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Old 02-26-2019, 09:20 PM
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Default Book Review: Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944



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This is a very readable book about the Siege of Leningrad, especially the brutal 1941-42 winter, by Anna Reid. Ms. Reid is an English journalist who spent most of her career working in Eastern Europe. The fact that it wasn’t written by an academic probably accounts for the book’s balanced treatment of the various actors and its neutral tone. I expected a fawning depiction of Stalin but that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, Soviet society was depicted in all its nastiness.

While American preppers are unlikely to experience an actual siege, I believe such an event could be analogous to an extended grid down event during winter in a northern U.S. city. Especially a city with a totalitarian (Democrat controlled) government. If it becomes difficult or impossible to supply the city from outside during a harsh winter the conditions might be similar to those at the Siege of Leningrad.

Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) was a city of about 3 million residents in Northwest Russia at the beginning of the war. Often confused with the Siege of Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad was longer and resulted in far more civilian casualties (500,000+ dead).

Stalin had made a non-aggression pact with Hitler and, even though he expected Hitler to renege on the treaty at some point, continued to supply the Germans with vital commodities until the day the Germans invaded. The Russians were caught completely off guard by the German blitz which began in June 1941. The Soviet army was poorly equipped and trained and most of the best Russian generals had been purged in the political actions of the previous decade. Unlike Hitler, who early in the war left strategizing to his generals, Stalin constantly interfered with his generals which greatly contributed to Russian losses.

The Russian people were completely unprepared for war. When war broke out, Leningraders rushed to their banks and withdrew whatever cash they had but the banks soon ran out of bank notes. The commissaries which sold “luxury” items that could be purchased above and beyond standard rations soon ran out of food. There was no mention of any civilians with food stockpiles of their own, it was probably impossible to hoard large amounts of food in Soviet Russia.

The Germans quickly overran the badly outgunned Red Army and surrounded Leningrad by September 1941. Although there were occasional resupplies and some evacuation of civilian when Lake Ladoga iced over, most residents had to make do with the meager supplies they had at home from September 1941 through May 1942. Stalin made defense of Moscow his top priority and was prepared to sacrifice Leningrad if necessary so the city received only the bare minimum of supplies and military equipment.

Prior to and during the war, most people were fed one or two meals each day at their state owned workplace. After war broke out, a rationing system was created which allocated the largest rations to workers with less for “dependents” and even less for the elderly or unemployed. From a production efficiency point of view, this was a rational system but it resulted in woefully insufficient rations for people who were in a bad situation to begin with.

The city only had enough food stockpiled to last a month and much of the food supplies were destroyed by artillery fire early in the siege. The result was that most residents didn’t receive their allotted ration. Rations were cut several times so that eventually the lowest category card holders only received 460 calories a day, almost all in the form of low quality bread. Interestingly, male civilian workers were said to have had the highest mortality rates followed by the elderly and infants. The author theorizes that some of the male worker deaths were due to German shelling of the factories but also because many workers took food home to their families rather than eating it themselves. If someone is consuming 1,500 calories daily but expending 3,000 the end result isn’t good.

Most government services such as the trolley lines, water, gas and electricity failed by early winter. Snow went uncleared on the streets which made movement about the city difficult. By December, famine was widespread and people took to eating family pets. Zoologists at the local university were said to be well fed because they figured out how to trap rats and pigeons while most members of the mathematics department starved to death. There are also reliable reports of cannibalism but altogether only about 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism which, although technically not a crime, was usually punished by execution. Most of the cannibalism was corpse eating although some people were murdered for meat. The official civilian death toll in December was 53,000 although most historians consider the number to be a gross underestimate. The estimated civilian death toll during the winter of 1941-42 was 500,000.

Hospitals were soon overflowing with the sick and wounded and conditions were atrocious. Floors and bed linens were unwashed and patients urinated in the lobby. 40% of those admitted to the hospitals died. Frozen corpses were stacked in the basement. Disease in the city became common but there was never a true epidemic with upper respiratory infections, typhus and dysentery the most common illnesses. At home, people relieved themselves in their attics or in the courtyards of their apartment buildings. Nearly everyone was infested with lice. There is no mention in the book of anyone bathing during the winter so personal hygiene must have been horrible. The city mortuaries were overwhelmed and corpses were stacked like firewood for months. Many corpses remained frozen in the homes where they died as family members lacked the energy to take them to the cemetery. Corpses that were buried were interred in mass graves.

Fuel for heating was extremely difficult to find as most of the coal and peat was requisitioned for the factories. People soon resorted to chopping up furniture for firewood. Many of the more modern buildings lacked fireplaces so the residents built makeshift stoves which often caused fires. Because the water supply was down, building fires often smoldered for days.

Crime rose several fold. In the first half of 1942, there were 1,400 arrests for murder. Most of the victims were family members or acquaintances although some people were killed for their ration cards. Government bread shops were occasionally looted. Most people taken to jail died, either from neglect or summary execution.

Throughout the siege, there was a thriving black market. The Ruble became nearly worthless for exchange and people used barter. I found it unbelievable that some people traded away food for luxury items. A rabbit fur coat bought 35 lb. of potatoes and a nice watch 3 lb. of bread. Fashionable ladies clothing was highly tradeable on the black market throughout the winter. There was also a large amount of “embezzlement” of food and most people who worked in the government food shops remained plump and well fed. Communist Party card holders had a slightly lower mortality rate than the general population and party officers and officials ate well throughout the siege. There was also a good deal of cronyism. People who were connected to the right people could usually find food.

In May of 1942, the government organized a massive clean-up campaign to remove filth from the streets and to bury the dead. A huge gardening drive was begun so that almost all green space in the city was devoted to vegetable growing in the summer of 1942. Additionally, more supplies were delivered over frozen Lake Ladoga late in the winter. The result was that food supplies were adequate to prevent mass starvation for the remainder of the siege.

As a prepper what do I get out of all this?
1) Never believe it can’t happen here or happen to you. History is full of improbable bad events that actually occurred.
2) Be willing to trade valuables for vital food. There’s probably some idiot who will trade a dozen pounds of food for a gold ring or a few silver coins.
3) Have a safe, reliable source of grid-down heat in your home.
4) Be prepared for an increase in crime. I don’t expect things to get Mad Max but starving people will do what they have to do in order to eat.
5) Forget about going to the hospital, it will probably get you killed. Have your own medical supplies and pay a doctor to come to your house to treat the sick. Also, sanitation is very important, especially waste disposal. Know how to build a latrine or at least use a field toilet.
6) Avoid interactions with government officials and police if you can and stay out of jail. If the courts are closed you may be incarcerated for a long time in a cold jail with little food.

This book is worth reading simply to get an idea of how bad things can get. I bought the Kindle edition but it’s available in print format as well.
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Old 02-27-2019, 01:46 AM
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One of the biggest problem Russia had during WWII was that Stalin was a murdering psychopath who never really cared about feeding anyone but himself, his political cronies, and the blocking units that executed anyone who wouldn't fight.
I read about how soon after he took over he'd send his nutty acolytes into agricultural areas to steal every scrap of food they could find, leaving the peasants to starve. I don't think the Russians ever really figured out how to feed themselves.
Thanks for the book review, and the points to ponder.
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Old 02-27-2019, 06:06 PM
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Originally Posted by randolphrowzeebragg View Post
One of the biggest problem Russia had during WWII was that Stalin was a murdering psychopath who never really cared about feeding anyone but himself, his political cronies, and the blocking units that executed anyone who wouldn't fight.
I read about how soon after he took over he'd send his nutty acolytes into agricultural areas to steal every scrap of food they could find, leaving the peasants to starve. I don't think the Russians ever really figured out how to feed themselves.
Thanks for the book review, and the points to ponder.
Good points. By 1942, middle aged Leningraders had been through three famines: The 1917 - 21 revolutionary period, the 1930s collectivisation famines and the siege.
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