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

  • Anna Reid
  • Walker & Company
  • 512 pp.

An exhaustive and sure-handed account of the human misery behind the terrible event.

Reviewed by David L. Robbins 

Every generation selects its absolutes: that thing, event or person we describe as the best or worst ever — as if we could recall “ever.” For tales of cold horror and deprivation, a time that truly reduced the human condition to its instinctual range of heroism to barbarity, a strong candidate for an absolute is the German siege of Leningrad, 1941-44.

Anna Reid in her new history Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 has taken up the challenge of capturing the vast scope of that city’s wartime misery, and along with it the universe of tragedies both civilian and military. In Reid’s able effort, the siege solidifies its repute as a high-water mark for suffering imposed on a great metropolis.

No reader of Leningrad can be left with anything less than a complete picture, and a case of exhaustion. It takes an abiding curiosity or some unwavering personal attachment to endure a tale like this. People waste away on these pages, dying for each other, eating each other, writing letters of love and goodbye; children starve; elderly keel over; soldiers of both armies question their roles; leaders make mistakes paid for by thousands of unfortunates. Every day in Leningrad is a paean to death and terror, resilience, corruption and survival. Likewise, every one of Reid’s paragraphs is a brushstroke in that horrific mural.

Reid does a total job here, very sure-handed, and the power of the epic blows like a winter gale off the page. She marshals her details in groupings that are easy to follow, often under chapter headings that belie the severity to come. For example, “Sleds and Cocoons,” “The Big House” and “125 Grams” all make for benign thresholds to descriptions of food scarcity, interrogation and denunciation, and death by starvation. By parsing Leningrad’s story into topics rather than mere chronological order, Reid adds depth to the narrative.

Her writing style, while rarely concise, does not let flourish get in the way of impact. She relates from a myriad of perches, gazing down on every conceivable sort of victim and brute. Too frequently, however, the drive is broken by those excerpts and official quotes; you’ll be hard pressed to find any paragraph that does not look away to some voice out of the past. While Reid does an excellent job selecting these interstitial pieces — the Germans and Russians who struggled over Leningrad were a literate lot — the flow doesn’t always benefit from an anecdote or time capsule. These embellishments often thwart her momentum; the grim details can bog. You’ll encounter no small amount of conjecture, odd for a history, lots of “probably” and “may have,” each time joggling the reader off the page and into Reid’s own head. When folks are perishing in frozen droves and excruciating detail, the pace is hard enough to maintain without these stumbles.

As a novelist of principally World War II novels, including a trilogy on the Eastern Front, I have long searched for a tale to tell out of the siege of Leningrad. It’s just too grand an event to ignore. I’ve been unsuccessful but many writers have not. I’ve read a few histories on the subject, notably the gold standard of the field, Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, published in 1969. David M. Glantz, a credible and experienced chronicler of the Eastern Front, gave us The Siege of Leningrad: 900 Days of Terror in 2007. Herein lies my quandary about Reid’s Leningrad. Why do we need another saga about Leningrad’s misery?

Reid’s work covers a by now familiar waterfront: the Nazis’ intent for Leningrad, the incompetence of the Soviet war leadership, the horrors of the armed struggle and — according to the book’s advance materials — “the terrible details of life in the blocked city: the relentless search for food, the withering of emotions and family ties, looting, murder and cannibalism.” Sounds a bit carnival bark-y to me: step right up, you won’t believe your eyes. I can’t imagine that any previously published historians who labored over the blockade of Leningrad omitted these issues or neglected the human toll. Certainly Salisbury’s 900 Days explored them in depth, and remains secure in its honored position more than 40 years after publication.

Leningrad is readable, gritty and well organized, and will stand competently beside any past or future history of this awful epoch. But it does not stand alone, nor does it rise above. It is not an absolute. If you’ve read a prior history of the siege and wish to endure the heartache again to pan for what fresh revelations are contained in Leningrad as a result of “newly available diaries and government records,” you may be disappointed. There simply was not much that felt like a departure from already published texts. Human wretchedness, to a large extent, can be as well expressed by access to a hundred diaries as it can be to two hundred, though academicians will appreciate Reid’s voluminous bibliography and excellent annotations.

If, however, this is your first bitter taste of the blockade, you’ll find everything here. Reid writes well when she lets her own voice supersede the diarists and soldiers, and she’s capable of carrying you across the white wastes and the Baltic to take up residence in the ruins with the lice and living corpses.

The murderous, icy siege of Leningrad is a moving experience in Reid’s hands. But it has been this in the hands of others as well.

David L. Robbins is the author of several novels set during World War II, including an Eastern Front trilogy: The War of the Rats, Last Citadel and The End of War. His most recent novel is Broken Jewel, and he is currently working on “The Devil’s Waters,” a novel about Somali piracy.

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