DESCRIPTIONS of human suffering, in whatever form they take, are never more brutal and disturbing than when they are told by those who survived.
That’s the case in this book by Sergey Yarov, who uses the letters and diaries of and interviews with ordinary citizens of Leningrad to provide a fascinating, if sometimes distressing, anthropological study into how a besieged people react when they are faced with starving to death and surrender is not an option.
While the siege of Leningrad lasted around 900 days, the most desperate period was the first winter of 1941- 42, which became better known to most citizens as “the time of death.”
The nazis had almost fully encircled city in September 1941 and it quickly became apparent that supplying Leningrad with adequate food, arms, ammunition and other essentials was an impossible task.
Strict rationing was introduced, with different amounts for soldiers, manual and non-manual workers, in order to try to eke out supplies but even these entitlements were gradually reduced.
The winter was also one of the coldest on record, with temperatures dropping to -35°C. The increasing levels of malnutrition and scurvy, erratic water and electricity supplies and the shelling meant that every day became a battle to live until tomorrow.
In the desperate search for some sort of nourishment, Leningraders turned to acorns, wallpaper glue, candles, rats, dogs and belts made of pigskin, which were boiled to try to extract some little goodness.
Even the bombed and burnt-out food warehouses were a source of some relief — it is difficult to use the word food, with the “sweet earth” dug up, washed and strained in order to recover the melted sugar.
Hunger, rather than shelling, was seen as the gravest danger. It became common for people to remain at home rather than go to the shelters, both to save energy and to try to keep warm in bed. Corpses remained unburied and lay on the streets for long periods, simply through a lack of strength and the apathy brought about by starvation resulted in an indifference to human suffering.
Yarov examines each aspect of Leningrad society through the “moral commandments” governing family ethics and the activities of the city government and the role of the Communist Party.
Throughout the book, it becomes clear that while there were, unsurprisingly, examples of greed, selfishness and cruelty, there were also many more of compassion, solidarity and fortitude in the face of terrible adversity.
But not for nothing does Yarov dedicate his book to the “memory of those to whom death came only after unimaginable suffering.”
Although the reader may find many of the instances in the book harrowing, it is nonetheless an important work which contributes both to our understanding of the siege of Leningrad as well as to the nature of humanity itself.