A few years ago I wrote a book about the siege of Leningrad, a brutal chapter of World War II history. Sitting in my office, working my way through dozens of heart-wrenching siege diaries, the cheerful noise of children in the school playground opposite came as a blessed relief. Today I’m at my desk in the same room. The playground — like the whole street — is oddly quiet; the school closed and neighbours behind doors so as to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And though the crises are so different as to make direct comparison absurd, in the silence faint — very faint — echoes can be heard of Leningrad’s great urban Calvary of nearly eighty years ago.
Starting in September 1941, when the Germans ringed the city, and ending in January 1944, when the Red Army finally smashed German lines and started pushing towards Berlin, the siege of Leningrad killed somewhere between 650,000 and 800,000 people. Some were killed by bombs or artillery, others by dysentery and typhus. But the large majority died of starvation. One can’t imagine a modern European city the size of present-day Chicago losing up to a third of its population to simple lack of food.
Civilian behaviours during the first siege winter that led to mass death went through distinct stages. First, as the Germans approached, came denial, bolstered by official insistence that the fashisti were on the run, and food stores full to bursting. Individuals havered between staying or going. Some panic-bought — prudently, as it turned out. Others took the opportunity to rent cut-price dachas for the summer holidays.
Second, once the siege ring had closed and government food stocks began to run low, came disbelief. How, people asked themselves when they encountered their first dead body lying in the street, could this be happening? Famine, in the words of the critic and memoirist Lidiya Ginzburg, belonged “in the desert, complete with camels and mirages”.
Third — as public transport and utilities packed up, personal stores dwindled and friends and family began to fall ill — came fear. And fourth, as severe malnutrition took hold and bodily functions began to fail, came the loss of all emotions save an overwhelming craving for food. Survivors talk about having been “like stones” or “like wolves”, without feeling. Non-survivors’ diaries stop abruptly, or peter out into wild, illegible scribbles.
Along the way, Leningraders’ worlds shrank — first to city districts within walking distance, then to apartment, bread queue and water source (usually a broken pipe or hole in the ice of a canal). As in a country village, they trod narrow paths through unswept snow, the drifts a pristine white for lack of factory smuts. Forgotten rural skills — chopping wood, carrying pails with an improvised yoke — were relearned. Public radio, broadcast over loudspeakers wired to lamp-posts, carried people from street corner to street corner, even when its content shrank to the sound of a ticking metronome.
The story of Shostakovich’s 7th ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, partially composed in the besieged city and premiered there in the summer of 1942, is romanticised. The musicians played for rations, and very few Leningraders knew about the symphony at all. What is true is that they read and read — escapist foreign novels in particular. Hunched over a home-made kerosene lamp in his icy flat, the Persianist Alexander Boldyrev revelled in Great Expectations. (Excepting Dickens’s descriptions of meals — “those repeated, oh-so-English edible passages.”) Next he moved on to The Last of the Mohicans and Kipling’s sun-soaked Kim. A hungry eight-year-old slavered over pictures of rum babas in Madame Molokhovyets’s Gift to Young Housewives — the Russian equivalent of Mrs Beeton. Books were good for burning too — reference volumes first, the collected works of Lenin next, Pushkin and Tolstoy last of all.
Turned in on themselves, some households displayed formidable discipline. Rituals — washing one’s face, sitting to eat, defecating in the courtyard rather than on the staircase — preserved self-respect and gave shape to the long hours of winter dark. Other families disintegrated — shouts and thumps clearly audible through flimsy dividing walls.
Heads of households — typically working-age women whose husbands were away at the front — were forced into dreadful triage decisions. Should food be allocated to dependents most in need, or to those likeliest to survive? Should they themselves go without — though the whole family be doomed if they fell ill?
Either way, death was unavoidable, human physiology combining with the rationing system to fell people in a set order: infants and grandparents first, teenagers and father second, pre-teens and mother last. The dead lay behind wardrobes or in abandoned rooms, families waiting to dump bodies until after the deceaseds’ ration cards expired. Death certificates, when issued, cited ‘exhaustion’, or the pseudo-medical euphemism ‘dystrophy’.
Surest predictor of survival chances was one’s place in the social hierarchy. Best fed were defence workers and staff at prestigious institutions such as the Hermitage and the Academy of Sciences. (The old pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie, counter-intuitively, were advantaged too, having retained a surprising quantity of tradeable valuables. A recurring diary trope is the sale of a treasured tea set or pocket-watch to the wife or mistress of a supply officer, new-rich from food theft.)
Best of all, of course, was a post at the Smolny, or Party headquarters. An emaciated minor functionary lucky enough to land a job there in the midst of the winter of mass death recorded his amazement at the offerings in its canteen:
“Yesterday…I had vegetable soup with sour cream, followed by a mince patty with vermicelli. Today for the first course, soup with vermicelli, for the second, pork with steamed cabbage. In the evenings…free bread and butter with cheese, a bun, and a couple of glasses of sweet tea. Not bad!”
At the other extreme of the food scale — missed by or specifically excluded from the rationing system — were the unregistered, illiterate poor; peasant refugees; and teenage boarders at the city’s shuttered ‘industrial schools’. It was these marginal groups who first turned to cannibalism, scavenging meat from the corpses piled in sheds and cemeteries. In the city’s infamous Kresty — ‘Crosses’ — prison, possibly not a single inmate survived.
The monthly death toll began to fall sharply in April, in part thanks to new food transports across frozen Lake Ladoga, but mostly because there were so many fewer mouths left to feed. Spring felt like a miracle. Survivors picked nettles from greening bombsites, and sticky buds from the Summer Garden’s lime trees. Sensitive again to beauty, they found comfort in the blithe busyness of birds, and in the wildflowers that sprouted between untrodden paving stones.
They also, as normal emotions returned, suffered excruciating survivor’s guilt. Summer 1942 saw (too late) a mass civilian evacuation, and the following winter news of victory at Stalingrad. The final 12 months of the siege, though bedevilled by continued German shelling, were a long dull wait for Wehrmacht finally to depart.
The coronavirus is not going to kill three-quarters of a million people — in rich countries at least. We are not going to be boiling belts or scraping glue from the back of wallpaper, and if I kidnap my neighbour’s dog it will only be because I want the excuse for a walk.
Though the police now have the power to fine me for leaving my house, they are not going to arrest me (as besieged Leningraders continued to be arrested) for having a funny surname, speaking my mind in a bread queue, or being the daughter of an army officer or priest. Genuine bravery is being demanded of under-equipped medical staff; but for most of us, saving the Motherland means watching lots of telly and getting to grips with Zoom.
Even before it ended, the siege of Leningrad was being rewritten as a heroic victory story, a triumph of communal effort under the leadership of a wise and caring government. While the Soviet Union lasted, unexpurgated memoirs and diaries were unpublishable, and subjects such as family breakdown, ration fraud, feasting at the Smolny, mugging, looting and of course cannibalism remained taboo. Outside academic circles, they largely remain so to this day.
Our own incomparably less harsh coronavirus crisis will be rose-tinted in hindsight too: the clapping on doorsteps nostalgically remembered, the shoving in supermarket aisles conveniently forgotten. But it, too, will break relationships, pose acute moral dilemmas, expose government incompetence, and highlight selfishness and hypocrisy. Lucky for us that our test is not more severe.
Anna Reid’s Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44 is published by Bloomsbury