Leningrad: State of Siege

Written by Michael Jones
Review by Ann Lyon

The city that was Leningrad for seventy years is St Petersburg again, and trades mainly on its imperial past. But an eternal flame still burns for the siege of 1941-44. Michael Jones concentrates mainly on the civilian experience of the siege. He highlights the inadequacy of the infrastructure, in particular in relation to food supplies — by 11 September 1941, less than a month into the siege, the bread ration for civilians not in employment was 250 grammes a day, about six thin slices. Matters were made worse by the German policy of targeting food depots, water supplies, and power stations for artillery bombardment, and the corruption and inefficiency of the Russian authorities. By February 1942 there were outbreaks of cannibalism.

But there was heroism, too. As a piece of defiance of huge symbolic importance, an orchestra assembled from the few professional musicians available played Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, dedicated by the composer to his native city, in the Philharmonic Hall on 9 August 1942, the day the German High Command had earlier announced that they would take Leningrad. And as with all terrible events, the best of the human spirit showed itself alongside the worst. Recommended.