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The Hero City

Let no one forget, let nothing be forgotten.

This is the last line of a poem by Olga Berggolts, carved on a wall of the Piskarevsky cemetery. There lie many of those who died during the German siege of Leningrad—perhaps six hundred thousand, perhaps well over a million, no one will ever know how many. This was the longest siege in history, at any rate since the siege of Troy—almost 900 days against the 120 of the siege of Paris during the Franco-German war. Leningrad’s ordeal eclipsed that of London, Berlin, or Warsaw. The resolute endurance of its citizens was beyond all praise. It makes an epic story beyond compare.

Let no one forget, let nothing be forgotten.

Harrison Salisbury has followed this instruction, almost too literally. His book threatens to be as long as the siege itself. It has everything—the details of everyday life, the emotions of individuals, the military strategy, the political intrigues. The best part is the story of what happened to the people. Leningrad was peculiarly endowed to set down its own memorial. Though no longer the capital of Russia, it remained a great literary center, and its writers were outstandingly Western in spirit, so that they speak directly to us despite the barrier of language. The contrast with London is striking. London, too, had a bitter time during the Second World War. The story can be recaptured in the reports of journalists and broadcasters. But it left little emotional mark—no great works of literature, few poems. No one except the survivors can understand what it felt like to be in London. The sense of life in Leningrad lives on. Mr. Salisbury has made the most of this. His book is certainly the most detailed account of the siege written in a Western language, and also the most moving.

Where so much has been achieved, it seems grudging to add criticism. But this book is not to everybody’s taste. Mr. Salisbury often adorns where a simple statement would be more effective. Perhaps he cannot forget that he is a journalist even when he is writing as a historian. Writers often recorded their thoughts, and Mr. Salisbury does right to reproduce these. But he is not content with this. He divines what politicians and generals were thinking, though this does not appear from the sources. He cannot allow a train to draw in without a hiss of steam and a slow final turn of the driving wheels. There is an excess of actuality, until the reader begins to wonder which sensations were really felt and which Mr. Salisbury has imagined. Sometimes we seem to be reading a novel, though of course a good one.

Though the siege lasted for two and a half years, the first months were the worst, and Mr. Salisbury does right to devote more than half his book to them. No one had imagined that the Germans would reach the outskirts of Leningrad. No one had foreseen a siege. The food reserves lay in wooden sheds along the banks of the Neva. Sheds and food went up in flames as the result of German bombing. The city was surrounded, and every connection with the rest of Russia was cut. People had been evacuated into Leningrad instead of away from it. Throughout the autumn and early winter of 1941 the inhabitants of Leningrad had to live virtually without food. Hitler had meant to exterminate Leningrad, and he nearly succeeded.

Once winter came, the ice froze on Lake Lagoda. A route was opened across the ice. Supplies came in, and people went out. The reign of death was over. Life went on at a low level. Leningrad held out as a symbol and as a bait for German armies. The ring of blockade was not broken until January 1943. The siege was not fully lifted until a year later, when the German armies were defeated and driven back. It was only in the last year of the war that real life began again. Twenty years were to pass before the monuments were restored and Leningrad took its place again as a great center of European civilization.

The military story is skillfully combined with the lives of individuals. The failures and also the successes of the Soviet commanders are made clear. Mr. Salisbury sometimes girds against the suppressions which Soviet scholars have suffered, but of course he is spoiled by being the citizen of a country which is ready to reveal everything. He should try doing independent research on British policy during the Second World War. He would then find that the veil of secrecy is less impenetrable in Soviet Russia than in free enlightened England. No doubt it is hard to find out what the Soviet government and Soviet armies were doing, but it is possible for the really skilled. In Great Britain we have to depend almost entirely on the good graces of the official historian. Of course our suppressions are more tactful and the evasions more polite. They are also more effective.

On the military side, this book has one grave defect, though remedying it would have made the book even longer. The account is written almost entirely from Soviet sources and from the Soviet side. The Germans are presented only as invaders. This is an improvement on most other books on the Soviet-German war, which rely on German sources and treat the Russians merely as a people to be conquered. One day the final account will bring the two sets of sources together, and we shall understand German failure as well as Soviet success.

The book has also a political theme, and here its underlying argument is sometimes more questionable. It is implicitly an indictment of Stalin. Stalin failed to foresee the German attack. He went to pieces when the attack came. He ran the war with excessive rigidity and suspicion. Maybe he even welcomed the destruction of Leningrad as removing a center of independence and opposition. Finally, after the war, he conjured up an imaginary plot and invented “the Leningrad affair,” so as to be able to remove or at any rate to minimize a dangerous memory. Hitler and Stalin have often been treated in the West as similar types, striving after similar goals, and never more so than in this book, written by an author who took a more favorable view during Stalin’s lifetime.

It is the fashion nowadays to treat Stalin as an inhuman monster and to shovel on to him all Russia’s sufferings during the wars—just as, on the other side, Hitler is made uniquely responsible for the crimes of the Germans. This is a view which can be happily adopted by anti-Soviet writers, who like to regard Soviet Russia as an ogre’s cave. It can also be adopted by more or less pro-Soviet writers, who can thus draw a firm line between Stalin and the Soviet system. It is a misleading trail. Stalin was the creation of the Russian past and of the Soviet present. His acts and motives were much like those of other statesmen, but with every gesture blown up to enormous proportions as on a cinema screen. Whatever Stalin did for good or ill, the price was higher, and the tension greater. Set down for instance the dead in the European campaigns of the Second World War: American, 50,000; British, 250,000; Russian, 25,000,000. This disparity was dictated by the situation, not by Stalin’s brutality. Indeed the disparity largely caused the brutality. Any mistake which Stalin made was bound to be followed by far greater penalties than those made by the Western Allies, and he was bound to be correspondingly savage.

Consider the outbreak of war. Mr. Salisbury suggests that Stalin’s blindness was worse than that of Roosevelt before Pearl Harbor. This is wrong. The blindness was exactly the same. Only the penalty for blindness was greater. Like Roosevelt, Stalin had formed a picture. He refused to believe that the Germans would actually attack Soviet Russia before ending the Western war, particularly when he himself stuck to a conciliatory policy. Therefore every report of German preparations appeared to him as a British provocation, and those Russians who repeated these reports became British agents. Stalin knew the perils which war would bring both for Russia and for himself. It is not surprising that he tried to pretend that war would not happen.

There were many grave failures of preparation in military planning and on the frontiers. Failure to foresee the siege of Leningrad was not among them. Before the war started, this seemed an utterly remote possibility. The British government did not foresee the fall of France or the loss of control in the Mediterranean. Churchill failed to foresee the fall of Singapore—a much more vulnerable spot than Leningrad. In fact one is merely left with the banal conclusion that Stalin made as many mistakes as anyone else. Maybe Stalin had some sort of collapse when the war started. Certainly he disappeared from view for a few weeks. Whatever happened, he re-emerged to become the indispensable war-leader of Soviet Russia.

Stalin’s conduct of the war was very hard. This was in the Russian tradition: He who conducts a hard war must be hard himself. When millions of men are being sent to their deaths, generals who fail—for whatever reason—must be shot. How else can the millions be driven forward? As in the great French revolution, terror became the order of the day. It spread from the apex of the pyramid outwards and downwards. If the Marshals had not feared that they might be shot by Stalin, they would not have driven their subordinates so fiercely, and thus at each stage until Zhukov could send his men forward over uncleared minefields. This was the Russian way of war. In exactly the same way Stalin was willing to sacrifice a million or more inhabitants of Leningrad, if this would harass and delay the Germans. Human lives did not count in the scales of victory. This is quite different from saying that Stalin deliberately provoked death and destruction at Leningrad or welcomed it.

On the contrary, Stalin did his best for Leningrad, given the shortage of soldiers and supplies. He sent Voroshilov, one of his few real comrades, to take command. Voroshilov was a failure, but this was not premeditated, and Stalin then sent Zhukov, greatest of Soviet commanders. Incidentally, Voroshilov was one of the very few highly placed Soviet figures to survive failure. This was evidence that Stalin, who turned against all others, never forgot those who had served with him on the southern front during the civil war. There are other examples—a strange trait of character.

Again, it is farfetched to suggest that Zhdanov was sent to take political control at Leningrad in the hope that this would ruin him. Of course Zhdanov’s political life, and probably his actual life also, depended on his succeeding. This was axiomatic in the Stalinist system. But Zhdanov was the political boss of Leningrad. Where else could he go except to Leningrad? He succeeded and became Stalin’s favorite son until his death, which was apparently due to natural causes. It is of course a disadvantage of a system like Stalin’s, based on political murder, that no one can be allowed a natural death, even when it happens.

Leningrad was treated as the “hero city” after the war. The plans for reconstruction were cut down not because Stalin was jealous of Leningrad and wished to obliterate its fame, but because the money was not there. Over the years, even during the Stalinist time, the Leningrad story was developed more fully than any other single Soviet episode during the Second World War. Of course there have been ups-and-downs, with works of scholarship suppressed soon after publication and later released again. But this is not peculiar to Leningrad. Unscrupulous and brutal in-fighting is as characteristic of Soviet scholarship as of Soviet politics. This is another product of the Stalinist system, and there does not seem any other way of running Russia. At least Stalin’s successors have not managed to find one sixteen years after his death.

Finally the Leningrad affair. This was a typical purge operation of Stalin’s later days. It came after Zhdanov’s death and aimed to eliminate all his followers in Leningrad. Naturally they had been the outstanding leaders during the siege. But it is fantastic to imply that they were eliminated for this reason. They were eliminated because their boss was dead and his faction defeated. On the last page but one of Mr. Salisbury’s book I find this paragraph:

Nothing in the chamber of Stalin’s horrors equaled the Leningrad blockade and its epilogue, the Leningrad Affair. The blockade may have cost the lives of a million and a half people. The “affair” destroyed thousands of people who survived the most terrible days any modern city had ever known.

What can this mean other than that Stalin was responsible for the Leningrad blockade as directly and in the same sense as he was responsible for the “affair”? It is totally and monstrously untrue. The man responsible for the Leningrad blockade was Hitler. His willing helpers were the German people, who gave him unquestioning devotion and loyalty in the days of his success. The German generals did not need orders to destroy Peterhof and other monuments of Russian culture. They needed no threats or encouragement from Hitler to prepare the extermination of a great city. The prospect delighted them. They and the German people turned against Hitler only when he failed. If we want to find a moral from the past, it can be found here. Leningrad was among the greatest of German crimes. Mr. Salisbury has concentrated so much on the Russian side that the Germans outside Leningrad seem to have escaped his attention. This is typical of Western attitudes ever since the war. We have been so busy being sorry for the Germans that we have had no time to be sorry for their victims. Leningrad demonstrated what this Kulturvolk do when they have the power.

Let no one forget, let nothing be forgotten.


Stalin’s Bad Character May 22, 1969

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