The foreword to Sergey Yarov’s “Leningrad 1941-42: Morality in a City under Siege”

Thanks to Laurence Rees‘s tweet below I just started reading Sergey Yarov’s “Leningrad 1941-42: Morality in a City under Siege“:

From the foreword as written by John Barber, but has been abridged by yours truly:

No city in the history of warfare has known a catastrophe like that suffered by Leningrad in World War II. While the exact number who died during the siege by the German and Finnish armies from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944 will never be known, available data point to 900,000 civilian deaths, over half a million of whom died in the winter of 1941–2 alone. Many other cities were devastated in World War II, but none saw death on such a scale as Leningrad. And, unlike others, it was not bombing, fighting or shelling that caused the massive number of deaths. The overwhelming majority of those who perished in Leningrad died of hunger.

That Leningrad would be besieged was unforeseen by either side in the titanic struggle that began when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the surprise invasion of the USSR by 3½ million German troops and their allies, on 22 June 1941.

It was only on 21 August, however, that Leningraders were told that their city was in danger of attack. Eight days later, the last rail line out of the city was cut, and on 8 September German forces captured Schlisselburg, cutting its last land link with the rest of the USSR. Hitler’s strategy was now decided. Rather than attempting to take Leningrad by storm and risking heavy losses of forces needed for the imminent battle for Moscow, hunger would bring the Nazis victory. The population of 2½ million would be starved to death and the city razed to the ground. The siege had begun; it would last for 872 days.

With the destruction by bombing of the large Badaev food stores on the first day of the blockade, and supplies by air or water drastically limited, Leningrad’s leaders knew that disaster threatened. In the weeks that followed they cut the bread ration five times. By 20 November, it had been reduced for most Leningraders to 150 grams, a fraction of the amount needed to sustain life. Of this, half was composed of additives with no nutritional value – sawdust, cellulose, malt and other surrogates – and almost no other rations were provided. Leningraders were left to their own devices to supplement their meagre bread ration with anything remotely edible – wood glue, tank grease, oilcake, leather belts and many other surrogates – or to barter their possessions for food.

The result was mass starvation. The first such deaths occurred in late October and they grew inexorably. By November, the first arrests were being made for cannibalism. By December, death from ‘dystrophy’, atrophy of the vital organs, was common. Victims collapsed and died at home or work, resting or walking. With the cessation of electricity and water supply, heating and sewerage, with starving people forced to stand for hours, often at night, in bread queues, even then not always receiving their ration, and in one of the bitterest winters on record, the death rate rose in January and February to thirty times its peacetime level. Leningrad was in the grip of a famine unprecedented in its scale and intensity. The Leningrad famine in the ‘Hungry Winter’ of 1941–2 would belong in the same category as major famines of modern history: Ireland in 1846, India in 1876–9, Bengal in 1942, China in 1959–61.

As a description, ‘Hungry Winter’ is an understatement. It was, as Sergey Yarov says, the Time of Death. With the Leningrad Funeral Trust unable to cope with the huge number of dead, corpses lay everywhere – in homes, courtyards, on the streets, in improvised morgues and hospitals. When eventually collected, they were transported in lorries full to the brim, and left in piles of hundreds, sometimes thousands, at cemeteries, awaiting burial in mass graves or cremation. Not until March would the death rate begin to diminish. With increased food supplies reaching Leningrad and the evacuation of half a million people via the Road of Life across Lake Ladoga, and fewer people alive to be fed, by spring rations had reached a level capable of sustaining life. The effects of extreme malnutrition during the winter, however, would last for months. People were still dying from dystrophy, if in fewer numbers, for the rest of 1942. Hundreds of books have been published about the siege of Leningrad. Already during the blockade itself, the authorities decided that its immense human cost should be recorded in order to write its history They called on Leningraders to provide personal records of it, including diaries they were writing – or had been until they died; and many were collected. This project was brought to a sudden halt, however, in 1949–50 in the Leningrad Affair, when Stalin ruthlessly purged many who had been leading figures during the siege on the grounds of their supposed ambition to challenge Moscow’s preeminence. For the rest of the Stalin period, Leningrad’s role in the Soviet war effort would receive minimal attention from historians. The diaries, along with other materials, were consigned to remote corners of the archives.

From the Khrushchev period, it became possible again to write about the siege, though almost exclusively in ways that emphasized the role of patriotism and heroism in victory over Nazi Germany. But it would take Perestroika from 1985, and above all the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, to open Soviet archives and make research into previously ignored or taboo areas of the siege’s history possible for both Russian and Western historians. Unique among these was Sergey Yarov. In the ten years that this brilliant and original St Petersburg historian devoted to study of the history of the siege, until his untimely death in September 2015, he read hundreds of diaries, letters, memoirs, reminiscences and reports, and interviewed many survivors of the siege. His aim was to show the full tragedy of the siege, the impact that the terrible conditions in which the great majority of the population lived and died during the siege had on their attitudes, behaviour and psychology. More than anyone who has written about the siege, he showed the terrible choices that desperate and famished people could be forced to make – to feed one child at the cost of another’s life, to keep the body of a dead relative in the apartment to use his or her ration cards to keep others alive, to use the flesh of a corpse to feed dependants or oneself. Was it possible to remain human in inhuman conditions? Yarov argued that, from late October 1941 to spring 1942, Leningrad saw a ‘degradation’ of collective morality, and that the foundations on which the ethics of daily life rested broke down. While many people strove to retain a sense of what being human meant in their relations with others – family members in particular – for others the imperatives of survival dictated very different norms. That the great majority of those arrested for cannibalism were women refugees without the right to bread rations speaks volumes about the unimaginably appalling conditions of the blockade.

Sergey Yarov’s book poses questions not only about the history of the Leningrad siege. How, in such appalling circumstances, would people today – we ourselves included – behave? What would the impact of mass starvation and death be on a modern city in a developed society, with a great cultural history and a highly educated population – all of which describes Leningrad in 1941. War, with all its catastrophic and unforeseen results, is a ubiquitous and unpredictable phenomenon in the contemporary world, just as hunger, malnutrition and starvation remain the fate of millions of its inhabitants. For this reason above all, the knowledge and understanding of what the people of Leningrad suffered in the winter of 1941–2 provided in this outstanding book have a relevance and importance that go far beyond its historical interest.

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