Leningrad: Hero City

900 days of siege in World War Two

At the beginning of January, this year, the BBC in Britain carried a documentary film called ‘Leningrad and the Orchestra that defied Hitler’. It covered a particular event during the blockade of the city during the Second World War -probably the costliest and most tragic siege in history.

The programme used eye-witness accounts and historical material to great effect. The content was powerful and moving in spite of the sometimes subjective approach of the presenters. For example, Tom Service and Amanda Vickery have no real sympathy for the historic revolutionary mass upheavals in Russia’s northern capital – events of nearly 100 years ago which still inspire socialists world-wide today.

It was there – in Petrograd – that Tsarism and landlordism were overthrown by the heroic actions of workers and soldiers in February 1917. In October of the same year, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, capitalism was swept away in what can still be described as the greatest event in human history. Yet Vickery dismisses it as a ‘coup d’état’. Service stands in front of Lenin’s monument at the Finland Station speaking glibly of the horrors of millions of deaths under Stalin and making it look as if Lenin was to blame. In fact Stalin carried through a bloody political counter-revolution, maintaining a state-owned planned economy but eliminating every element of workers’ democracy.

The documentary centred on the efforts of Leningrad’s radio station in 1942 to organise a live performance of Dmitri Shostakovitch’s seventh (Leningrad) symphony, when the city was surrounded by a massive German armed force. He had begun writing it in his home city of Leningrad before being evacuated to Kuibishev. On August 9th the performance was finally aired. This was already more than a year since Hitler had begun to dispatch over 4 million troops to slice their way through the Baltic States and surround the historic city with the aim of forcing its immediate surrender. Hitler had not reckoned on the mass resistance from workers and other ‘volunteers’ who streamed by the thousands to defend their city from the enemy.

The musical critic, Tom Service, and the BBC organised for a handful of elderly Leningraders – survivors of the horrific blockade – to be treated to a special performance of the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, conducted by the composer’s son, Maxim. It would be in the very same Philharmonic Hall where they had heard it in 1942 when the historic performance had gone ahead against all the odds.

Poignant as this re-enactment was, just as memorable were the heart-rending reminiscences of the ‘blokadniks’ – Olga Kvade, Tamara Korolkevich, Iosef Raiskin, Ksenia Matus. For them, simply staying alive had been a superhuman struggle that they would never forget.

By August 1942 enough musicians had finally been mustered to constitute what was almost literally a skeleton orchestra. The first oboist remembered that the women’s dresses and the men’s jackets looked decidedly “as if they were on coat-hangers”. Karl Eliasberg, the conductor, had literally brought back to life the principal drummer, Dzaudhat Aydarov! Visiting a morgue to identify the body, he found him still breathing. It would be surely be impossible to perform this famous symphony without the incessant drum-beats that convey the merciless advance of the invading army.

Cold and hunger

The winter of 1941-2 had been a waking nightmare for the population of Leningrad. Outdoor temperatures were amongst the worst in living memory – in the minus 30s and sometimes minus 40s. Inside homes, factories, offices and even hospitals it had been a struggle to maintain even the minimum heating levels needed to maintain life. Fuel was already scarce. Firewood had to be scavenged from all possible sources. Family furniture was broken into pieces and beloved books were sacrificed to keep the burzhuiki stoves alight.

Anna Reid, in her thoroughly researched book, ’Leningrad’ (Bloomsbury, 2012), draws on the diaries of participants in the blockade and evidence from recently opened archives. She explains that rations at first covered a small amount of meat, sugar, fats and bread. Meat supplies dwindled and an ill-advised increase in rations for sugar and fats meant they also rapidly became exhausted. In the worst days of 1942, rations for bread were reduced to 250 grams a day for manual workers and 125 grams for others. For those without documents, there was nothing.

The circle closes

Kolya Preobrazhensky, a friend from the 1990s when I lived in the ‘Hero City’, told me of his mother’s experience of the blockade. News of the German invasion came when she was about to graduate. No-one was surprised, in spite of the fact that Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler.

In the 1930s Stalin, through the Comintern, had actually sabotaged resistance to Hitler’s rise to power, characterising him as a lesser evil compared with the ‘social fascists’ of the Social Democratic Party. At the time, the exiled revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, had urged that a United Front be forged of both the mass workers’ parties to fight together against the scourge of fascism.

On hearing of the German attack in 1941, Stalin had refused to believe it. His failure to react immediately lost precious time and precious lives. In addition, the armed forces had been bereft of their most able leaders in the notorious purge between 1937 and 1939 of 40,000 officers including Marshals, top commanders and Admirals. They, like the cream of the revolutionary forces of 1917 before them, had been either summarily executed or sent to the Gulags to face hard labour and starvation.

Later, when Hitler’s forces were threatening to take Moscow, Stalin was said to be prepared to ‘sacrifice’ Leningrad and concentrate all industrial resources on military production for the defence of the capital.

Thousands of lives were squandered on the Northern Front before Schlisselburg fell to the Germans on 8th September, 1941, completing the encirclement of Leningrad. Just one day before, Kolya’s grandmother made a dash to Schlisselburg to rescue her daughter. Leaving the textile factory where she worked was illegal. She would have no work and no rations. They were “the worst four weeks of her life” but she was alive!

Kolya’s mother was also amongst the numerous women Anna Reid talks about,drafted to dig defensive trenches on the southern and western approaches to Leningrad. Up to their waists in mud and overflown by Nazi warplanes, they were regaled with leaflets in Russian dropped from overhead, calling on them to surrender and save their skins.

Life and death in the city

Inside the city, rations had to be collected each day. Famished citizens were using up dwindling energy to reach distribution points and return home. There was the risk of being attacked and robbed of coupons or rations on their way. Many just died on the journey and froze in the snow.

Anna Reid and Amanda Vickery draw on diaries of participants who recall how family members turned on each other, sometimes violently. Even the most sensitive and heroic of human beings – among them children, teachers, poets – found themselves turning into animals intent only on survival. Personal, including sexual, relations between the most loving of partners deteriorated. Through the hunger and the strain, as Reid explains, women ceased to menstruate. Kolya says simply, “And then there were no new babies in the city”.

Anything that could provide the slightest trace of vitamins or something sweet was ingeniously processed. As in the tragic, besieged villages of Syria today, there was sometimes nothing but boiled water flavoured from packets of dried spices, twigs or pine needles. ‘Soup’ was made by boiling leather from belts or shoes. Pieces of cat, dog, rat, pigeon were ‘luxuries’. And then there were the ’rumours’, at first harshly denied and suppressed, of ‘cannibalism’ – human flesh being cooked and eaten. Anna Reid has had access to documents which have confirmed everybody’s worst fears. Kolya’s relatives checked meat to for animal not human hairs.


Reid also comments that few diarists of the blockade, preoccupied as they were with the struggle to survive, even mentioned the famous symphony concert in besieged Leningrad. For one thing, not long before, it had been dangerous to express appreciation for Shostakovitch. In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was suddenly denounced by Pravda. Again, just a few years after the famous performance of his Leningrad Symphony he was back on the proscribed list. In 1948 his work was banned and he was condemned as an “anti-people formalist”.

In ‘Testimony’, by Solomon Volkov, Shostakovitch was recorded as saying that when he composed the famous pipe and drum march for his seventh symphony, he had in mind “not only the Nazis but ‘other enemies of humanity’…I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began”.

Stalin’s attitude to the city of Leningrad was one of suspicion and reluctance to bolster the image of the local administration. His delay in organising the initial defence of the city and his slowness in ordering adequate supplies of food and clothing were probably no accident. It was the city of the revolution where sparks could fly again. It had harboured important elements of Trotsky’s Left Opposition to Stalin. It was also the city where Kirov, though not opposed to Stalin’s politics, had been a popular local party leader and therefore fallen out of favour with Stalin, possibly being ‘silenced’ by way of an organised murder.

During the siege, on the pretext of petty crime – predominantly theft and seldom with evidence – thousands of innocent Leningraders were hauled before the hated NKVD in the ‘Big House’ on Liteiny Prospect. Many never returned home. Strangely enough, as Anna Reid remarks, the writer and cousin of Trotsky, Vera Inber, much quoted in the book, was not ‘disappeared’ nor was the poet Anna Akhmatova, who was highly critical of the regime.

Although Party and security service archives are still not completely open, there are few recorded instances of open anti-government protests and even those are from dubious (pro-German or pro-US sources). Anna Reid cites two from 1941. Workers at the Kirovsky factory, from whose number a whole regiment was annihilated at the Finnish front, downed tools and demanding peace. Many were said to have been shot dead by the NKVD and the leaders taken away.

In the same part of the city, school students were said to have been distributing leaflets saying, “24 years ago you destroyed Tsarism! Please destroy the hated Kremlin-Smolny executioners!”. Leaflets urging Leningraders to revolt, however, did undoubtedly circulate, but news of them was quickly suppressed.

As the siege went on, factory collectives (workforces) would have lost their cohesion and latent power as hundreds of workers were sent to the front, others were starving and dying at their lathes and still more were evacuated from the city as essential workers. In a Gargantuan operation that a privately owned economy would have been unlikely to have achieved, whole factories, or large sections of them, and the machinery in them, were taken apart, packed up and reassembled hundreds of kilometres away in the safety of the Urals.

Better and worse

After the very worst period of 1941-42, some aspects of life eased a little – more evacuations, more rations available and less severe weather. But the failings and gross inefficiencies of the Stalinist bureaucracy lay behind hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The organisation of supply routes and air drops was bungled (although luxury supplies still managed to reach the tables of the top government and police officials!). The authorities made criminal blunders in relation to the famous ‘Road of Life’ out of the city and across Lake Ladoga. Hundreds of people, held up in railway stations, were strafed by the Luftwaffe. Thousands of men, women and children drowned in overloaded boats and, in the winter, thousands more disappeared under the ice when the bombers attacked or when it gave way under the weight of the vehicles in which they were being transported.

Families remaining in Leningrad continued to lose one, then another of their number to hunger and disease. Kolya’s grandmother was a primary school teacher. (Nearly three decades before, in the days of the gathering revolution, she had been a colleague of Alexandra Kollontai and often worked to cover for her while she went about her underground activities.) Now, whole schools were being moved out of the city. Children were often evacuated as orphans, or soon to become orphans, and themselves in failing health, never to return to the city of their birth.

With no pupils, Kolya’s grandmother was re-allocated to work as a registrar. She would see members of the same family coming at ever shortening intervals, so exhausted they lacked any emotion, registering the death of a grandparent, a baby, a brother, a father, an aunt, a daughter, a mother until there was no one left. Anna Reid writes that many deaths actually went unregistered for as long as possible so that ration cards could still be used.


Much of the TV documentary about the siege pulls at the heartstrings. So does the extensive material unearthed by Anna Reid. The BBC’s current elaborate production of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ brings home the horrors of war almost as harrowingly. Napoleon, like Hitler, had the aim of taking the northern capital, St Petersburg and following through to Moscow. (In Leningrad, in 1942, the size of the book War and Peace meant it was often one of the first to be used in place of firewood. And anyway, as some of the city’s diarists noted, no-one felt much like reading more about death and blood!)

A film version of War and Peace was carried by the British Broadcasting Corporation back in the 1940s too. It was part of its obedient pro-Russian coverage, once Stalin was on the ‘right’ side in the war, drawing Hitler’s fire away from Britain and its troops. The BBC was also expected to broadcast other nineteenth century Russian classics, and plenty of Russian music. As for ‘talkers’, Reid says, they were restricted to distant historical topics, especially if they might possibly be left wing! “Mass starvation in Leningrad …was not mentioned at all”.

The words of the blokadniks in the BBC’s recent documentary conveyed so simply, with the occasional tear, the sufferings and the heroism of millions of working people across the Soviet Union in war-time. But they also conveyed the stubborn survival of a different consciousness about life from that which is inculcated by capitalism. For them simplicity, fairness, justice, beauty still counted for more than wealth, property, instant gratification and rivalry.

The real history of the city ‘once known as Leningrad’ remains to be written, after capitalism has been wiped from the scene; the dramatic class battles will be played out on screen and stage. They will honour the memory of the workers, sailors and soldiers who, with Lenin and Trotsky, made the revolution in that city and fought against the murderous rule of Stalin.

‘Leningrad and the Orchestra that defied Hitler’, BBC 2, January 2nd 2016

‘Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44’ by Anna Reid (published by Bloomsbury 2012)

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January 2016