My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For nearly 900 days, from 1941 to 1944, Hitler’s troops encircled Leningrad, the former capital of Russia and the symbolic capital of the Russian Revolution, in an effort to starve out its inhabitants. The siege, known as the Leningrad Blockade, forced inhabitants to turn to murder and cannibalism, and starved to death around 750,000 people, or “between one in three and one in four of Leningrad’s immediate pre-siege population.”
It took me a long time to finish this book – not because it was written in a way that discouraged continuous reading, but because the despair and horror depicted in its pages were so difficult to absorb. I feel there is nothing I can say that can be considered an adequate response. I can focus on the language, the craft of it. I can say Anna Reid writes so vividly that the book has the feel and sound of poetry. I can say everyone should read this important historical account. But regarding the stories and diary entries she quotes, to say the siege was “horrible” is a horrible understatement.
I can only share the passages from the final few chapters that struck me:
Statues, landscaping, poetry – nothing can say all that should be said and felt about a tragedy on the scale of Leningrad.
For them the siege is not history but acute, lived experience, and their memories of it, as Olga Grechina puts it, ‘a minefield of the mind. You only have to step on them, and you explode. Everything flies to hell – quiet, comfort, present-day happiness.’
‘All those stories’, [historian Anzhelina Kupaigorodskaya] said, ‘of girls too weak to stand roped to lathes, clutching their dolls – they’re just post-war sentimentality.’ In reality the siege was drab, hard, and horrible. No human being should have to live through such a time…Now that my questions were over this was the important thing, the point she was determined to get across.