The siege of Leningrad lasted for 900 days, but for many of those who survived it and in the collective memory of the citizens of what is today St Petersburg, the worst period was the months of starvation at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, which became known as “the time of death”. It is these months that are the subject of this study by the late Sergey Yarov, the distinguished St Petersburg historian.
His book is not a military or strategic history of the siege, but, as its subtitle suggests, a study of how the people of the city behaved towards each other as food supplies dwindled and people began to starve, became emaciated, ill, and then died. Yarov has drawn on hundreds of diaries and documents, which provide evidence of the ghastly experiences of the besieged inhabitants, for what is in essence an enquiry into human nature and how people behave when the normal reinforcements of civilised or moral social behaviour are threatened or abandoned.
Soviet propaganda both during and after the Second World War established what Yarov terms the “canonical view of the siege”, which was one of patriotism and heroism, and he suggests that even those who had lived through it “tailored their testimony to the conventional rhetoric”. The reality was very different, and this book makes for grim reading. Yarov does not dwell on the most extreme instances of desperation as food supplies dwindled and a minority turned to eating cats and dogs, and even corpses, but his description of the way many survived by eating glue or jelly boiled from a leather belt, while those who worked in tanneries or fur factories ate the flesh attached to skins and pelts, is horrid enough. Some died faster than others, while Communist officials, those who worked in canteens and others with secure positions and influence fared much better than most.
Yarov suggests that civilised behaviour is fragile and depends upon a certain level of security and sustenance and upon the example of the behaviour of others. When food supplies run low and public standards decline, only a few maintain the morality of more settled times. Fraud, theft and robbery become common rather than exceptional, and the weak, the emaciated, the sick and the dying become prey rather than objects of pity. In Leningrad the dead were robbed in their homes where their bodies lay, openly in the streets where they had collapsed, or in the warehouses that functioned as temporary mortuaries with bodies piled high. People snatched bread from the weak or took their ration cards, the loss of which was a death sentence.
Above all, empathy with others was destroyed by the need to survive. A normal mental division is between us and them, but as the struggle to survive became more desperate, the world of us became smaller, narrowing first to the immediate family and then, often, simply to me. Many deteriorated physically after weeks on an inadequate diet. They looked horrible, their teeth fell out and they moved slowly and lost the power of speech. They tended to be looked on with horror and fear rather than sympathy and the term “dystrophics” came into use. One observer commented that “they hate dystrophics, the starving”. Reserves of sympathy had run out.
Yarov does, however, manage to find a silver lining. There was compassion, even if “those who showed the best qualities of selflessness, generosity and kindness might on another occasion have no choice but to compromise their moral principles”. This depiction of humanity in extreme circumstances has significance beyond the fate of a particular city and will make many readers wonder how they would behave in similar conditions.
A. W. Purdue is visiting professor of history, Northumbria University.
Leningrad 1941-42: Morality In a City Under Siege
By Sergey Yarov
Polity, 460pp, £35.00
Published 16 June 2017