The 900 Days
Harrison E. Salisbury
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The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad* online

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad

Harrison E. Salisbury
DaCapo Press
640 pages
September 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Harrison E. Salisbury wrote no fewer than six books about the Soviet Union during his journalistic career. The 900 Days is a reprint of the 1969 edition that was banned in Russia, and no wonder. It implicated Stalin and his regime in the mass starvation and murder of a million and a half of his own people.

It was Salisbury's contention that "Stalin seems to have felt that because Leningrad...gave birth to the 1917 revolution, the city might ultimately turn against him," and that "it was in Leningrad that [the purges] were given their characteristic leitmotif of macabre paranoia." The author lays the story bare in exhaustive and often gruesome detail, through the remarkable observations of those who survived, and with reliance on his own research as a Moscow correspondent at the time.

War was only a rumor when Stalin began slowly, consciously, to turn his back on the city of Leningrad and, for reasons unknown, to ignore the clear signals that Hitler would invade Russia, with the ancient city of (formerly) St. Petersburg as a likely target. After the attacks began, just before the blockade of the city got underway, Stalin would have known that 3,400,000 people were to be fed with enough supplies on hand to last only about three or four weeks. Those who could survive the savage air bombardment would be doomed to slow starvation.

By October 1, 1941, only the army and civilian volunteers were guaranteed sufficient food. "Non-workers and children...received one-third of a loaf of poor quality bread a time went on, bread, such as it was, more and more often was the only food issued." The bread was an ersatz mix of denigrated rye flour, flax seeds and chaff.

The siege lasted 900 days, during which time people died by the thousands every day. During the coldest winter on record, corpses were left to lie in the snow, and the spring thaw brought forth the horrors of the stench of death and a lingering putrid flavor to the drinking water that no one who tasted it could ever forget. Caught by the camera's eye, the ones who got through that first winter were mere stick figures.

Good people went mad, victims of what is called "hunger psychosis," and murders for a hunk of bread or a ration card were not uncommon. All animals were seen as potential food, and dogs were sought after for that purpose. There were rumors, and the probable reality, of gangs of cannibals who inveigled victims with promises of work, luring them into abandoned buildings where one young man saw human body parts hanging in a makeshift butchery.

Many older people let go of life without fuss, relieved to cease to burden younger family members. There were many pitiful scenes recorded of small children, the last to die, abandoned to apartments full of dead parents, grandparents and siblings. As supplies of all kinds dwindled, rooms were as cold inside as the streets outside, and one man recalled that "He was never alone on the bus. There were always other passengers, the same passengers - three corpses."

In what seemed a grotesque parody of life before the blockade, children's sleds were drafted into use as hand-drawn hearses. But often the living were too exhausted to haul the bodies to the graveyard, or had no money or the currency of sawdust bread to offer for a burial. It wasn't long before army sappers were blasting out mass graves to deal with the piles of bodies. As one observer wrote, "Daily six to eight thousand die...the city is dying as it has lived for the last half year - clenching its teeth."

There was heroism, too - after the water supply was cut off, brigades of half-starved women daily handed water buckets up from holes in the ice to ensure that bakers would still be able to produce the only food left for a desperate populace. But one reason, arguably, why Salisbury's morbid accounting of events was not given parlor space in the Russia of 1969 is that there was less of heroism and more of horror than the official propaganda machine wanted known. Horror that could have been prevented.

On January 27, 1944, the siege ended. By then, starvation had begun to turn back on itself in a macabre beneficence - with fewer people left alive to share limited resources, more could hang on, and a kind of febrile vigor was in evidence. Against great odds, as the German offensive weakened, some survivors were able to break through the blockade. Olga Berggolts, a poet who had witnessed the ravages of the siege, wrote, "I firmly believe in miracles. You gave me that belief, my Leningrad."

Immediately following the opening of the city it seemed there could be what was referred to as the Renaissance of Leningrad. An astonishing life force took hold. The city would be rebuilt, repudiating the attempts to destroy it. But again Stalin exerted a contravening force, continuing the purges to assure that the Leningrad Party would never rise again. As Salisbury so eloquently put it, "Nothing in the chamber of Stalin's horrors equaled the Leningrad blockade and its aftermath...the blockade may have cost the lives of a million and a half people."

Seen against the backdrop of current confusion and chaos in what was once the Soviet Union, one can only wonder how much forgetting a people is capable of -- and how much forgiving.

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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