SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 195 February 2016

Leningrad: the epic siege of 1941-44

At the beginning of January, the BBC carried a documentary film about the blockade of Leningrad during the second world war – possibly the most tragic siege in history. The programme used eyewitness accounts and historical material to great effect. The message was powerful and moving in spite of the sometimes subjective approach of the presenters.

Tom Service and Amanda Vickery have no real sympathy for the historic revolutionary mass upheavals in Russia’s northern capital in 1917. Tsarism was overthrown in February of that year by the heroic actions of workers and soldiers and, in October, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, capitalism was swept away in what can still be called the greatest event in history. Vickery dismisses it as a coup d’état. Service, standing in front of the statue of Lenin at Finland station, speaks of the horrors under Stalin in which millions died as if they flowed naturally from the revolution, instead of being the result of the bloody political counter-revolution he carried through.

The programme dealt with the efforts of Leningrad’s radio station in 1942, at the height of the terrible siege by a massive German armed force, to organise a live performance of Dmitri Shostakovitch’s seventh (Leningrad) symphony. He had begun writing it and playing early movements in his home city of Leningrad before he was evacuated to Kuibishev. On 9 August the performance was finally aired. This was already more than a year after Hitler had sent over four million troops slicing their way through the Baltic States to surround the city with the aim of forcing its immediate surrender.

In the documentary, three elderly Leningraders – survivors of the horrific ‘900 days’ blockade – were treated to a special performance of the symphony, conducted by the composer’s son, Maxim. It was in the same Philharmonic Hall where the 1942 performance had gone ahead, against all the odds. Poignant as this re-enactment was, more memorable were the heart-rending reminiscences of the ‘blokadniks’. Simply staying alive had been a superhuman struggle that they would never forget.

By August 1942 enough musicians had been mustered to constitute what was almost literally a skeleton orchestra. The first oboist remembered that the women’s dresses and the men’s jackets looked "as if they were on coat-hangers"! Karl Eliasberg, the conductor, brought back to life the principal drummer, Dzaudhat Aydarov. Visiting a morgue to identify the body, he found him still breathing! It would be impossible to perform this symphony without the incessant drum-beats that convey the merciless advance of the invading army.

The winter of 1941-2 had been a waking nightmare for the population of Leningrad. Outdoor temperatures were among the worst in living memory – -30°, even sometimes -40°. Inside homes, factories, offices and hospitals it had been a struggle to maintain even the minimum heating levels needed to maintain life. Fuel was already scarce. Firewood had to be scavenged from all possible sources. Furniture was broken into pieces to keep the stoves alight.

Anna Reid, in her thoroughly researched book, Leningrad (Bloomsbury, 2012), draws on the diaries of participants in the blockade and evidence from recently opened archives. She explains that rations at first covered a small amount of meat, sugar, fats and bread. Meat supplies dwindled and an ill-advised increase in rations for sugar and fats meant they also rapidly became exhausted. In the worst days of 1942, bread rations were reduced to 250g a day for manual workers and 125g for others. For those without documents, there was nothing.

A friend from my years living in Leningrad, Kolya Preobrazhensky, told me of his mother’s experience of the blockade. News of the invasion came when she was about to graduate. No-one was surprised, in spite of the fact that Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler.

In the 1930s, Stalin had sabotaged resistance to the Nazis’ rise to power, characterising them as a lesser evil compared with the ‘social fascists’ of the Social Democratic Party. At the time, the exiled revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, had urged that a united front be forged of the mass workers’ parties to fight together against the scourge of fascism.

On hearing of the German attack in 1941, Stalin had refused to believe it. His failure to react immediately lost precious time and precious lives. In addition, the armed forces had been bereft of their most able leaders in the notorious purge between 1937 and 1939 of 40,000 officers. They, like the cream of the revolutionary forces of 1917 before them, had been either summarily executed or sent to the gulags to face hard labour and starvation.

Thousands of lives were squandered on the northern front before Schlisselburg fell to the Germans on 8 September 1941, completing the encirclement of Leningrad. Just one day before, Kolya’s grandmother made a dash to Schlisselburg to rescue her daughter. Leaving the textile factory where she worked was illegal. She would have no work and no rations. They were "the worst four week of her life", but she was alive!

Kolya’s mother was also among the hundreds of women drafted to dig defensive trenches on the southern and western approaches to Leningrad. Up to their waists in mud and strafed by Nazi warplanes, they were regaled with leaflets in Russian dropped from overhead, calling on them to surrender.

Inside the city, rations had to be collected each day. Famished citizens were using up dwindling energy to reach distribution points and return home. There was the risk of being attacked and robbed of coupons or rations. Many died on the way and froze in the snow.

Anna Reid and Amanda Vickery draw on diaries of participants who recall how family members began to turn on each other, sometimes violently. Even the most sensitive and heroic of human beings – among them children, teachers, poets – found themselves turning into animals, intent only on survival. Personal relations between the most loving of partners deteriorated. Through the hunger and the strain, women ceased to menstruate. Kolya says simply: "And then there were no new babies in the city".

Anything that could provide the slightest trace of vitamins or something sweet was ingeniously processed. As in the besieged villages of Syria today, there was sometimes nothing but boiled water flavoured from packets of dried spices, twigs or pine needles. ‘Soup’ was made by boiling leather from belts or shoes. Pieces of cat, dog, rat or pigeon were ‘luxuries’. And then there were the rumours, at first harshly denied and suppressed, of human flesh being cooked and eaten. Anna Reid had access to documents which confirmed everybody’s worst fears.

Reid also comments that few diarists of the blockade, preoccupied as they were with the struggle to survive, even mentioned the famous symphony concert in besieged Leningrad. For one thing, not long before, it had been dangerous to express appreciation for Shostakovitch. In 1936 his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was suddenly denounced by Pravda. Again, just a few years after the famous performance of his Leningrad symphony, he was back on the proscribed list.

In Testimony, by Solomon Volkov, Shostakovitch was recorded as saying that when he composed the famous pipe and drum march for his Leningrad symphony, he had in mind "not only the Nazis but ‘other enemies of humanity’… I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began".

Stalin’s attitude to Leningrad was one of suspicion and reluctance to bolster the image of the local administration. His delay in organising the defence of the city and his slowness in ordering adequate supplies of food and clothing were probably no accident. It was the city of the revolution where sparks could fly again. It had harboured important elements of Trotsky’s Left Opposition to Stalin. It was also the city where Kirov, though not opposed to Stalin’s politics, had been a popular local party leader and had therefore fallen out of favour with Stalin, possibly being ‘silenced’ by way of an organised murder.

During the siege, on the pretext of petty crime, thousands of innocent Leningraders were hauled before the hated NKVD. Many never returned home. Strangely enough, as Anna Reid remarks, the writer and cousin of Trotsky, Vera Inber, was not ‘disappeared’, nor was the poet Anna Akhmatova, who was highly critical of the regime.

Although Communist Party and security service archives are still not completely open, there are few recorded instances of open anti-government protests, and those are from dubious (pro-Nazi Germany or pro-US) sources. Reid cites two from 1941. One was of workers at the Kirovsky factory downing tools and demanding peace after a regiment from there had been annihilated on the Finnish front. Many were reportedly shot dead by the NKVD and the leaders taken away. In the same part of the city school students were said to have distributed leaflets saying, "24 years ago you destroyed tsarism! Please destroy the hated Kremlin-Smolny executioners!"

After the very worst period of 1941-42, some aspects of life eased a little – more evacuations, more rations available and less severe weather. But the failings and gross inefficiencies of the Stalinist bureaucracy lay behind hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The organisation of supply routes and air drops was bungled – although luxury supplies still managed to reach top government and police officials!

The authorities made criminal blunders in relation to the ‘Road of Life’ out of the city and across Lake Ladoga. Hundreds of people, held up in railway stations, were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Thousands of men, women and children drowned in overloaded boats and, in the winter, thousands more disappeared under the ice when the bombers attacked or when it gave way under the weight of the lorries in which they were transported. Families remaining in Leningrad continued to lose one, then another of their number to hunger and disease.

Kolya’s grandmother was a primary school teacher. Now, whole schools were being moved out of the city. Children were often evacuated as orphans, or soon to become orphans, themselves in failing health, never to return to the city of their birth. Kolya’s grandmother was reallocated to work as a registrar. She would see members of the same family coming at ever shortening intervals, so exhausted that they lacked any emotion, to report the death of a grandparent, a baby, father, brother, aunt, daughter or mother until there was no one left. Anna Reid writes that the deaths of many went unregistered so that their ration cards could be used.

Much of the recent TV documentary about the siege pulls at the heartstrings. So does the extensive material unearthed by Anna Reid. But she points to the subservience of the British Broadcasting Corporation to the demands of Churchill’s government. Once Stalin was on the ‘right’ side in the war and drawing Hitler’s fire away from Britain and its troops, War and Peace was shown (as it is now, coincidentally) and other nineteenth century classics. But ‘talkers’, Reid says, "were restricted to distant historical topics, especially if left wing". "Mass starvation in Leningrad… was not mentioned at all".

The words of the blokadniks in the BBC documentary, conveyed so simply, with the occasional tear, the sufferings and the heroism of millions of working people across the Soviet Union in war-time. But they also conveyed the survival of a different kind of consciousness about life from that which is inculcated by capitalism – where simplicity, fairness, justice and beauty count for more than wealth, property, excitement and rivalry.

The real history of the city ‘once known as Leningrad’ remains to be written after capitalism has been wiped from the scene; the dramatic class battles will be played out on screen and stage. They will honour the memory of the workers, sailors and soldiers who, with Lenin and Trotsky, made the revolution in that city and fought against the murderous rule of Stalin.

Clare Doyle

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