- The Leningrad Blockade, 1941–1944: A New Documentary History from the Soviet Archives ed. by Richard Bidlack, Nikita Lomagin
The war on the Eastern Front was not “the good war” remembered in the West but a total war fought by totalitarian regimes capable of mass mobilization that the Western democracies did not and could not match. Two cities represented the greatest excesses of the Vernichtungskrieg, the ideological war of annihilation without limit on the use of force or reference to political objectives: Warsaw was destroyed by its occupiers, and Leningrad was subjected to material privation by the symbiotic relationship between besiegers and defenders. In both cases, the end result was the mass loss of civilian life. In Warsaw this came in stages from 1939 to 1944 with first the conquest of the city, then the destruction of the ghetto, and finally the destruction of the rest of the [End Page 195] city. Leningrad was one long narrative, from the isolation of the city on 8 September 1941, through the winter of starvation, to the lifting of the blockade on 27 January 1944.
This book focuses on the city and not the frontlines. It resulted from the collaborative effort of two scholars, Richard Bidlack of Washington and Lee University and Nikita Lomagin of St. Petersburg University, who offer a detailed and nuanced assessment of the situation inside Leningrad during the blockade. Bidlack and Lomagin begin with a review of the historiography of the blockade as it evolved in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. They give the reader direct access to key primary documents, including many from the files of the Leningrad party committee; and those of the oblast’, city, and district governments; the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the People’s Commissariat of State Security (NKGB). The authors build their narrative around these documents and discuss the fate of the civil population in the ongoing war between besiegers and the besieged. Much of the story concerns the relations between Iosif Stalin and his deputies in Moscow running the larger war, and the local officials, especially Andrei Zhdanov, trying to execute government policy under conditions of near complete isolation and extreme privation. Adolf Hitler set the policy for his besieging army: isolate the city, prevent its civilian population from escaping, and destroy the city once the resistance collapsed. This was an ideological Vernichtungskrieg with no mercy or compassion. Before the war, Leningrad’s population stood at 3.5 million. At the end of the siege only 700,000 remained. An estimated 1.5 million civilians and military personnel died. Yet the population endured and then prevailed. Ten-year-old Nikolai Vasiliev’s diary provides an account of the horror of the starvation winter: “Saturday, 10 January: The first misfortune struck my father. They stole his ration card from him and that is why he died.” Later, Vasiliev’s mother died. He was placed in a children’s home and then evacuated by steamer.
The authors suggest that much of the material privation during the first winter of the war resulted from callous disregard for the fate of the population and blundering incompetence at the center and in Leningrad. The local leaders did not order evacuation of the city before the blockade closed. Nor did they disperse the storage of Leningrad’s food reserves, which were substantially reduced in early September when Germans bombed the Badaev bakery warehouse complex. Moreover, they shifted food and livestock out of the city. Even as Leningrad came under complete blockade, Moscow continued to press for higher arms output and longer hours for defense workers. The heroic stand of the Soviet troops holding the city could not prevent a winter of starvation with ever-decreasing rations of bread. The fuel supply dwindled, electric power stopped, and people froze to death in their homes and workplaces. Bidlack and Lomagin expose the authorities’ egalitarianism in the distribution of rations: more went to workers, technicians, and...