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Biography 26.2 (2003) 331-333

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Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina. Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women's Diaries, Memoirs and Documentary Prose. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2002. 242 pp. ISBN 0-8229-4183-X, $29.00.

Writing the Siege of Leningrad is a welcome addition to the growing body of work on World War II in the Soviet Union. General histories of the war often pass lightly over the Leningrad experience because it does not fit easily [End Page 331] into the categories we usually employ when examining war. There was no street fighting in Leningrad, industry continued to operate, and schools remained open for much of the period—clearly, Leningrad was not "the front." At the same time, the city was constantly bombed, supplies were cut off for months at a time, and people dropped dead on the street from starvation—Leningrad was hardly "the rear" or "the homefront." More than anything else, the experiences in this book resemble those in a concentration camp: although there was much less control over daily activities of the inmates, the inhabitants were trapped, rations were uncertain at best, and there was little provision to care for the sick, elderly, or dying.

This work will prove useful and interesting on a number of levels. The translations provide valuable material for research on the wartime experiences of Leningrad inhabitants. By focusing on women's writing, however, the editors have illustrated the gendered nature of the siege. Most of the people in Leningrad were women and children, since most of the men were sent to the front. As the authors point out, this work provides insight into a life without men, where women take on all the responsibilities of running the city, the economy, and in some instances, the defense of their homes. The population in Leningrad was female, and the voices in this book reflect that fact.

In addition to the translations, however, Perlina and Simmons have provided an introduction that gives a brief history of the siege and poses some of the questions that historians must ask about the experiences of the survivors, and have included some analysis of these "small stories" and what they can tell us about the impact of such a protracted attack on the society and culture of a city. The authors relate not only accounts of the heroism, hardship, and virtue that are so prominent in Soviet depictions of the siege, but also incidents of theft, cowardice, fear, and even murder, as desperate people reacted to the horrors that surrounded them. The introduction and conclusion suggest that historians need to pay more attention to these "small stories" when reconstructing and analyzing monumental events. The focus on the individual allows the reader to delve into the true experience of the siege and to understand it on the human level, which clarifies some of the questions surrounding the Soviet experience. Reading this book is similar to reading accounts of Holocaust victims—the heartrending and horrifying stories of women trapped in a nightmare. At the same time, these women were still free agents, far more able than Holocaust victims were to try to shape their destinies. The stories of how these women forced themselves to survive open up a whole new perspective on the interaction of monumental events and the minutiae of daily existence. [End Page 332]

The unique position that Leningrad occupied—somewhere between the front and the rear—throws war and the study of it into a new light. The experiences of these women remind us that war is multi-layered and multi-faceted; war is a huge event, propagated in the war-room and on the battlefield, but it is also an intensely personal experience that transcends the battlefield. On the other hand, these remembrances illustrate that while war may affect all aspects of life, other activities and events have a profound impact on the war experience. A tenacious hold on daily routines shaped the war for the survivors of the siege, and provided some comfort and a sense of control for people...


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