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Siege of Leningrad World War II Eastern Front Catherine Walton Paula Jaegar Troika plays

The besieged: a story of survival by Catherine Walton Published by Biteback, September 2011

Reviewed by Elayne Jude, Great North News Services

Some years ago I developed an obsession with the Siege of Leningrad. The city was encircled by the Nazis in September 1941, two months into Operation Barbarossa.
As the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution, it ignited in Hitler a compulsive fascination far beyond its strategic value. Leningrad was marked out, not for conquest and subjugation, but for obliteration.

On the day the circle closed, the Nazis bombed the city's food stocks. The old wooden warehouses sent flames three miles into the sky. Months later, chunks of earth impregnated with traces of molten sugar fetched astronomical prices on the black market. Throughout the winter - the coldest in a century - the city's authorities cut the ration, and cut again. Three thin slices of bread, eked out with sawdust and cellulose. Soldiers got 500 grams; manual workers 250. Dependents got 125; the equivalent of about 200 calories, in temperatures that dipped to minus forty. Modern British soldiers on Arctic exercise consume 5000 calories a day.

Nothing could be got without a ration card. Deaths went undeclared till the end of the month, so that the deceased's card could bestow the only inheritance of any remaining value. To lose one's card was a death sentence. Furniture was burned, floors ripped up, libraries gutted; the leather bindings boiled for soup, the pages incinerated in the bellies of reeking stoves whose toxic fumes killed the starving quicker. Jewels, furs, heirlooms, pianos, vodka; everything was for sale for a handful of calories. Thieves were shot on sight. Cannibalism has always been officially denied. In the zero hour of absolute need, it seems to the authorities that the last decency must be fastidiously preserved.

Without food, without running water, without electricity, without transport, the city froze, like a liner foundered in the vast silence of an Arctic icefield. The earth turned to iron. Corpses pulled on children's sleds were stacked at the gates of the cemeteries. Others lay where they fell, trampled in the snow by the living, too weak to walk around them. The radio stayed on air, broadcasting, between programmes and air raid warnings, the ticking of a metronome.

To the north east of the city, Lake Ladoga slowly, slowly frozen to a depth which would allow the convoy of essential supplies to be brought to the city from the free 'mainland'. In January 1942 the first supply trucks began their journeys under bombardment across the Road of Life. Food in, people out. Many of the rescued were too far gone to live. But it was the beginning of the possibility of survival.

Leningrad was relieved 27 January 1944; almost 900 days under siege. Perhaps a million and a half million souls perished. Half the population.

I don't know why the Siege gripped me so. 

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