Leningrad; Siege and Symphony; The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich

Leningrad; Siege and Symphony; The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich by Brian Moynahan.  Grove Press, 2015, paper.

In 1942 while Dmitri Shostakovich was composing his Seventh Symphony, his native city, Leningrad, was surrounded by German armies. The Germans, wishing to avoid a street-by-street battle for the city, had instead determined to starve the city into submission.


The terror referenced in Brian Moynahan’s title had been unleashed in the 1930s by Josef Stalin and the NKVD headed by Lavrentiy Beria. Leningrad was Russia’s second largest city and its Bolshevik establishment and intelligentsia rivaled that of the Soviet capital, Moscow.


The author illustrates the character of Bolshevik ‘party politics’ in Soviet Russia with the murder of Sergi Kirov in 1934. Kirov had been the popular chief of the Leningrad Bolsheviks, and his assassination may have been ordered by Stalin. In any case, Stalin took the opportunity to liquidate those delegates who, while attending the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934, had made clear Kirov’s popularity over Stalin’s.


That murdering campaign then moved on to other victims: many of Leningrad’s artists, musicians, composers, dancers, and film-makers, a favored class of ‘creatives,’ who had made the city a great cultural center in Soviet Russia, as it had been in Imperial Russia. Stalin was an art enthusiast, but he knew what he liked – and didn’t like. Shostakovich had watched Stalin walk out of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Opera, Shostakovich concluded, was too dangerous and henceforth he concentrated on symphonic music, string quartets, and smaller orchestral pieces.


Moynahan provides us with descriptions of the interrogation techniques of the NKVD. Boris Izvekov, head of geophysics at Leningrad Technical University, was arrested in February 1942. Likely his name had been obtained earlier from a mathematics professor who, under interrogation, had fingered him as an active participant in a German spy ring within the faculty. Izvekov was a son of a priest – not good, but he had had nothing to do with the “anti-Bolshevik” Whites. His interrogation went on for days until he confessed and also incriminated colleagues for counter-revolutionary activities. He then was shot.


Moynahan considers whether Stalin knew about Operation Barbarossa before it was launched in 22 June 1941. It is difficult to believe that he wasn’t informed of the 3.2 million German soldiers marshalling on his borders. Warnings of German preparations were dismissed as “Allied provocations.”


Stalin counted on the German invasion of the Low Countries and France taking more time and a greater toll of German military strength. And in the meanwhile Soviet war production was expanded and factories dismantled and moved toward the Urals. Were the Russians stalling for time?


The German Army overran Poland and the Baltic states and by August 1941 had reached the Leningrad area. Another German/Finish army approached the city from the north. The residents remained patriotic and even heroic in their resistance. Yet food failed to reach the city and their bread ration continued to be reduced.


There were favored groups: Russian defenders of the city of course but surprisingly the musical community. Live broadcasts of orchestra music was considered vital to the city’s optimism. The state-owned radio stations in Russia had their own orchestras. Each Russian army unit its band. There were orchestras attached to different performance spaces. Many of these musicians including, Shostakovich and his family, were evacuated to inland cities, including Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), designated to be the Russian capital should Moscow fall.


The fourth movement of his Seventh Symphony was finished at Kuibyshev. (The first three had been composed in Leningrad during the siege.) And the world premiere of the Seventh was performed there on March 1942. The Leningrad premier was in August of that year. The score was smuggled out and performed in London and New York.


Moynahan’s narrative, a month-by-month account, switches abruptly from starvation – even cannibalism – in Leningrad to the fortunes of the Russian army in 1941-1943. Bad news kept coming: the fall of Sevastopol and Kharkov and the ever tightening grip on Leningrad. The staggering German defeat before Stalingrad from August 1942 and February 1943 is beyond the scope of this book. And hence the reader cannot celebrate it alongside the citizens of Leningrad.


Moynahan mentions an important event that should also have cheered Leningrad had the city been able to foresee its outcome.  On 8 December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and aimed their armies at Southeast Asia. Russia would not have to fight a war in its Far East. Hitler declared war on the U.S. and American weaponry and munitions began flowing through the port of Murmansk. But it wasn’t until January 1943 that the Russian army broke the siege of Leningrad, establishing a corridor that allowed food to reach the starving city.

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