of blockade and bombardment some two million Soviet lives were lost. Had the city fallen, the history of the World War II - and of the twentieth

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On 8 September 1941, eleven weeks after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his brutal surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Leningrad was surrounded. The siege was not lifted for 2 1/2 years and during the 872 days of blockade and bombardment some two million Soviet lives were lost. Had the city fallen, the history of the World War II - and of the twentieth century - would have been very different.

Anna Reid's Leningrad is a gripping, authoritative narrative history of this dramatic moment in the 20th century, interwoven with indelible personal accounts of daily siege life drawn from diarists and memoirists on both sides. They reveal the horrific experience of being on the Russian and German front lines; the disorganization among the Soviet leadership and messianic miscalculation of Hitler; and, above all, the terrible details of life in the blockaded city: the all-consuming daily search for food; a woman who has just buried her father noticing a frozen corpse with outstretched arm and cigarette between its teeth used as a signpost to a mass grave; another using a dried pea to make a rattle for her evacuated grandson's first birthday, only to hear, six months later, that he has died of meningitis.

Placing it in full historical context, Anna Reid answers many of the previously unanswered questions about the siege. How good a job did Leningrad's leadership do - would many lives have been saved if it had been better organised? How much was Stalin's wariness of western-leaning Leningrad (formerly the Tsars' capital, St Petersburg) a contributing factor? How close did Leningrad come to falling into German hands? And, above all, how did those who lived through it survive? Impressive in its originality and literary style, Leningrad will rival Anthony Beevor's classic Stalingrad in its impact.

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Editorial Reviews

In September 1941, as the German Wehrmacht sped east toward Leningrad, Josef Stalin struck a blow against sentimentalism in warfare. His advisers told him that the Germans were putting Russian children and elderly at the front line and ordering them to beg the Red Army to surrender the city. Soviet troops recoiled from orders to fire on their most vulnerable countrymen, but Stalin would have none of it. "No sentimentality," he wrote in a memo to his generals. "Beat the Germans and their creatures, whoever they are. It makes no difference whether they are willing or unwilling enemies. Smash the enemy and his accomplices, sick or healthy, in the teeth."

During the same month Hitler expressed a similar disgust with the scruples of his own top brass. In June 1941 he had suddenly renounced the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union, opening the eastern and decisive front of World War Two. He intended to raze Leningrad and Moscow, expel or exterminate their occupants, and establish a vast settling ground for the German people. An officer protested that killing Leningrad's inhabitants outright would "let loose a worldwide storm of indignation, which we can't afford politically." Hitler unwittingly channeled Stalin by rejecting this "sentimentality." Permitting himself the liberty of the third person as he invoked the city's pre-revolutionary name, Hitler wrote, "The Führer is determined to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth."

Anguished comparisons between the moral depravity of Hitler and Stalin abound, but Uncle Joe occasionally gets a pass when it comes to the Soviets' famous stand at Leningrad. That chapter in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War remains a solemn source of pride: 800,000 civilians alone starved to death during the 900-day siege, but the city held and the Germans were pushed back. Stalin and communism emerged stronger than ever.

In her devastating book Leningrad, journalist Anna Reid admires the sacrifice and resilience of the Soviet people but challenges the myth—popularized by Brezhnev and inflated by Putin—of "selfless, disciplined heroes" who starved "nobly, in a sort of ecstatic trance." Assembling a pastiche of newly discovered siege diaries, Reid tells a story of Soviet incompetence and cruelty, and establishes that mass starvation is a nightmare wherever it occurs. While Hitler was unquestionably the aggressor and deserves the most blame, Reid demonstrates that "under a different sort of government the siege's civilian (and military) death tolls might have been far lower."

But this book is not an academic argument: it's a relentless chronicle of suffering. It bypasses the military and strategic aspects of the eastern front to illuminate the experience of civilians. Most of the starvation occurred during the harsh winter of 1941- 42 as the Germans surrounded Leningrad and shelled it mercilessly. The Soviet government did not evacuate civilians early enough or protect food stores from the German blitz, and Stalin diverted grain and matériel to fortify Moscow. Cut off from the world, Leningraders ate whatever they could find: first their rations; then their pets; then belts, shoes, pine needles, glue, and motor oil; and eventually each other. Reid's most remarkable diarist, Dmitri Lazarev, captures the limp tedium of a day spent starving at the office:

We sat round the stove in silence, heads bowed. We sat for hours, not moving, not talking. When there was no more firewood the stove went out. Though there was a big pile of wood in the courtyard nobody had the strength to chop it and carry it up the stairs. Instead we sat out the wait until lunch in the cold. After lunch we went home.
The most striking passages of Leningrad explore Russians' ambivalence toward their government during the siege. Some bitterly welcomed any respite from Bolshevism—at least until they witnessed the Nazis exterminating Russian Jews, POWs, and civilians. Others felt a surprising surge of patriotism that hardened into resolve in the face of Nazi atrocities. Hitler's greatest mistake was to underestimate the determination of the Russian people not to be conquered. Yet if anything could dampen their solidarity it was the Soviet purges and terror that continued during the siege. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans, kulaks, intellectuals, and minorities were forcibly displaced or sent to the Gulag. Reid excerpts the diary of a soldier who tired of gnawing on horse bones and made an official complaint about ration levels. He was shot for "expressing disappointment at the food supply of the Red Army."

Leningrad is a major contribution to our understanding of the human side of one of the war's tragic episodes. Reid missteps only occasionally, as when she quotes passages from Solomon Volkov's book Testimony, which purports to be the dictated memoirs of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Seventh Symphony, "Leningrad," became a wartime anthem for the city in 1942—but scholars have fatally undermined the authenticity of Volkov's book. Leningrad is also a grimly relevant book as headlines tell of the famine enforced at gunpoint that currently ravages Somalia. There are no winners when hunger is used as a weapon. There are only survivors.

Michael O'Donnell is a lawyer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His reviews and essays appear in The Nation, the Washington Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. Reviewed by Mark Athitakis

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Product Details

Walker & Company
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Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)
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Leningrad 3.6 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 28 reviews.
djbeyers75 More than 1 year ago
History books so often articulate the dates, the events that form the narrative of an event - often with an almost scientific precision. Yet few capture the story of an event. Anna Reid's book, "Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944" does exactly that. Remaining true to historical account, Reid goes beyond simple retelling of the dates and particularities of the siege of Leningrad and shares the story of those who lived through one of the 20th centuries most horrific and lesser-known events.  It is absolutely apparent that Reid analyzed this event from every perspective available to her. The interweaving of journal accounts, survivor interviews with the contextualization of the siege within the larger Russian experience of the Nazi siege provides a seemingly complete narrative. Yet Reid recognizes, or so it seems from her final chapter, that her retelling of the stories of those who experienced the atrocities of the Leningrad siege are not entirely complete - rather, a glimpse into a dark chapter of history. Simply put, I found this to be the most engaging and captivating historical book that I have read in recent years. I highly recommend this book to not only those interested in great historical narrative, but all readers who enjoy good writing.
lawrenceofalaska More than 1 year ago
Excellent book-Well researched and very readable I have also read 900 days
Suomi54 More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. Very well researched, very well documented. References are clearly cited and plentiful. Ms. Reid has done an outstanding job of bringing this tragedy and travesty to light. Current and future generations, as in the past, begin to lose the memory and horror of bygone atrocities. It is ever more important that we not forget lest we relive them time and time again. Ms. Reid has done a commendable job of documenting the Leningrad Siege without being heavy-handed or preachy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A slow start, with lengthy and dull descriptions of battles, but absolutely rivering once it gets going. Reads like a novel, but definitely not for the squeamish. Heart-breaking and absolutely fascinating. Also, the print is very large, about twice the size of other books I've read on the Nook.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read for russian historical buffs. Paints a real life picture of the trials and tribulations of a nation in turmoil.
bikerman More than 1 year ago
This is a great story of the people of Leningrad and how they starved off {literally} the German Siege. Very graphic in telling the story of Starvation, illiness inhumanity of man to man during the siege. Not for the squeamish. Well written and riveting.
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vonpranzer More than 1 year ago
Too long. on details
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Zor-El More than 1 year ago
This was a good book. I found it interesting and it definitely provided the indepth view on this often forgotten aspect of WW2. It does drag in parts but overall is a solid read which I recommend.
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