Anna Reed: A Second World War Tragedy, EIBF 2012, Review

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Anna Reid and Anthony Beevor (Chair)
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Anthony Beevor introduced Anna Reid, having given a somewhat lengthy introduction himself! However, as the author of a highly regarded book on Stalingrad he is an expert in Soviet history, so I sensed that the audience forgave him.  

Reid reminded us that the Leningrad siege was the worst siege of modern  times and lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, leading to the death of some two million Soviet civilians and military. It was most horrific in terms of human suffering and starvation. Had the German troops managed to cut off the city completely by severing all the railway lines, then the whole outcome of the war might have been different.

Beevor also mentioned Stalin's attitude towards Leningrad and his relationship with the city. There were claims that Stalin wanted to 'sacrifice' Leningrad and allow the Germans to lay it to waste, so that the challenge (as Stalin saw it ) of the intelligentsia of Leningrad could be squashed. If this was the case, then why did the German army not take the city - or did they, too, hang back and deliberately avoid finishing the job?

Reid remarked that the city was "woefully unprepared" for the 22 June attack and by 8 September the last of the road links had been cut. The extremely fast German advance had produced a chaotic situation.  

One must ask why many of the elderly and children were not evacuated, as initially there were some 2.8 million people in the city, including over 400,000 children. Part of the problem was that there was nowhere for them to go and no organisation to receive them had they actually got out of Leningrad.   

It is difficult to visualise the chaos at the time. However, all the railways had not in fact been cut because the Finnish troops had not linked up effectively with the Germans as was planned. On the face of it one wonders if the railways could have been used more perhaps? But at the time few people could have known exactly what was going on.   

Those people who did manage to fight their way on to a train had a difficult journey ahead of them and many died in the attempt to get away. People tried to bribe the drivers who amassed quantities of watches and fur coats. However, no one wanted to accept the refugees when they got to Russia so there was no one to help them and many simply perished.

Beevor noted that there had been no preparation for winter - there was no wood and the combination of a lack of food and the intense cold took a terrible toll on the civilian population.   Reid agreed and added that as there was no wood or fuel, the power stations could not operate so there was no electricity. 

Instead people made little kerosene lamps and tried to cook on these while the kerosene lasted; this produced many people with blackened faces and hands trying to use these lamps. Eventually they were driven to pull down any wooden houses in the city for fuel which sparked the comment that, "the council had destroyed more of the city than the Luftwaffe"!

Reid described the volunteer forces who were launched against the German Panzers with no training and no proper equipment, leading to mass slaughter. The "People's Militia" had some 360,000 men at one stage, however, such were the losses that it became a conscription system rather than a volunteer organisation.   

Divisions were thrown into the front line while pleading for more equipment and weapons. There were instances of only one rifle between three men; there were no water carts and no communications, so there was no command structure. Units that were wiped out were "reformed" and it is estimated that the actual death rate overall was about 50%. There were shortages of officers and a lack of leaders at all levels - few soldiers had any experience or training.

Reid described how the signs of starvation could be seen everywhere; those who "lay down" seldom got up again. She added that people changed their personality in the winter, with the cold to cope with as well as the food shortage, but there were many examples of great self-sacrifice by parents, which can be seen by the numbers of orphans found after the siege. The families had sacrificed themselves for their children.

Sometimes young people would have to take over the family and there were instances where ration books were handed in when the individual died - rather than take the book to obtain food illegally: quite extraordinary. A mother was counted only as a 'dependant' so did not receive the full working man's ration; this was very hard.  

Women also had to queue for hours on end just to obtain the meagre supplies for her family.  Women had to decide how to allocate the small amount of food available, as if she was not fit enough to get to the food queue, there would be no food for any of the family. Hard choices had to be made.  

Eventually some ate the flesh off the corpses and there are even reports of people killing for flesh to eat. In the spring there was always resentment at people who appeared to have survived well, or even antagonism towards women who were pregnant, as it was thought that they must have been receiving black market goods and living well while the rest starved.

Reid and Beevor together painted a terrifying picture of the siege and impressed the audience by the detailed research that had been carried out. We were left with the tantalising question of whether Stalin did indeed wish to ensure that Leningrad should never be in a position to challenge Moscow.

There appear certainly to be a number of telegrams and records of telephone calls that open up this intriguing question. It is known that the leader of the Leningrad community died and that the number two was purged and executed by Stalin, so those who want to know more will simply have to read Anna Reid's excellent book, Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege.

Event: 21 August, 2012