The literature of the Siege of Leningrad
October 12, 2011 6:57 PM   Subscribe

I am not going to try now to open the eyes of the world to the Leningrad Blockade. What I will write about here is less ambitious and somewhat more promising: the literature of the siege.

First, though, I should make it clear that my use of the word "hell" in relation to besieged Leningrad, and particularly the first siege in the winter of 1941-1942, is in no way metaphorical. If hell exists anywhere, then it must literally be that: eternal coldness, darkness, unrecognisable scraps of music and news emerging from loudspeakers, marching for hours on foot with the principle means of transport used under the siege, children's ice-skates. Frozen corpses strewn on the roadside. And at home, the corpses of family members which could not be buried for days on end (of course the rest of the family would try to use up their ration cards).
posted by Trurl (7 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
On 9 August 1942, the starving musicians of Leningrad staged the most extraordinary concert ever given. With huge speakers pointing towards the German lines, the citizens of the blockaded city gathered to hear Shostakovich's heroic Seventh Symphony. Almost 60 years later, Ed Vulliamy traces the orchestra's few survivors to discover how the Nazi Panzers faced the music. (previously)
posted by Trurl at 6:58 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Awesome post. A+
posted by Ironmouth at 7:36 PM on October 12, 2011

When I was a teen we were driving through St. P listening to the radio and between songs there was a pause and a series of beeps. Then the music resumed. I asked my dad what that was, and he said that was the signal that the radio station had broadcast during the blockade to show that there were still people alive in the city. The radio station sends out that signal to this day.

My grandfather on my dad's side survived the blockade. Now he rides the bus for free and gets discounted tickets to the museum. He's never told me any stories but I've watched him eat visibly moldy bread to the frustration of my dad, who makes sure my grandparents always have plenty of fresh food, because he cannot throw food away or see others throw food away. He had many brothers (I forget how many, maybe five), all of whom died in the war. I think he was the youngest and his brothers were conscripted as soldiers.

My grandmother on my mom's side was among the last to escape the city. I mean that literally. She left with her family during the night, and after that night, no one else escaped, the siege was complete. They fled across the Neva river, which was frozen, under sniper fire. Before that she had been living as a student in the dormitories, and she told me that all the girls in her dorm were "volunteer firemen" because when the air raid sirens went off, they would all run to the roof where they had placed buckets of sand to put out the fires that the Germans were sowing across the city. After she and her family got across the Neva, they were sent to Siberia to wait out the war. They took a train across all of Russia, in the forties, in the dead of winter. Through vast stretches of totally unpopulated emptiness, tundra, forest, just the train. Periodically, the train would make stops so that the passengers could gather firewood, since the only heat came from stoves in each car that needed to be fed constantly. On one night, my grandmother wandered too far from the train in search of dry wood, and when she came back to the tracks the train was gone. She was completely alone in the middle of the night, in the snow. Luckily, the conductor of her train was able to radio back to the next train, which picked her up. Luckily, she stayed where she was. When they all got to Siberia, they had to figure out how to live, so they traded their nice city shoes and some other possessions for a cow, and my grandmother's father used his handyman skills to supplement their income from trading milk. They lived like that until the war ended.

I remember reading a book of short stories about the blockade, though I can't recall the author's name. He wasn't listed in the link, unfortunately. I remember two in particular. In one, a mother has two children but only enough food to sustain one. If she gives her own food away to keep both alive, she will die and the children will have no one to take care of them or feed them and will both die. The neighbors watch as one child grows thinner and weaker and finally dies. No one says anything to the woman. In the other story, three men are on a train telling stories to pass the time. Each tells the story of the most frightening moment of the war for them. One was in a plane that crashed, one faced a tank. The third man says, I was an infantryman and had to leave my children behind in the city. I heard of the blockade and worried but their letters assured me they were fine. I sent back what I could. One day, I received a letter from my older son. He wrote, "Father, thank you so much for sending us those fine leather boots. They were delicious."
posted by prefpara at 7:58 PM on October 12, 2011 [25 favorites]

While developing his theory on the centres of origin of cultivated plants, Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, collected seeds from every corner of the globe, and created in Leningrad the world's largest collection of plant seeds. This seedbank was diligently preserved even throughout the 28-month Siege of Leningrad, despite starvation; one of Nikolai's assistants starved to death surrounded by edible seeds.
posted by Trurl at 8:02 PM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you speak Russian, you can read online:

Memoirs of the war

A list of links to prose about the war

Recorded memories of survivors of the war

There may be some overlap.
posted by prefpara at 9:24 PM on October 12, 2011

The episode of BBC's World at War about the siege of Leningrad is one of the saddest, most powerful things I've ever seen.
posted by word_virus at 8:18 AM on October 13, 2011

I read Antony Beevor's book "Stalingrad" last year and was overwhelmed at how thoroughly the Germans ruined that city. I just stopped reading every so often, dumb-struck.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:47 AM on October 14, 2011

« Older Zorya & More From Amanita Design   |   How is Banjo made? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments