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Book review: The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison E. Salisbury


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The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison E. Salisbury


On the evening of 21 June 1941, Leningrad, formerly St. Petersburg, the former capital of Russia and birthplace of the Soviet Union, was one of Europe's greatest cities. Three million people lived in a city where art and literature flourished, at least as much as was possible under Stalin's paranoid rule. The city and its hundreds of factories also benefited from the peace treaty with Nazi Germany, as materials poured out towards the German border to help drive the German war machine in the west. Rumours that Germany would turn on the Soviet Union were rejected as British propaganda, and those who persisted in making those claims felt the wrath of Beria's secret police.


In the early hours of 22 June, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest and most grandiose military undertaking in history to that time. Between three and four million German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union on a front more than 700 miles wide. Army Group Nord under Field Marshal von Leeb was directed to advance more than 400 miles through the Baltic States to Leningrad and destroy the city, link up with the Finnish armies advancing from the north and then swing south and east to help in the destruction of Moscow.


The Soviet Union was taken by total surprise. Its armies were strung out across the frontier and through rear-echelon areas, often lacking arms or ammunition to avoid 'provoking' any incident. Stalin had a near-total breakdown due to his disbelief in the invasion and was out of action for weeks. In his absence no-one was prepared to take responsibility for the disaster, resulting in total chaos, through which the Germans advanced almost at will, encircling, capturing or destroying hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers in individual battles. Where the Soviets stood and fought on well-prepared ground with modern equipment (such as the formidable T-34 and KV-1 tanks) they proved the equal of the German attackers, but the overall situation was a disaster. The Baltic Fleet was thrown back from Riga to Leningrad with thousands of deaths and dozens of ships sunk. Defensive line after defensive line was overrun. Divisions were sent into battle under-strength and under-armed, just to try to hold the Germans back for a few days longer.


Just nine weeks into the invasion, the German army reached the southern suburbs of Leningrad and was only stopped by the frantic digging of defensive works, with hundreds of thousands of civilians from the city recruited to help, and colossal artillery barrages from the heavy warships of the Baltic Fleet laid down to delay the advance. Finally, the Germans switched their attention to Moscow and the Panzer divisions leading the attack on Leningrad were diverted south, sparing the city from direct assault. Instead it was invested, beginning on 8 September with the cutting of all land links to the city. The Russians expected a speedy relief by the Red Army. Instead, whilst a very tentative corridor was opened in January 1943, it wasn't until 27 January 1944 that the siege was fully lifted. In full, the siege lasted 880 days, one of the longest in history and by far the most deadly.


After the siege was lifted, the Soviets admitted that 600,000 people within the city had died. They were wrong. Even conservative estimates drawing on the number of bodies interred in the cemeteries and recovered afterwards place it in the region of 1,200,000 (or considerably more than the combined British and American casualties - civilian and military - of World War II in its entirety).


During WWII Harrison E. Salisbury was the head of the United Press Office in London, and subsequently was Moscow correspondent for The New York Times. He took a contemporary interest in the Siege of Leningrad and was one of the first western journalists allowed into the city after the siege. He interviewed hundreds of people who'd lived through the nine hundred days, from senior Communist Party officials to factory-workers and front-line soldiers (some of whom he corresponded with for decades afterwards), and collected vast reams of notes for a potential book on the siege. However, whilst the siege may have ended the machinery of Soviet politics had not, and he found many of his correspondents being chewed and spat out - sometimes in pieces - by Stalin's paranoid post-war purges. The book was published in 1969 and immediately banned in the Soviet Union due to its pinning of the blame for the disasters of Barbarossa on Stalin and the blinkered reactions of the Party.


Salisbury's technique with the book is to grant an overview of the entirety of the siege as seen from the Russian side (the German perspective is given at regular intervals, but after the initial advance and prior to the liberation the Germans are essentially just standing still outside the city, so they are not a major focus of the book). He looks at the military, supply and administrative problems faced in running and protecting a massive European city under siege from a militarily superior enemy, as well as the view from the streets, from common workers, soldiers and shopworkers. This is a massive undertaking - the book was almost 25 years in the writing - but Salisbury pulls it off masterfully. One second we are with Party Secretary Zhdanov authorising the building of a road across the frozen Lake Ladoga in the hope of opening a supply route, then we might be with a truck driver crossing the dangerous route and then with a soldier trying to protect the supply depots on the far side of the lake from Luftwaffe bombardment. It's an immersive technique, one that makes the book read like a thriller in its opening chapters as the Nazi steamroller inexorably closes on the city.


Contained in this book are hundreds of anecdotes and stories that could almost be full novels by themselves: a woman whose children are evacuated from the city but stupidly into an area closer to the German advance (she successfully goes behind German lines to rescue them and returns them to Leningrad); the Russian sailors on ice-locked ships who stave off boredom by forming a book club and reading the complete works of Dostoyevsky; the tiny fortress at the edge of the siege line which the Russians hold for 500 days against overwhelming German attacks until relieved; a starving child who can't decide whether or not to eat a mouse he finds stealing his tiny bread ration; and many more. Extensive footnotes and appendices list the sources for the claims and clarify confusion between different accounts of the same events, whilst the bibliography is one of the largest I've ever seen for such a (relatively) contained event. The amount of research that went into the book is staggering.


By its nature, the book is not going to be a laugh riot, though Salisbury does include moments of lightness and kindness where he finds them. However, the final third of the book, which focuses in detail on the most desperate days of the siege (when people were left on a few crumbs of bread a day to eat), is harrowing. Soldiers return from the front to find their entire families dead of starvation. Building walls burst from the swelling corpses within. Cannibals prey on unsuspecting children. It's a catalogue of horrors not quite like anything I've read before and is very heavy-going. However, it is also inspiring when you realise how many people did endure these privations and lived to tell the tale.


Salisbury's book has a few major issues. It's been criticised for focusing a little too much on the city's artists, particularly its poets and writers. Its true this group gets maybe a little bit more of a focus than others, but then it is understandable: they generally kept detailed diaries during the siege which other residents didn't. Also, their jobs generally entailed a minimum of dangerous or physically-exhausting activity, which killed so many of the city's other residents. The biggest problem is that, despite its name, the book focuses almost entirely on the first year of the siege (particularly the period up to April 1942), then the remainder is covered very quickly in the final 100 pages of the book. This is because Salisbury has taken a human-interest approach and the bulk of Leningrad's civilian population (or rather the bulk that hadn't starved to death in the horrific winter of 1941-42) was shipped out via Lake Ladoga after that first horrific year. More in-depth coverage of the latter part of the siege would have been welcome.


Despite this, The 900 Days (*****) is a brilliantly-written, breathtakingly-researched work of history focusing on (in the west, anyway) one of the more under-reported battles of the Second World War. It's powerful, dark, harrowing but also curiously uplifting and occasionally even awe-inspiring. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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