Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941–44

Five readers quiz author Anna Reid on her recent book

Publisher’s blurb: Leningrad is a gripping narrative history interwoven with personal stories – immediate accounts of daily siege life drawn from diarists and memoirists on both sides. These 20th-century European civilians living through unbearable hardship reveal the terrible details of life in the blockaded city: the all-consuming and daily search for food; crawling up ice-rounded steps on hands and knees, hauling a bucket of water; a woman who has just buried her father noticing how the cemetery guards have used a frozen corpse with outstretched arm and cigarette between its teeth as a signpost to a mass grave; and another using a dried pea to make a rattle for her evacuated grandson’s first birthday, and putting it away in a drawer when she hears, six months later, that he has died of meningitis.


As part of our new reader book club, BBC History Magazine gave five people the chance to read Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941–44 and put their questions to the book’s author, Anna Reid. Here’s what they had to say…


The book includes some shocking photographs of people who died in the siege. How do you respond to the suggestion that these photographs are gratuitous and disrespectful?

Rachel JonesKent


Anna says: 

A very good question, which goes to some of the hardest judgements I had to make when writing Leningrad. Any historian, when covering an atrocity of this sort, has to decide what to put in and what to leave out. On the one hand, death – and not just death in the abstract, but death faced square on, concrete and detailed – is absolutely central to the story.

It’s the historian’s job to describe events as they were, not to spare feelings or to earn a ‘PG’ rating. On the other hand, one must not descend into voyeurism, nor cause the reader to throw down the book in disgust.

There were several vivid but macabre diary extracts that I cut out of the final draft, as being painful to read and adding nothing to the overall picture. Others – such as Dmitri Lazarev’s ghastly but powerfully evocative description of taking his dead father-in-law to a morgue – I left in.

On the photographs specifically – they shock in part because they are so unfamiliar. One of my main aims in writing the book was to debunk the Soviet version of the siege story. This left out not only aspects of the siege embarrassing to the regime – the botched children’s evacuation, the disastrous People’s Levy, continuing political repression, theft and corruption within the food distribution system – but also its sheer nastiness; its immediate, physical, horror.

At the time, even approved writers such as Pasternak’s cousin Olga Fridenberg complained that they were not allowed to tell the truth – “everything living, everything genuine, was inadmissible” – and that continued to be the case right up to perestroika.

Images were similarly censored. Writing their ground-breaking Book of the Blockade in the early ‘80s, Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin complained that the only photographs they could access were of sturdy, healthy-looking girls cheerfully working lathes or loading timber – a radical mis-match with the fact of three-quarters of a million dead from starvation, and with what they were hearing from their blokadnik interviewees.

Today we are our own censors. Some of the photographs in Leningrad – taken by official war-photographers, but first published only two years ago, thanks to detective work by a professor of photo-journalism at St Petersburg State University – are upsetting, some profoundly sad. But they represent the siege as it really was.




How difficult was it to write the book given the problem there is with records being unclear and incomplete?

Billie Foster, Manchester




Anna says: 

Actually, my problem wasn’t a shortage of good, reliable accounts, but an over-abundance of them. A flood of blockade diaries and memoirs has been published over the past few years, and more lurk in museums and libraries, as well as with diarists’ families. I by no means read all there is to read, and was still unable to find room, beyond the odd quote or two, for much wonderful material.

When it came to official records, things weren’t quite so easy. The archive I used most was St Petersburg’s Central State Archive for Historico-Political Documents – still known simply as the Partarkhiv, or Party Archive. Compared to the Ministry of Defence archive outside Moscow, it’s very accessible, and its staff helpful and efficient.

Nonetheless, many requests for files – particularly those concerning desertion or collaboration in occupied territory – came back marked zasekrecheniy or ‘secretified’. On other sensitive topics, such as Molotov’s and Malenkov’s visit to Leningrad as the siege ring closed, the official record seems to have disappeared completely – destroyed, perhaps, during the postwar purges.

Extremely useful were two large document collections edited by the Russian historians Andrei Dzeniskevich and Nikita Lomagin. Both include a mixture of top-down directives from the city leadership, and bottom-up reports from the NKVD, police and other agencies. Paradoxically, it’s from the NKVD that we get our best idea of public opinion during the siege – via the informers who haunted every workplace and bread queue.




You describe the outline plan for a US/UK evacuation of Leningrad as “surreal”. Whilst the UK clearly could not have taken part, there is a certain element of (admittedly misguided) logic in getting the US or another neutral country such as Sweden involved?

John Long, Shropshire


Anna says:

The outline plan – to score a propaganda coup by offering US evacuation ships safe passage through the Baltic to take out Leningrad’s civilians – was no more than a piece of thinking out loud by planners at German High Command. Germany never actually made any such proposal to the US. Would the US (neutral until Pearl Harbor in December), or another neutral such as Sweden, have taken it up?

I find it very hard to imagine, even had it been practicable. First, the US and Swedish governments would have recognised the German offer as no more than a propaganda ploy. Second, the Soviets would very likely have refused such help, denying risk of starvation – as they denied the collectivisation famine of 1932–3.




The NKVD and Sovinform worked very hard to keep the Leningraders as well as the population of Russia unaware of the real situation in Leningrad and on the frontline creating a more positive image of imminent victory and stories of courage and self-sacrifice. In your research what do you think the Leningraders really believed at the time? What were the survivors’ experiences and feelings concerning the information services at the time?

Audry Candida Da Silva Wickham, Swansea


Anna says:

Leningraders were without doubt extremely sceptical about Sovinform’s reports from the front, especially during the initial months of the German invasion, when Sovinform routinely reported the loss of Russian towns weeks after the event. Hence their reliance on word-of-mouth, and the jokes about news agencies OMS (‘One Major Said’) and OBS (‘One Babushka Said’).

On the other hand, several of my diarists continued to believe, all through the mass death winter, that the city was about to be liberated – though I suspect an element of morale-boosting self-deception here. OIga Fridenberg beautifully describes her feelings on listening to news reports on the radio during the Soviet offensives of January 1942. They were untruthful, not to be relied upon, “but all the same, one listened and believed”.




I enjoyed your book (if enjoyment is the right word for such horrors brought to life so vividly!) and it left me wanting to know more about Tanya Savitcheva, the young girl with the diary. I’ve read elsewhere that during the Nuremberg Trials, the Allied prosecutors allegedly presented Tanya’s diary into evidence but this has been debated. Do you have an opinion on this?

David Hughes, West Midlands


Anna says:

On permanent display at the Museum of the History of St Petersburg, Tanya Savicheva’s diary is one of the iconic records of the siege, standing for the fate of thousands of Leningrad children. Written over nine pages of a pocket address book, it runs as follows:
28 December 1941 at 12.30am – Zhenya died. 25 January 1942 at 3pm – Granny died. 17 March at 5am – Lyoka died. 13 April at 2am – Uncle Vasya died. 10 May at 4pm – Uncle Lyosha died. 13 May at 7.30am – Mama died. The Savichevs are dead. Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.

Tanya was the fifth child of a baker and a seamstress. Aged 12 at the start of the blockade, she lived with her mother, younger siblings, grandmother and two uncles. As recorded in her notebook, the mass death winter of 1941–2 left her an orphan. The following spring she was evacuated to a village in the Nizhny Novogorod region, only to die there of tuberculosis two years later.

I don’t know whether she was quoted in the Nuremberg Trials. A quick word search of an online transcript of proceedings doesn’t come up with any reference to her, and in general the Soviet prosecutors made little play of starvation inside Leningrad, preferring to highlight Hitler’s plans to raze the city, and the German artillery’s targeting of hospitals and utilities. Her diary was certainly on display, though, in the popular Museum of the Defence of Leningrad, opened towards the end of the war and closed again, on Stalin’s orders, in 1949.

To go back to the first question: which is more distressing, a photo of a corpse or Tanya Savicheva’s log of the deaths of every member of her family? Should we reproduce one and not the other, and if so, why? To publish either is an intrusion, but both help make real a tragedy that’s otherwise too big emotionally to comprehend. In the end, I suppose, it’s a matter of taste. Some will think that Leningrad says and shows too much; others, that no book on such a subject can ever say nearly enough.



Next month we’ll be looking at Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen by John Edwards (Yale University Press, 2011). If you’d like to ask John something about the book, please email Charlotte Hodgman with your question. We can’t promise to publish every question, but we’ll do our best.

It’s not too late to join the BBC History Magazine reader book club – find out more at www.historyextra.com/reader