Leningrad

State of Siege, Michael Jones, Basic Books.

In “Leningrad: State of Siege,” author Michael Jones illustrates the human side one of the greatest catastrophes of World War II. The book opens by recounting Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union—Leningrad, of course, being one of the major objectives. Yet the Germans were reluctant to take control of the city, and Hitler made the fateful decision to set up a blockade and starve the 2.5 million residents. Tellingly, on the same day Leningrad was encircled (September 8, 1941), Germany launched a major air attack on the city’s food warehouses, and thousands of tons of grain, meat, lard, butter, and sugar went up in flames.

Drawing on source material previously suppressed by the Soviets, Jones examines how the failure to distribute food effectively and in a timely fashion exacerbated the suffering—and contributed to the number of deaths. Ultimately the siege lasted for upwards of 900 days (until January 1944), and between the mass starvation, bitterly cold winters, and ongoing shelling of the city, it’s no surprise that many people resorted to cannibalism.

Yet Jones also identifies numerous stories demonstrating self-sacrifice and remarkable determination to survive. Most notable is the fact that on August 9, 1942, musicians put on a defiant performance of Shostakovich’s recently-completed Seventh Symphony, with the live radio broadcast from Philharmonic Hall boosting morale throughout the city.

“We will never fully understand the horror of the siege of Leningrad—or how people found the will to survive,” writes Jones in the epilogue, but “Leningrad” (originally released in hardcover in August 2008), does a remarkable job of describing the trials and tribulations experienced by inhabitants. Or as one survivor put it: “The suffering was on an unimaginable scale—yet, astonishingly, Leningrad did not succumb. We were fighting a battle to keep a human face, to stay human beings. And we won it.”