January 27, 1944 – Official End of Siege of Leningrad in World War II

January 27, 2019 was the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad. The siege is thought to have been the deadliest in history. An excellent history of the siege is provided by M. T. Anderson in Symphony for the City of the Dead: The Siege of Leningrad.

To say that a soundtrack would be useful or, indeed, desirable, while reading this history is an understatement, because of the centrality of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to the story. And yet, in some ways the symphony is only a “hook” to tell the story of the rise of Stalin and more specifically, the devastating Siege of Leningrad during World War II. (The book is subtitled “Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.”). Still, the creation of the symphony was critical for citizens of Leningrad enduring the siege, and this book explains why. [In 1914, the name of the city was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad, and in 1991 back to Saint Petersburg.]

The story of the Siege of Leningrad, part of Operation Barbarossa, as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was code-named, is remarkable indeed. The siege lasted 872 days (it is sometimes called “the 900-Day Siege”), and was the longest siege in the recorded history of warfare.

Invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis

Some 2.5 million were trapped in the city. When it was over, it is estimated that approximately one and half million had died – more than the total combined WWII casualties of both the Americans and the British. Quite a few of the deceased became food for the living (a fact not disclosed except in rumor until 2002). What caused the citizenry to persevere? The author posits two seemingly opposing motivations: (1) intense devotion – to country – “Mother Russia” – in general; to the city in particular; and to other family members; and (2) a deep hatred of the besieging German army. He later adds that it was not only nutrition that was essential to survival, but morale.

“In besieged Leningrad”. Leningradians on Nevsky Avenue during the siege.

In addition, there was the incentive for Leningraders to assert their humanity in the face of so many dehumanizing forces, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, each of whom attacked the citizens of Leningrad in ironically similar ways. Both of these psychopathic autocrats in effect issued a challenge to the people of Leningrad: will you do whatever it takes to survive by becoming like animals, or will you work together, trying to maintain normality, and continuing to aspire to greater things?

Here is where Shostakovich played such a great role, with the evocative music he continued to create in spite of all the hardships and barriers to doing so. At it’s heart, the author writes, this story is about “how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy . . . how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, ‘Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.’” [It should be noted that in Russia, literature, poetry, folklore, music, dance, and art play a much more central role in people’s lives than is perhaps the case in the West. ]

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, and always felt a deep love for that city. But the city was only a small part of a large country, and he grew up in a tumultuous era, when many Russians were disaffected with the tsar and the direction taken by the Russian Empire. They saw the West, but not Russia, moving toward modernity and more equality. Intellectuals were further inspired by the revolutionary writings of Karl Marx. The first revolution had taken place in 1905, after which the tsar felt compelled to issue the “October Manifesto,” granting Russians “fundamental civil freedoms.” But social unrest in Russia continued and grew. Astoundingly, as the author reports:

“In the first year and a half of Shostakovich’s life, roughly 4,500 government officials were injured or killed in assassination attempts by radicals. In his toddler years, the government recorded 20,000 terrorist acts across the empire, with more than 7,500 fatalities.”

Engagement in WWI brought more disruption and mass starvation to Russia. Two additional, more effective, revolutions in 1917 – one in February and one in October – resulted in the abdication of the tsar and the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party, initially led by Vladimir Lenin, and later by Joseph Stalin. After the February Revolution, the country was in an uproar, and the eleven-year-old musical prodigy Shostakovich was inspired to compose a “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” He got into the Petrograd Conservatory at the young age of 13, trying to focus on music while the rest of the country roiled in upheavals. St. Petersburg, now called Petrograd, “was wild with frenzied experimentation,” not only in politics but in the arts, and Shostakovich became a part of it. The “Futurist” art movement reflected these “times of hope and fantasy.”

Lenin tried to capitalize on the importance of art to the Russian people by insisting that artists reflect the party position. Lenin wrote: “The state is an instrument of coercion . . . We desire to transform the state into an institution for enforcing the will of the people. We want to organize violence in the name of the interests of our workers.” Art, including music, was to be a part of this coercion.

Vladimir Lenin

After Lenin’s death, the name of Petrograd was changed once again, to Leningrad – “Lenin’s City” – in honor of Lenin. Shostakovich was going through his own renaissance, having had his First Symphony performed in 1926, when he was only 19. He gained international fame after this. His Second Symphony in 1927 was written for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Soviet machine as directed by Stalin repeatedly sabotaged itself. Experts on factory production were removed from their jobs because they were seen as being “enemies of the common working people.” During the first Five-Year Plan, more than four million in the Ukraine alone (six million in total) starved as their food was taken from them to pay for foreign factory equipment. The “Great Terror” was launched in 1934 in reaction to the murder of Stalin’s friend Kirov, although Kirov’s murder was attributed to Stalin himself. About a million people perished. (Kirov was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates.)

Sergei Kirov

In 1935 Stalin announced children as young as 12 could be executed as adults, giving the secret police, or NKVD, even more leverage against their parents. In 1937, Stalin imposed quotas for arrests for each region in the USSR. The author writes:

According to this schedule, a total of 259,450 people had to be arrested and sentenced to slave labor in the camps; 72,950 had to be shot. It did not matter who they were; all that mattered was that each region fulfilled its quota.”

When the NKVD was finished purging others, Stalin had the NKVD purged. Stalin also turned against artists, and Shostakovich came under attack for “formalism,” or paying more attention to form than content. He was also accused of being “elitist” and “anti-people.” Anderson tells an astonishing story of how Shostakovich was saved from deportation to Siberia at best, or execution at worst, only when his would-be executioner got executed first!

Joseph Stalin, 1943

Most of the accused admitted “guilt” after extreme torture. Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin’s Soviet government afterwards, were executed.

In a similar way from 1937-1938 some 60-70% of officers in the Soviet military were removed, including 90% of generals. While this may have made Stalin feel more secure about threats to his power, it proved to be exceedingly crippling with the onset of World War II. Soldiers were not any safer than officers. After the war began, Stalin had “blocking units” stationed behind Red Army lines to shoot any soldier who tried to run from the Germans. By war’s end, some 300,000 soldiers had been killed by their own army for attempted flight or desertion.

At the height of the Great Terror, roughly eight million had been arrested, and about two million died in camps from starvation, exposure, disease, and exhaustion: “It was a full assault on the nation by its own government.”

Leningraders endure the siege

Stalin’s purges had begun in Leningrad: “They were that city’s first siege.” Anderson’s detailed description of the second siege, during the Nazi encirclement, is jaw-dropping. He shares gripping stories of the fear and hunger that plagued the population. During the winter of 1941, the daily bread ration in Leningrad was only 125 grams per person. While there were arrests for murdering people in order to eat them, the consumption of those who were already dead was common and not as harshly sanctioned.

Shostakovich busied himself creating music for the troops to help build morale. As Anderson contends:

These musical efforts were important. The Soviets were fighting an enemy who considered Slavic culture to be inferior, even subhuman. . . . Shostakovich wrote in anger: ‘Russian culture is immortal and never will the Nazis succeed in destroying it.’”

Shostakovich began the Seventh Symphony in 1941 when he and his immediate family had been evacuated to the countryside in Vyritsa, outside of Leningrad. He later remembered, “I couldn’t not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people. I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music.”

In the winter of 1942, the second winter of the siege, Leningraders finally got a lifeline when Lake Ladoga, surrounding Leningrad from the east, froze over. Anderson provides a harrowing account of how trucks and sledges braved the ice to get refugees out and supplies in. While almost a million people got out of the city that way, tens of thousands died in the attempt, by freezing while waiting, freezing on the way, or falling through the ice. (In the first two weeks alone, 157 trucks broke through the ice and sank.)

Horse-drawn sleighs were the first vehicles on the ice road. Starving horses had to pull goods and people along the treacherous snow-covered path. Not all managed to finish the distance.

When it came time to perform the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad that summer, approximately half the musicians in the local symphony were no longer alive. As one of the group observed: “The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.” Three more of the orchestral players died during rehearsals. Nevertheless, the Leningrad premiere of the Seventh Symphony took place on August 9, 1942. (This date was deliberately chosen since it was the date Hitler had boasted he would be celebrating with a feast in Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria.) The performance was broadcast to the city and reached radios in the Wehrmacht barracks.

Karl Eliasberg conducting the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad on August 9, 1942

[In 1992, on the 50th anniversary of that performance, the same orchestra came together to play the piece again. Only fourteen of them remained alive. Oboist Ksenias Matus remembered: “. . . that symphony has stayed with me the way it was that night. Afterwards, it was still a city under siege, but I knew it would live. Music is life, after all. What is life without music? This was the music that proved the city had come back to life after death.”]

The author explains that “one way to understand symphonies is to think of them as movie music without the movie. This is particularly apt in Russia, where composers were often explicitly trying to tell a story through orchestral music. . . “ This was part of a long tradition in Russian music. Furthermore, the “miracle of music” is that it becomes whatever the individual listener needs it to be. Shostakovich’s symphonies, the author writes, “meant different things to different people, but somehow it meant them all intensely.” The theme of the Seventh Symphony could be seen as much anti-Stalin as anti-Hitler: “A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience.”

Shostakovich meets original Leningrad conductor Eliasberg and players at a 20th anniversary performance in 1964

Americans are by and large unaware that the Soviets suffered 95% of the military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) and that 90% of Germans killed in combat in the war died fighting them. As Anderson observes, “This was a considerable battlefield contribution made through a very considerable sacrifice.” Part of the goal of the Russians in prioritizing the publication of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the West was “to convince the Americans that they were not the rude, cold Communists of capitalist nightmare,” and “to stir up American sympathies” in order to increase the likelihood of American aid to the Soviets during the war. Thus, the this book begins in June, 1942, with the top-priority flight of the music’s score across several continents during wartime conditions to reach the United States. It was the best argument the Soviets had to offer.

2017 photo of grave of Shostakovich at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetary, with an abundance of fresh flowers

Note: This book contains a large selection of photos.

Evaluation: While the portions of the book on the life of Shostakovich weren’t as interesting to me as the war coverage, I consider the detailed account of the Siege of Leningrad to be essential reading for students of WWII.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2015

Note: Literary Awards

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2015)
YALSA Award Nominee for Excellence in Nonfiction (2016)
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Nonfiction (2016)

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