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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reading List: The 900 Days

Salisbury, Harrison E. The 900 Days. New York: Da Capo Press, [1969, 1985] 2003. ISBN 978-0-306-81298-9.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany, without provocation or warning, violated its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded from the west. The German invasion force was divided into three army groups. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, was charged with advancing through and securing the Baltic states, then proceeding to take or destroy the city of Leningrad. Army Group Centre was to invade Byelorussia and take Smolensk, then advance to Moscow. After Army Group North had reduced Leningrad, it was to detach much of its force for the battle for Moscow. Army Group South's objective was to conquer the Ukraine, capture Kiev, and then seize the oil fields of the Caucasus.

The invasion took the Soviet government and military completely by surprise, despite abundant warnings from foreign governments of German troops massing along its western border and reports from Soviet spies indicating an invasion was imminent. A German invasion did not figure in Stalin's world view and, in the age of the Great Terror, nobody had the standing or courage to challenge Stalin. Indeed, Stalin rejected proposals to strengthen defenses on the western frontiers for fear of provoking the Germans. The Soviet military was in near-complete disarray. The purges which began in the 1930s had wiped out not only most of the senior commanders, but the officer corps as a whole. By 1941, only 7 percent of Red Army officers had any higher military education and just 37% had any military instruction at all, even at a high school level.

Thus, it wasn't a surprise that the initial German offensive was even more successful than optimistic German estimates. Many Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and German air strikes deep into Soviet territory disrupted communications in the battle area and with senior commanders in Moscow. Stalin appeared to be paralysed by the shock; he did not address the Soviet people until the 3rd of July, a week and a half after the invasion, by which time large areas of Soviet territory had already been lost.

Army Group North's advance toward Leningrad was so rapid that the Soviets could hardly set up new defensive lines before they were overrun by German forces. The administration in Leningrad mobilised a million civilians (out of an initial population of around three million) to build fortifications around the city and on the approaches to it. By August, German forces were within artillery range of the city and shells began to fall throughout Leningrad. On August 21st, Hitler issued a directive giving priority to the encirclement of Leningrad and linking up with the advancing Finnish army over the capture of Moscow, so Army Group North would receive what it needed for the task. When the Germans captured the town of Mga on August 30, the last rail link between Leningrad and the rest of Russia was severed. Henceforth, the only way in or out of Leningrad was across Lake Lagoda, running the gauntlet of German ships and mines, or by air. The siege of Leningrad had begun. The battle for the city was now in the hands of the Germans' most potent allies: Generals Hunger, Cold, and Terror.

The civil authorities were as ill-prepared for what was to come as the military commanders had been to halt the German advance before it invested the city. The dire situation was compounded when, on September 8th, a German air raid burned to the ground the city's principal food warehouses, built of wood and packed next to one another, destroying all the reserves stored there. An inventory taken after the raid revealed that, at normal rates of consumption, only between two and three weeks' supply of food remained for the population. Rationing had already been imposed, and rations were immediately cut to 500 grams of bread per day for workers and 300 grams for office employees and children. This was to be just the start. The total population of encircled Leningrad, civilian and military, totalled around 3.4 million.

While military events and the actions of the city government are described, most of the book recounts the stories of people who lived through the siege. The accounts are horrific, with the previous unimaginable becoming the quotidian experience of residents of the city. The frozen bodies of victims of starvation were often stacked like cordwood outside apartment buildings or hauled on children's sleds to common graves. Very quickly, Leningrad became exclusively a city of humans: dogs, cats, and pigeons quickly disappeared, eaten as food supplies dwindled. Even rats vanished. While some were doubtless eaten, most seemed to have deserted the starving metropolis for the front, where food was more abundant. Cannibalism was not just rumoured, but documented, and parents were careful not to let children out of their sight.

Even as privation reached extreme levels (at one point, the daily bread ration for workers fell to 300 grams and for children and dependents 125 grams—and that is when bread was available at all), Stalin's secret police remained up and running, and people were arrested in the middle of the night for suspicion of espionage, contacts with foreigners, shirking work, or for no reason at all. The citizenry observed that the NKVD seemed suspiciously well-fed throughout the famine, and they wielded the power of life and death when denial of a ration card was a sentence of death as certain as a bullet in the back of the head.

In the brutal first winter of 1941–1942, Leningrad was sustained largely by truck traffic over the “Road of Life”, constructed over the ice of frozen Lake Lagoda. Operating from November through April, and subject to attack by German artillery and aircraft, thousands of tons of supplies, civilian and military, were brought into the city and the wounded and noncombatants evacuated over the road. The road was rebuilt during the following winter and continued to be the city's lifeline.

The siege of Leningrad was unparalleled in the history of urban sieges. Counting from the fall of Mga on September 8, 1941 until the lifting of the siege on January 27, 1944, the siege had lasted 872 days. By comparison, the siege of Paris in 1870–1871 lasted just 121 days. The siege of Vicksburg in the American war of secession lasted 47 days and involved only 4000 civilians. Total civilian casualties during the siege of Paris were less than those in Leningrad every two or three winter days. Estimates of total deaths in Leningrad due to starvation, disease, and enemy action vary widely. Official Soviet sources tried to minimise the toll to avoid recriminations among Leningraders who felt they had been abandoned to their fate. The author concludes that starvation deaths in Leningrad and the surrounding areas were on the order of one million, with a total of all deaths, civilian and military, between 1.3 and 1.5 million.

The author, then a foreign correspondent for United Press, was one of the first reporters to visit Leningrad after the lifting of the siege. The people he met then and their accounts of life during the siege were unfiltered by the edifice of Soviet propaganda later erected over life in besieged Leningrad. On this and subsequent visits, he was able to reconstruct the narrative, both at the level of policy and strategy and of individual human stories, which makes up this book. After its initial publication in 1969, the book was fiercely attacked in the Soviet press, with Pravda publishing a full page denunciation. Salisbury's meticulously documented account of the lack of preparedness, military blunders largely due to Stalin's destruction of the officer corps in his purges, and bungling by the Communist Party administration of the city did not fit with the story of heroic Leningrad standing against the Nazi onslaught in the official Soviet narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and copies brought by tourists seized by customs. The author, who had been Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1949 through 1954, was for years denied a visa to visit the Soviet Union. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the work became generally available in Russia.

I read the Kindle edition, which is a shameful and dismaying travesty of this classic and important work. It's not a cheap knock-off: the electronic edition is issued by the publisher at a price (at this writing) of US$ 13, only a few dollars less than the paperback edition. It appears to have been created by optical character recognition of a print edition without the most rudimentary copy editing of the result of the scan. Hundreds of words which were hyphenated at the ends of lines in the print edition occur here with embedded hyphens. The numbers ‘0’ and ‘1’ are confused with the letters ‘o’ and ‘i’ in numerous places. Somebody appears to have accidentally done a global replace of the letters “charge” with “chargé”, both in stand-alone words and within longer words. Embarrassingly, for a book with “900” in its title, the number often appears in the text as “poo”. Poetry is typeset with one character per line. I found more than four hundred mark-ups in the text, which even a cursory examination by a copy editor would have revealed. The index is just a list of searchable items, not linked to their references in the text. I have compiled a list of my mark-ups to this text, which I make available to readers and the publisher, should the latter wish to redeem this electronic edition by correcting them. I applaud publishers who make valuable books from their back-lists available in electronic form. But respect your customers! When you charge us almost as much as the paperback and deliver a slapdash product which clearly hasn't been read by anybody on your staff before it reached my eyes, I'm going to savage it. Consider it savaged. Should the publisher supplant this regrettable edition with one worthy of its content, I will remove this notice.

Posted at October 25, 2016 15:35