Authors: Alexander Werth
Tags: #History, #Europe, #Military, #World War II, #Russia, #World, #Russia & Former Soviet Republics
This book was originally intended to be merely a chapter in a much longer book on the war in Russia but many months may elapse before this longer book is completed and I felt, even before Leningrad was finally liberated in January, that the story of that city should be told by itself.
Leningrad holds a peculiar place in the Russian war. Its story can scarcely be regarded as a cross section of the war as a whole. It had during those 29 months of the blockade and semi-blockade a mass of military, organisational and human problems peculiar to itself. On the other hand, there were numerous aspects of the war in Russia not to be found in Leningrad. It is not without significance that during the blockade, and even after the blockade was partly broken, people in Leningrad should have continued to distinguish between ‘Leningrad’ and the ‘mainland.’
When I was in Leningrad in September 1943, many people foretold that Leningrad would be liberated by a drive of the Red Army to the Baltic from Nevel or Vitebsk. They said so with a touch of regret and apology. One understood their feelings. And today one feels that there is a great poetic justice in the fact that Leningrad should have been liberated not from outside but by its own troops, the troops of the Leningrad front.
Leningrad has a large share in Russia’s glory, but it has also a human greatness peculiarly its own. In Leningrad soldiers and civilians – and by civilians I mean men, women and children – were more completely united in their struggle and their fate than anywhere else, with the possible exception of Sebastopol.
Two things encouraged me to write this book. I am the only British correspondent to have been in Leningrad during the blockade, and the greater part of this book is a record of all I saw and heard in Leningrad during my visit last autumn. That visit will remain to me one of my three or four most memorable wartime experiences. A few pages are added on my more recent visit in February 1944. Secondly, Leningrad (though it was then called St. Petersburg) is my native city. I lived there till the age of sixteen – those early days are described in the preface to my book
– but even now, after an absence of more than 25 years, I knew every street corner, and the stones of Leningrad had more meaning to me than those of any other town except perhaps London and Paris.
In this book I have recorded in detail what I saw and heard, but refrained from drawing too many conclusions. Let the details in their cumulative effect speak for themselves.
In conclusion I would like to record my gratitude to Mr. Molotov for having authorised my September visit to Leningrad, to Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, H.M. Ambassador in Moscow, for his encouragement and help, to the Press Department of the Foreign Affairs Commissariat for having arranged the visit, to my friend Dangulov and Lieutenant-Colonel Studyonov for their hard work and their good company during those days, and finally to all the people in Leningrad who in difficult conditions gave me so generously their time and their hospitality. The names of most of them will be found in the narrative that follows.
Outside Russia I wish to thank the Editor of the
for kind permission to reproduce here some of the material previously published in that journal, and my warmest thanks go to my friend Leonard Russell for having agreed in my absence to see the book through the press.
Moscow, February 1944
On 24 November 1942, His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, put the following request to Vyacheslav Molotov, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs: ‘authorise the British war correspondent Alexander Werth to come to Leningrad to compose a piece on the city and its heroic defenders, which would be of global significance.’ A few days later, Molotov replied in the negative: ‘At present, we cannot authorise Alexander Werth to visit Leningrad. We are trying to keep the sufferings endured by the inhabitants of Leningrad from becoming too widely known. Until now, these sufferings have only been portrayed in a very biased fashion in the press and in newsreels.’
Alexander Werth was thus obliged to wait almost a year before, in September 1943, he finally received authorisation to come to Leningrad. Beginning in January 1943, a successful Red Army counter-offensive had finally broken the stranglehold the
had had on the city since September 1941. Nevertheless, when Werth arrived in Leningrad the German lines were still only 3 kilometres from the Kirov factories in the suburbs south of the city. The devastating aerial bombardments had ceased, but Leningrad remained a city on the front line, regularly pounded by the German artillery. The worst was over, however, for starvation was – by and large – no longer killing the inhabitants of the besieged city. Werth was the first foreign correspondent (and the first Westerner) to record what remains one of the great urban tragedies of World War II: the longest siege ever endured by a modern city, during which nearly 700,000 civilians starved to death.
, first published as
in London in July 1944, Alexander Werth writes modestly: ‘There I reported in detail what I had seen and heard, choosing to avoid drawing any general conclusions. It seems to me that the facts reported speak for themselves.’ And what facts they are! Despite the restricted nature of his visit, he was able not only to ‘draw out’ his interviewees, but also to directly address most of the major questions which would go on to be studied by historians of the Leningrad siege – the famine, first and foremost; the survival tactics used by Leningrad’s citizens during the blockade; the blunders, difficulties and successes of the operations to evacuate the civilian population; the attitude of the inhabitants, whether heroism, stoicism, resignation or despair; propaganda and methods of population control; and the relations between the military and civil populations in a city on the front line.
Twenty years later, Werth would return at length to the tragedy of Leningrad, this time with a historian’s detachment, in his seminal work
Russia at War, 1941–1945
, the first complete history of war on the Eastern Front, which was published in 1964.
remains first and foremost an eyewitness account. Werth tries to come to an understanding of why and how the people of Leningrad held fast, to ‘explain, beyond words like solidarity, patriotism, self-sacrifice [ … ] the epic of Leningrad’. However, for Werth, this visit to the battered, steadfast city was also an emotional reunion with his place of birth, abandoned 26 years earlier, in 1917, on the eve of the October Revolution, as well as a chance to rid himself of the spectre of St Petersburg. At the end of his first day in the city, having searched in vain for his childhood home, he insightfully observes that ‘Leningrad stood before me. As for Petrograd, St Petersburg [ … ] that was now only history and literature – and nothing more.’