Leningraders’ defiant, desperate clinging to life

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Anyone driving from Pulkovo Airport into St Petersburg today passes an enormous memorial to the siege of Leningrad at the edge of the city. A vast obelisk is fronted by ranks of soldiers and workers, men and women who march out fearlessly in the direction of the front line only a few kilometres to the south. Erected in the early 1970s, the monument symbolises an official Soviet and now largely unaltered Russian narrative of the selfless and united blokadniki defending their besieged city. Leningrad does not seek to overturn this powerful story of heroism completely but it does argue that the reality of the siege was a good deal more complicated and ambiguous. In a magisterial telling of the story that is by turns inspiring and appalling, Reid reconstructs the lives of those caught up in one of the key conflicts of the Second World War and one of the twentieth century’s greatest human tragedies. The siege need not have been quite so devastating. The Soviet leadership had been caught unawares by the speed of Army Group North’s extraordinary, violent advance through the Baltic and failed to coordinate a proper evacuation of the city in the crucial window in August 1941 before the Wehrmacht closed in. Reid argues that while responsibility for the mass death lies squarely with the Germans, its lethal power was magnified by Soviet ‘denial, disorganisation and carelessness of human life’.

more from Daniel Beer at Literary Review here.

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