2011 marks the 70th anniversary of the siege of Leningrad. Recently, one of my favorite websites, The Browser, marked the occasion by calling attention to journalist Anna Reid’s excellent article on the siege which she wrote for the British-based online publication OpenDemocracy. The Browser also marked the occasion by posting one of its signature FiveBook Interviews, in which Reid discussed the top five books that she thought a person should read if one wanted to fully understand the horrors and triumphs of that brutal siege.
Then one afternoon a few weeks ago during one of my library visits I happened to come across Michael Jones’s 2008 book Leningrad: State of Siege. Inspired by the those two online articles, (and mistakenly believing that Jones’s book was one of those she recommended, which it wasn’t), I added Leningrad: State of Siege to my handful of books and headed to the automatic check out machine. After quickly starting the book, putting it aside for a bit and then ripping through it in what seemed like no time at all, I’m glad I read Jones’s book. Just like Timothy Egan did with The Worst Hard Time, Jones did a superb job presenting both the scope of the tragedy as well as its depth, particularly as it was seen through the eyes of countless individuals, their lives irreparably wrecked by the horrific siege.
I think the greatest strength of Jones’s book is its ability to show beyond a doubt that the siege’s virtually unfathomable death toll of 1.3 million was just as much the result of Soviet callousness and incompetence as it was Nazi genocidal madness. Stalin and his appointed goons could have safely evacuated the young and old before the city was sealed off but they waited until it was too late and the results were disastrous. What little food did make it past the blockade was quickly confiscated by the ruling Communist elite, leaving the starving masses to fend for themselves. Devoid of food, electricity, heat and running water the starving city of Leningrad soon descended into a spiral of rampant disease, cannibalism and utter hopelessness.
Yes it’s a horrible story, but like many horrible stories it’s a true one and therefore must be told. And Jones did a great job telling it. He’s inspired me to read other books on the siege, especially the ones recommended by Anna Reid in her FiveBook Interview. It might also inspire me to finally read Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1970 classic The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad which has been sitting unread in my personal library for years. But the book it’s really inspired me to read is David Benloff’s 2008 novel City of Thieves. After hearing a co-worker of mine rave about it, I think that after reading Jones’s book I’d like to see how a novelist depicts the siege. Something tells me I won’t be disappointed.