Friday, June 13, 2008

Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones

This book is not an easy read, but one that needed to be written, especially considering all the new literature out there in both English and Russian about the siege. This work then brings together accounts from dozens of sources and interviews to tell an altogether harrowing tale of how millions trapped within Leningrad had to struggle to survive. One of the main points this book will try to address, as Jones did in his previous book on Stalingrad, is how the citizens and soldiers of this city managed to survive and eventually defeat their German opponents. The psychological angle is one that is not often presented as being important. Usually, weapons, commanders, and numbers are glorified or blamed by one side or the other. Here, we have that idea of 'morale' being given center stage, as well as seeing what it is capable of achieving.

Very interesting descriptions are given in regards to when Zhukov took over control of the North Western Front from Voroshilov. On September 11th, 1941, Zhukov assumed command and soon after the 4th Panzer Group was taken out of the area and switched over in preparation for Operation Typhoon, which would throw it against the defenders of Moscow. Zhukov, apparently, couldn't be convinced by those around him that the Germans were digging in around Leningrad and further offensive actions were being discontinued. The end result was a series of needless offensives by Red Army troops in the Oranienbaum bridgehead and around Leningrad which needlessly wasted lives. When a commander refused to obey, in one instance, he was 'sacked' and his replacement was given the same orders. At another part of the front a marine landing unit of 200 men was sent against their target in broad daylight, they were picked off in the water by the Germans and only 14 managed to reach the shoreline (pg. 117). The actions on the Nevsky bridgehead are quite telling of the time and desperation the Red Army found itself in. Units of the 54th Army, under Kulik, were a mere 9 miles away from the Nevsky bridgehead, which if broken through to would have created a corridor to besieged Leningrad. As Kulik's forces could not break through, it appears that Zhukov tried his hardest from the other side. He threw unit after unit into action, trying to break through to the 'main land'. Divisions were ground down to mere hundreds of men and, at least one marine brigade, simply ceased to exist. This seems to ring quite true with what I am familiar with in regards to Zhukov. He seems to be more than willing to sacrifice ten thousand or twenty thousand men if it means saving millions. On the 21st of November, Zhdanov, after taking over when Zhukov left to help defend Moscow, ordered Colonel Ivan Frolov and his 80th Rifle Division into battle with exhausted soldiers who were short on ammunition. Frolov refused to issue the orders and was replaced by another commander who would send his men into a frontal assault over an open expanse of a frozen lake, "the men were mown down in their thousands" (pg. 140). In the end Zhdanov needed a scapegoat and Frolov, along with the divisional commissar, who was also dismissed, were brought in front of a military tribunal. Both were found guilty of "cowardice and criminal negligence that resulted in the failure of the operation" and were shot on December 3rd.

The chapters the author devotes to the people living and suffering in Leningrad will gnaw at your heart. The elderly, women and children slowly lost their sanity as hunger began to take its toll on them. In the midst of all that suffering, they still endured constant German artillery bombardments. Yet, there was still hope. In one instance, during a bombing of the city, violinists are trapped in a shelter with civilians. In the middle of explosions one begins to play his violin and, miraculously, no longer are the deafening noises the only thing those trapped in the shelter can think about, the terror that had gripped them all was somehow transported outside their bodies, and the powerful music, was all they could concentrate on. Another account portrays a woman pulling her double bass through the snow on a sled, trying to make it to a hospital for a concert recital. Behind the sled, pushing, was her young child.

Disturbing are the scenes of cannibalism and dead bodies in the streets missing limbs or simply the meat from their bones. While the civilian administration and those with high status seemed to be well fed, the rest of Leningrad, suffered and died by the thousands during that first winter of 1941/1942. While cannibalism might have been heard about via rumors during the siege, I believe this book shows more than enough evidence that it was at times an all too common phenomenon. The suppression by the government and local administrators of what the siege did to the people and the city was enlightening, I had never really encountered such information before. One would think the government would use this cruelty, on the part of the Germans, to their advantage and their people's suffering to its greatest effect on the population, but apparently talk of it was forbidden. I can only guess that such full disclosure would cause the citizens of the Soviet Union to question their government in ways which were not wanted. One story which I ran across, and have read before (in Bellamy's "Absolute War") was in regards to "The Rebel" which was leaving leaflets, trying to incite the population against the Soviet leadership, and sending letters to Zhdanov, etc. The resources poured into investigating this one man were enormous, tens of thousands of people were interviewed and their hand writing was compared to try to find the culprit. The author feels this was a waste of resources considering what the city was going through, I'd have to agree on one hand. On the other, it seems the perpetrator had to be found and, as the NKVD had been known to do, any person could have been hauled off the street and put in prison or killed for the offense (a confession could have been beaten out of them, etc) but instead the authorities tried their best to actually find the guilty party.

The majority of the stories told here, be they from the military or civilian population, will make you think twice about what it might take to survive an event like this. Words can’t begin to describe what these people endured and overcome. What kind of will power and stamina it takes to stand in line for hours trying to get food, to lead a normal life and go to work everyday as people slowly die in front of your eyes. How much can one endure as death becomes a constant companion on each trip to visit a loved one, a friend, or a co-worker and check up on how they are doing? Many times civilians would walk along the street only to see someone in front of them slowly fall to the ground and lay there without the strength to even ask for help. I found myself having to reread passages dozens of times, the meaning of these words and what they represented just couldn’t sink in. How humanity is capable of such cruelty and indifference and yet such love and devotion baffles the mind.


Anonymous said...

I found your comments on Zhukov interesting. They also confirm what I have read about him. Yet, by 1944 even he had begun to realize that the Soviet manpower pool was not inexhaustible. The reason it was not was because of tactics like you mentioned.

Did you know there is two words for cannibalism in Russian? One carries the conotation you would expect. The other is more, well socially acceptable, it reconizes that in some circumstances the long pig is the only white meat available.

The German SD was running operations into Leningrad using Russian turncoats with false papers. Their mission was spying and disinformation. I never got the sense they were very sucessful.

I believe more civilians and soldiers lost their lives in the defense of Leningrad then the US lost in the entire war. The siege was an extremely brutal an ugly event.


Moshe said...

Zhukov and Zhdanov worked together in Leningrad at the same time. Zhdanov was in charge of the city while Zhukov was the military comander.

T. Kunikov said...

I know, but when Zhukov was called away Zhdanov was given temporary command. If you are interested in the details I highly recommend you read Michael's book.

Moshe said...

I'm like very much to read your reviews of Anthony Beevor. His "Stalingrad" and even more "The Fall of Berlin". If you have one please refer me to.

T. Kunikov said...

I actually do not recommend Beevor because of the many mistakes he makes and he tends to propagate quite a few myths. If you're wondering which mistakes I mean I would refer you to Michael Jones's other book entitled "Stalingrad." I think you'll enjoy it much more than Beevor's book on the same subject. said...

I am reading Beevor "Stalingrad" can you tell me specifically which mistakes he made !!

T. Kunikov said...

See my comment above, Michael Jones documents Beevor's mistakes in his book on Stalingrad. From what I can remember: Beevor lists a German division as being in Stalingrad which never was; he gives numbers of how many the NKVD supposed shot as deserters without any real evidence; he mistakes the fate of Pavlov (the famous sergeant from Pavlov's house) with that of another Pavlov. There are others, I'm sure, but that's all that I can recall at the moment.