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 …

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Letters

Stalin’s Bad Character May 22, 1969