I read Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones recently. This is the tale of the city’s epic resistance to the Germans during WWII in a siege that lasted almost 900 days. The author skillfully weaves a gripping historical narrative and punctuates it with diary excerpts and interviews with survivors. I have read accounts of this before but always as part of larger works. It takes a full book to really portray the horror of the siege and to tell some uncomfortably truths that Stalin and his successors suppressed for decades.
The Germans were frighteningly clinical about the whole thing. They decided they were going to starve the population into submission and then wipe the city from the face of the earth (as it was the “birthplace of Bolshevism”). Scientists advised the army on nutrition and calculated how long the mass starvation would take.
Stalinism made everything worse. Stalin, much like the Bush administration of today, rewarded loyalty over competence. So it was that one of his old cronies from the Russian Civil War, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, was in charge of Leningrad’s defenses. As the Germans raced across the Soviet Union, Voroshilov failed to disperse Leningrad’s food supply. He left it all in a group of old wooden warehouses that were packed closely together. The Germans knew exactly where they were and firebombed them, destroying vast quantities of food before the siege even began. Heckuva job, Klimie. Later the Soviet trade minister rerouted a train full of food to Leningrad. The area it was originally sent to had already been overrun by the Germans and he rightly thought Leningrad could use the supplies. Voroshilov intervened and turned the train around. He would not accept the food because he did not want Stalin thinking he needed the help. Better that thousands starve to death (and they did) than Stalin get the idea that he was incompetent (which he was).
Oh, and did I mention the gangs of cannibals? Yep, at a certain point in the siege it became dangerous to leave your house alone because desperate people were killing and eating stragglers. When winter ended many corpses with breasts and buttocks hacked off were found in the melting snow. Not much fun in Leningrad.
Leningrad: State of Siege is not a cheery book, but it’s compelling history and I recommend it.