The War Within –
Diaries From The Siege Of Leningrad
By Alexis Peri
Harvard University Press – £23.95
Surely, the only instance one can akin to the methodically mortifying siege of Leningrad – in recent times at least – is Sarajevo.
Having initially been besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army on 5 April 1992, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina continued to lie in siege before the very eyes of the world might I add, by the Army of Republika Srpska until 29 February 1996. A total of 1,425 days; which, in the big scheme of things (such as radio, television and media) still baffles me to this very day.
How could a modern, cosmopolitan European city – a mere hour and a half away from Paris by plane – have been allowed to suffer, day after day after day, to the appalling degree that it did?
Did the world not learn anything from Leningrad blockade?
An epic disaster, which the historian, John Barber, has since described as ”the greatest demographic catastrophe ever experienced by one city in the history of mankind.”
A blockade of humanity, that already on page four of this altogether groundbreaking study, The War Within – Diaries From The Siege Of Leningrad, paints a picture of the most harrowing persuasion: ”The Leningrad blockade was one of the most horrific events of world War II. The city was a centrepiece of a 1,127-day battle and an 872 day siege. That siege, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, was one of the lengthiest and deadliest of the modern era. All told, the battle for Leningrad took between 1.6 and 2 million Soviet lives, including roughly 800,000 civilians or 40 percent of the city’s pre-war population. This staggering death toll is about equal to the total number of American military who died in all wars between 1776 and 1975 […]. Most civilians died of starvation, but tens of thousands perished from enemy fire and disease.”
Other than making for rather depressing reading, what is interesting in the above is some of the terminology of language used; where authoress, Alexis Peri, declines to describe the Leningrad blockade as one of the most horrific battles of World War II, but rather, one of the most horrific events. A terminology, which to all historical intents and academic purposes, is fundamentally spot on.
The Siege of Leningrad was indeed an event.
An event, that like the Holocaust, was so profoundly cruel and calculated, if not utterly sadistic, it continues to remain almost impossible to fathom.
If not the actual manifestation of the catastrophe itself, then that of the behaviour it allowed.
A psychological quality upon which Peri shines a great deal of literary light throughout. For instance, in chapter four (‘Family Life and Strife’), she captures perfectly, the self-confessed trauma of the schoolboy, Iura Riabinkin:
”Two days ago I was sent out to get sweets. It was bad enough that instead of sweets I bought sweetened cocoa (counting on Ira not wanting to eat it and so increasing my share), but also that I helped myself to half of the total amount – a miserable 600 grams that is supposed to last us for the whole ten days – and invented a story about how three packets of cocoa had been snatched from my hands. I acted out the whole comedy at home with tears in my eyes, and I gave Mother my word of honour as a Pioneer that I have not taken a single packet of cocoa for myself… and later on, watching with a hardened heart mother’s tears and distress at being deprived of something sweet, I ate the cocoa surreptitiously.
[…]I have slid down into the abyss called depravity, where the voice of conscience is totally silent, where there is dishonesty and disgrace. I am an unworthy son to my mother and an unworthy brother to my sister. I am an egoist, a person who, in a moment of adversity. forgets all about his nearest and dearest […]. I am a ruined person. Life is over for me. The prospect that lies ahead of me is not life.”
Could you ever imagine writing such words?
Let alone writing such words for others to read in a diary?
As the authoress of Lenin Lives!, Nina Tumarkin has since stated, these 252 pages (excluding Notes, Selected Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration Credits and Index) are: ”Vivid, true, and magnificently crafted. Peri has peeled away layer after layer of the human record to its core – physical, mental, spiritual.”
Indeed she has.
What’s more, as mentioned earlier, The War Within is a groundbreaking study. The sort of which, questions the very nature of human nature. It inadvertently asks how we might behave under similar circumstances.
Luckily, we haven’t, and hopefully never will be in a position to find out.
Apart from gazing at the collection of black and white, poignant photographs herein, the closest any of us will ever get (is again, luckily), reading this exceedingly nuanced, majestic and very important book – wherein Alexis Peri has without doubt, fulfilled a literary quest of the most revelatory, regal design.