leningrad cover

Moynihan, Brian. Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2015 (542pp.$30)

Stalin despised Leningrad that, as St. Petersburg, had been the locus of the October coup d’etat conducted by old-line Bolsheviks who were, one-by-one, being shot in the Great Terror. Designed and elaborated by Peter the Great, himself a demented autocrat, St. Petersburg was a center of culture where art, music, poetry and literature flourished, more Baltic than Russian. Home to Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, a city constructed of granite and stucco, not wood like Moscow, St. Petersburg represented everything that Stalin negated in his ideology—gaiety, thoughtfulness, and refinement. When Kirov, the local party boss and Stalin’s stubbornly libertine henchman, was assassinated in 1934, Stalin sent his NKVD thugs rampaging through the city. Large numbers of writers, poets, artists, musicians, military and party leaders, Finns, Poles, Jews and Germans disappeared into the Gulag, never to re-appear. Stalin unleashed waves of death on Leningrad for years afterward, continuing to purge the people there as Hitler attacked the city in June 1941.

Before that came the Nazi-Soviet Pact, that unholy back-scratching session between Hitler and Stalin. The Russians, for a year, sent grain and oil to Germany. The grain fed Hitler’s attacking armies in Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France. Russia’s oil fueled the hordes of bombers raiding London and the Messerschmitts accompanying them. Germany’s hard currency financed Stalin’s military build-ups, his take-over of eastern Poland, and his aggressive war against Finland. It was a perfect storm until, in late June 1941, Hitler did the unthinkable and invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler’s Northern Army advanced towards Leningrad, encircled it, and by September, had almost entirely cut off a city of 2.3 million people from food, fuel, and medical supplies.

Brian Moynihan is a widely respected citizen historian, noted foreign correspondent and latterly the European editor of the Sunday Times, with first-hand experience in Vietnam, Laos, the Middle East and Africa. His specialty, though, is Russian history, and his books about that country include “Claws of the Bear”, a history of the Red Army and “Comrades”, a study of the 1917 Revolution. In “Leningrad: Siege and Symphony”, Moynihan has managed a brilliantly conceived and executed account detailing, month by month, the horrific trials of Leningrad’s millions, with the composer Shostakovich and his famous Seventh Symphony providing Stalin a reservoir of propaganda for the war effort. Drawing on a wealth of new material including transcripts of never-before available NKVD interrogations, diaries that have just come to light, interviews and recently released government documents, Moynihan rivets the reader with a monstrously detailed and almost inconceivably pulse-pounding story of death and survival. And in the midst of all the horror, Leningrad’s cultural life—its orchestras, ensembles, theater, opera and literary salons continued to operate, just as its musicians, writers, dancers, opera singers and poets died by the thousands. “Siege and Symphony” is among a handful of new classics of Russian historiography unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a collapse that opened to view the regime’s rotten secrets.

Madness, brutality and courage lay at the heart of the siege. Between June 1941 and August 9, 1942, when Shostakovich’s symphony was finally played in Leningrad by an motely group of half-starved musicians gathered from here and there (cellars, attics, bomb-shelters), the city’s population had been cut by more than half. Starvation and cold killed more than German bombs. Most of the city’s dogs and cats had been roasted or put in stews, along with horseflesh. The bones of butchered animals were boiled for hours to extract marrow. Books were stripped of their covers and the glue in bindings melted for use in soap. Wallpaper was stripped from walls and the dried paste eaten. Linseed, rich in fatty acid, and glycerine from tooth powder and cold cream was eaten too, for their few calories. People collected pine needles and fir bark; rye flour was cut with twenty-five percent cellulose. Sawdust was used to cut flour as well. Tanneries were swept of leather that was boiled and used as a paste substituting for meat patties. Sheep guts were found in warehouses and processed with an aromatic herb to make a jelly that was mixed with flax seed and machine oil, and served as ersatz meat. Smokers used crushed maple leaves in their cigarettes.

Fear of cannibals plagued the city. Individuals starving alone in their freezing apartments ate their wives or husbands, even their children. Emaciated bands of cannibals roamed the frozen snowy streets, cutting up cadavers. Commercial cannibalism began with chopping off parts from corpses lying in their homes of on the streets. Olga Trapistina-Matveenko helped carry the body of her grandmother downstairs to the courtyard on the night she died. In the morning, she found the body cannibalized, probably by professionals who sold “meat pies” in the alleys around the Haymarket. The NKVD made half-hearted attempts to arrest cannibals, but there were too many. People were murdered for their ration cards and the murder victim often cannibalized as well.

The story of Shostakovich is not heroic. He, along with his wife and two children, were flown by private plane to Moscow, and later trained to a Volga town called Kubyishev where he lived in relative comfort while his fellow Leningraders died in droves. In July, at the start of the siege, he’d begun composing the Seventh in honor of Leningrad. He worked steadily, under constant pressure from the NKVD, the staunchly Stalinist Composer’s Union, as well as Isvestia, which criticized the “formalism” that could get a musician shot. At nearly eighty minutes long, and utilizing a large array of instruments requiring over 100 players, the symphony was a monster. When it debuted in London, it was hailed by the audience and panned by critics. Shostakovich appeared on the cover of Time Magazine; his symphony was supposedly a paean to Leningrad’s spirit and an anti-fascist blast; in reality it was a propaganda coup for Stalin who needed American tanks, trucks and food. Life under Stalin was frightening and arbitrary. Those who survived to write or compose were no different from those who were shot. A whim stood between life and death. Shostakovich lived until 1976, a pale, weary, frightened artist in a cruel land.

Moynihan’s book is a monumental achievement—a lasting cultural, military, political, social and personal history of one of the five or six defining horrors of the twentieth century, a century in which horror was almost commonplace. With its photographs, maps and complete index, “Leningrad” is a work of lasting importance.