Converse's Reviews > Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944

Leningrad by Anna Reid
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's review
Feb 12, 12

really liked it
bookshelves: history, non-fiction, politics, warfare
Read in February, 2012

During the Second World War, German and Finnish forces cut off the land routes to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, for 17 months starting in September 1941. At the beginning of the siege, there were over 3 million Soviet citizens inside this area, most of them civilians. Some supplies could be brought in over Lake Lagoda to the east, particularly when the lake froze over.

Surrounding and bombarding, rather than occupying, Leningrad suited Hitler and his generals, who preferred not to have to feed the inhabitants. Hitler's postwar plans included the razing of Moscow and Leningrad anyway. So the Germans dropped bombs and shelled Leningrad to the best of their ability to help along the dying process. The Finnish forces seem to have basically occupied the land to the northwest of the city; Finnish participation in the Second World War was revenge for the earlier (1940, I think) Soviet invasion of Finland.

That so many people, especially civilians, were in Leningrad was due to the short-sightedness of the Soviet leaders, who concentrated on evacuating factories not people from the advancing Germans.

The majority of the deaths in Leningrad happened during the winter of 1941-42. At least 600,000 people died, mostly from starvation. The rations for those who were not soldiers or heavy manual workers were not sufficient to sustain life, even if you got what the rations were supposed to entitle you to. There would not have been enough food to go around for all under any circumstances during this winter, but the favoritism (never was a high rank in the Communist Party more useful) and stealing of supplies (few of those in the food processing factories or supply system died from hunger) made things worse. Also making things worse was a lack of electrical power, working sewers, and heat during an unusually cold winter.

During the winter of 1941-42 Stalin decided that a major evacuation of the civilians was needed. This evacuation was implemented before the winter of 1942-43, reducing the population to about 600,000 in the besieged area. A fuel pipeline was laid along the bottom of Lake Lagoda, increasing power availability. And an experienced population starting growing food wherever possible. Combined with a more normal winter, all of this allowed for adequate rations during the winter of 1942-43 and subsequently.

Hunger had bad effects on both the morals and physique of the inhabitants. People started suspecting their family members of stealing their food; and they were often right. Watching other people eat could be intolerable. People often used their connections to qualify for better rations than they were entitled to, tried to become associated with institutions that ran a well-provided cafeteria, kept using as long as possible the ration cards of recently deceased family members, and in extreme cases engaged in cannibalism. Physical symptoms of hunger included a swelling of the limbs, a drastic change in ones complextion, and extreme difficulty in walking short distances. Those who died of starvation had not only no body fat, but their hearts and livers had drastically decreased in mass.

Reid quotes extensively from the diaries of many persons who experienced the siege (not all of them survived it). A majority of these informants are women, and most of those quoted are writers or academics. One German soldier is quoted. She neatly integrates these accounts into her narrative. I found her book to be excellent.

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