The Soviet-German conflict was an incredibly brutal struggle, but few aspects of that struggle were more horrific than the siege of Leningrad from September 1941 to January 1944. Cut off from outside support and subjected to daily artillery and air attacks, the city suffered more than a million dead, many from simple starvation.
British historian Michael Jones has done a superb job of putting a human face on this ordeal, of helping us understand the experiences and feelings of the besieged populace. Using interviews, diaries, and secret police reports, Jones has reconstructed daily life in wartime Leningrad. The result is a very human mix of generosity and selfishness. He cites many instances in which individuals went far beyond the call of humanity in an effort to encourage or help their peers, whether dragging sick and frozen people into shelters or performing music and plays to distract the inhabitants from their troubles. Over time, informal groups of people formed to support one another through their ordeals. On the other hand, he recounts numerous instances of stealing food, murdering people for their ration cards, and even eating human flesh.
Food is, inevitably, a central theme of this book, just as it was an overwhelming preoccupation for the Leningraders under siege. Jones faults the Soviet administration for failing to stockpile enough food in advance, for concentrating all the food in one warehouse that was soon destroyed by German attacks, and for providing elaborate foodstuffs for Communist Party members and their families. These accounts reflect the resentment that the survivors felt against a regime that signally failed to care for them. The book also recounts various expedients and alternatives when food was scarce, including boiling leather goods, eating wallpaper paste, and stretching the available grain supply with various inedible substances. Malnutrition first produced puffy features, then a gaunt and withdrawn look that made people look far older than their chronological age, and finally a psychological withdrawal from reality. Children who had once played on staircases soon found the same stairs to be incredible obstacles because of the energy required to mount them. When money could no longer buy food, people began to purchase useless luxury items instead. Eventually, starving people went to extremes to get food, including frenzied searches to find imaginary supplies in their homes. Overall, the author's account of these experiences is the most vivid and moving part of the book.
This personalized approach to history is less effective, however, in explaining the military and political events surrounding the siege. For example, Jones criticizes the city administration for camouflaging its headquarters building while leaving a nearby palace exposed as a decoy. The criticism undoubtedly reflects the city's resentment against its ineffectual leadership, but as a practical matter any leader, no matter how inept, would have to protect his headquarters from enemy attack in order to ensure continuity of operations in a crisis. Similarly, Jones repeatedly faults the Soviet regime for suppressing news about the starvation, without recognizing the adverse effects such news might have on the morale of other Soviet citizens.
More seriously, Jones uses personalities to explain the military and political failures of the Soviet regime. He attributes the disastrous prewar purge of the Red Army officer corps largely to the self-serving behavior of Marshal Kliment Efremovich Voroshilov, Iosif Stalin's incompetent crony and defense commissar. Jones portrays Voroshilov as encouraging the Soviet dictator to liquidate thousands of officers simply because Voroshilov wished to eliminate rivals, curry favor, and conceal his own shortcomings. This argument has some merit, but it reduces the complex issues of the great purges to petty bickering among senior officers. Although Voroshilov undoubtedly pandered to Stalin, that great mass murderer would have purged the officer corps in any case, simply because the Red Army represented a potential threat to his control.
Similarly, the only general who is given favorable treatment in the book is Marshal Leonid Govorov. It is true that Govorov's able leadership has been overshadowed by the reputation of more famous men, such as Georgii Zhukov. However, Jones's favorable account of the Leningrad front commander appears to be based on the fact that survivors remember Govorov fondly as the man who finally liberated them, without acknowledging the vast improvements in the Red Army that made that liberation possible.
Despite these weaknesses, Leningrad: State of Siege more than succeeds in its chosen goal of telling the story from the viewpoint of those who lived through it. A recognition of the suffering and devastation in Leningrad and throughout the Western USSR is essential to understanding the psyche of the postwar Soviet government and peoples. Having suffered so much, the Soviet Union was determined to preclude any future threat to its national security. For this reason, as well as for its sheer human interest, this book is worthy of study by both historians and the general public.