Walter G. Moss
Review of Michael
Jones, Leningrad: State of Siege. New York: Basic Books,
2008. Pp. xxii, 322. ISBN 978-0-465-01153-7.
Leningrad: State of Siege, British military historian Michael
Jones mainly recounts the effects of the German siege on the people
of Leningrad. Beginning in September 1941, it caused the starvation
of hundreds of thousands of Leningraders, especially during the
winter of 1941-2. For seventeen months, until mid-January 1943, the
Germans succeeded in blockading the city, cutting it off--except for
an "ice road" over Lake Ladoga--from the rest of the country. Even
after the blockade was broken, the siege continued another year,
until late January 1944, when Soviet troops pushed the Germans back
far enough to end it. Jones suggests that the total number of
Leningrad deaths caused by the 872-day siege exceeded one million.
Although Chapter One, of eleven chapters plus an epilogue, deals
with the German advance, readers hoping to learn much of German and
Soviet military plans and operations regarding this long siege will
be disappointed. And despite Jones's mention of the effect on morale
at Leningrad of the Soviet success at the Battle of Stalingrad, in
general he does not write much about the larger German-Soviet
conflict and the role played by changing military supplies, weather,
or other factors. Readers wishing more detail on such aspects,
especially military operations, should turn instead to previously
published works like David M.
Glantz's The Battle for Leningrad,
mention what the book does not focus on, however, is not meant as a
negative criticism; for Jones does well what he sets out to do. As
displayed in his earlier work on the Stalingrad campaign,
his main strength is in describing the experiences of those being
attacked or besieged, whether soldiers or civilians. Here we read
mainly about civilians. Supplementing the narrative are maps, a
timeline, endnotes, a bibliography, and thirty-five illustrations,
including drawings done during the siege. The author's main sources
are Leningraders he interviewed, published personal accounts, and
various materials from the Blockade Museum--established in 1989,
before the city had reverted to its old name, St. Petersburg. Jones
frequently quotes the Leningraders themselves (and occasionally the
German besiegers). The following is from a citizen's diary entry:
February  has begun--the sixth month of the siege. Everywhere
people are dying: cold and hunger are paralyzing the will to live.
There are no means of transport or communication and such
conveniences as light, water, electricity and gas have passed into
the realm of legend. If you stay on the streets for a couple of
hours you come across dozens of dead people, lying, solitary in the
snow, and cartloads of corpses. The prices for foodstuffs on the
black market are astronomical, and people are eating the most
appalling filth, from joiner's-glue jelly to cuts from the soft
parts of corpses. The emaciated inhabitants of the city, driven by
utter despair, are turning into savages (212).
Savage behavior there surely was among Leningraders--cannibalism,
theft, hoarding, murder, and other atrocities. No surprise under the
appalling conditions, but there were also numerous acts of
self-sacrifice and quiet heroism--an old professor, weak and frail
from lack of food, giving half his bread ration to a small girl;
starving people avoiding the temptation of snatching loaves of bread
from an overturned cart because a young girl tells them she is
taking the bread to a hospital; a woman weak from hunger dragging
her heavy double bass on a sledge through the snow to participate in
a concert recital to cheer up hospital patients.
excusable than the Leningraders' acts of savagery was the behavior
of Hitler and German strategists who proclaimed that "Leningrad must
starve to death" (157), deliberately targeted hospitals,
kindergartens, a Red Cross boat, and civilian apartments, and
planned to kill Leningrad civilians, including women and children,
rather than let them surrender to German forces. As so often
happened in the mass killings of the twentieth century, such
behavior was first justified by dehumanizing the enemy, depicting
them as subhumans (Untermenschen in Nazi propaganda).
Hitler's racist ideas and linking of communists with Jews led to
the designation of the Soviet enemy by such terms as "vermin."
Jones also provides many examples of dastardly or incompetent
behavior on the part of Leningrad military and civilian leaders,
especially Marshal Voroshilov and Communist Party head Andrei
Zhdanov. While most hungry and starving Leningraders were open
targets of German shells and bombs, Zhdanov obsessively camouflaged
his Smolny Institute headquarters and kept it abundantly supplied
with food: even during the terrible winter of 1941-2, there was "for top
party officials … a plentiful stream of bread, sugar, cutlets,
small pies and other cooked dishes" (196). Zhdanov, with help from
the NKVD (political police), also diligently worked to quash
Leningraders' criticism of himself and other city leaders.
Although Jones emphasizes that Marshal Zhukov, who took over
military command in Leningrad from the incompetent Voroshilov in
September 1941, was a more effective leader, he also made some
costly mistakes before soon being sent to command the defense of
Moscow. According to Jones, only General Govorov, who oversaw the
offensive that broke the German siege, displayed consistent
first-rate military leadership. Of Stalin's role we read little, and
the book leaves the impression that ending the Leningrad siege was
never his top military priority.
of the most heartening aspects of this often depressing account of
great suffering is the importance of the arts and humanities to
Leningraders during the siege. In the midst of our contemporary
economic crisis, when the "value" of these disciplines is being
questioned anew on university campuses, Jones often shows how vital
they can be for sustaining people in the hardest of times and
enriching their lives in all seasons. Although the Soviets tried to
control culture for political purposes, Leningraders' deep love of
worthwhile music, drama, and literature often lifted their spirits.
On one occasion, as people were huddled in a bomb shelter that
"reverberated and shook" from German bombs, "all of a sudden, one …
old man got out his violin and began to play …. He conjured up the
most beautiful melody." A woman observing the scene "was utterly
entranced, and she recaptured the moment for her diary: 'He is a
really courageous person, and now I don't feel frightened either.
There are explosions all around us, and he is playing the violin as
if he is leading us to safety …. The terror was somehow less
powerful--it had lost its grip on us. It was outside us now;
and inside we had our music, and everyone felt its power. There was
a most extraordinary sense of belonging'" (151).
Another woman recalled that many people "used to read War and
Peace in besieged Leningrad .... Tolstoy had said the last
word about courage, about people doing their bit in a people's war .... And no one doubted the adequacy of Tolstoy's response to
life. The reader would say to himself: 'Right--now I've got the
proper feeling about this. So then, this is how it should be'"
Leningrad poets such as Anna Akhmatova and Olga Berggolts, both of
whom spent the early part of the siege in their beloved city,
inspired Leningraders with their poems carried over Radio Leningrad.
About Berggolts' poetry Jones writes: "It was read to the city as an
act of love, and it touched Leningrad's inhabitants deeply. It took
them away from the unremitting hardship of the siege, however
briefly, and gave a vision of something greater in its place. 'Her
voice united us,' Alexei Pavlovsky said, 'She invoked the courage of
Leningrad, a courage that could counter the deaths of hundreds of
thousands of our citizens'" (233-4).
Leningrad actors put on plays not only in theaters but also before
soldiers and sailors at various locations. The director of the
Musical Comedy Theater observed that after the siege had begun
attendance at his theater rose despite the appalling conditions of
late 1941. One actress in a production of The Three Musketeers
recalled that in the freezing building one of the musketeers,
weakened by hunger and cold, died, leaving only two musketeers to
finish the performance.
Future opera star Galina Vishnevskaya recalled attending
Tchaikovsky's opera Queen of Spades in a cold theater: "The
thrill I felt was not simply the pleasure of the performance--it was
pride in my resurrected people, in the great art which compelled
those human shadows--the emaciated musicians, singers, the
audience--to come together in that great opera house, beyond whose
walls air-raid sirens wailed and shells exploded. Truly, man does
not live by bread alone" (253).
The most famous musical
performance, however, occurred on 9
August 1942: Dmitri Shostakovich's Seventh [Leningrad]
Symphony. The story of its Leningrad debut--it had been
performed earlier in Moscow and other cities, including London and
New York--has often been told, but Jones recounts it well, mixing in
quotations from participants.
Philharmonic Hall blazed with light …. "We were stunned by the
number that had turned out," trombonist Mikhail Parfionov said.
"Some were in suits; some had come straight from the front. Most
were haggard and emaciated. And we realized that these people were
not just starving for food, but starving for music …." The conductor
[Karl Eliasberg] lifted his baton--and the symphony began. In the
city's apartments and along the front-line trenches, civilians and
soldiers gathered around their transmitter dishes relaying the radio
broadcast of the concert …. [At the end] "people just stood and
cried," Eliasberg recalled, "They knew that this was not a passing
episode but the beginning of something. We heard it in the music.
The concert hall, the people in their apartments, the soldiers on
the front--the whole city had found its humanity. And in that
moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine" (260-1).
summary, Leningrad: State of Siege emphasizes not war aims,
strategy, tactics, and battles, but the struggle of Leningraders to
survive under incredibly harsh conditions. Although many of them did
not, others did, often demonstrating the great depths of the human
Eastern Michigan University
 Drexel, PA: Casemate, 2007.
Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed (Lawrence: U Pr of
Kansas, 2002). For an excellent brief account of the siege in
many of its aspects, see W. Bruce Lincoln, Sunlight at
Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia (NY:
Basic Books, 2000), 268-308, available online at Tours-SPB