Communism Works

War in the East was one of those wargames that sent me across town to the local library so that I could grab a stack of books on the Eastern Front. I finally finished off the last of them, Leningrad 1941: The Blockade by Dmitri Pavlov, yesterday morning. In many ways it was the most unexpected of the books I read, because so much of its subject was both new (t0 me) and uniquely presented.

Pavlov was a Party bureaucrat who helped managed the distribution of food supplies to the Leningrad Front during the German blockade following Operation Barbarossa. His book is, in some ways, nothing more than a simple report on the food situation in Leningrad during the siege. He describes the city’s pre-blockade food consumption and supplies, the impact of the German advance, the rations provided during the siege, and finally how the city was resupplied by water and, after Lake Ladoga froze, by ice.

The book is full of tables and detailed calorie counts. Just from a mechanical standpoint, the work of maintaining a defensive force and a large civilian population during a near-total encirclement makes for fascinating reading. The type of things I don’t really think about, like how much food an office worker needs to sustain himself as opposed to a front line soldier as opposed to a longshoreman. This was the stuff of life and death in Leningrad as Pavlov and the Soviet officials he worked with cut rations to the bone.

But it’s also an amazing story of endurance and ingenuity, and one of the threads running through Pavlov’s account is a nostalgia for this brief moment when the ideals of the Revolution were manifested in the people, soldiers, and government of Leningrad. He describes how, as the food supply dwindled, researchers in Leningrad were furiously trying to find new ways to stretch the food supply. He goes into detail on how the loaf of bread was reinvented with other grains and low-quality food products, and then reinvented again with cellulose once the other grains ran out.

While Pavlov is no naif (he describes how ration-card fraud required some brutal measures and regulations that were often unintentionally, unavoidably cruel), he is struck by how often the siege brought out the best in people. Order never broke down, even when things were at their most desperate. He draws pictures of starving people holding down a man who attempts to start a bread riot, or standing guard over an overturned bread truck in the dead of a winter night until the authorities can collect the shipment. He frankly admits that when the road over Lake Ladoga first started running, theft was rampant on the part of the drivers and loaders. The operation was so haphazard, the packing materials of such poor quality, and the pace so fast that there was literally no way to police the supply line. But after a week or so, as drivers realized just how desperate things were in Leningrad, supply loss stopped almost entirely.

The suffering on display is also astonishing. During a chapter simply titled, “Hunger”, Pavlov writes:

Cold had settled down to stay in the unheated apartments of the city. Remorselessly it froze the exhausted people. Dystrophy and cold sent 11,085 people to their graves during November, the first to fall under death’s scythe being the old men.

…More and more adults and children died every day. First a person’s arms and legs grew weak, then his body became numb, the numbness gradually approached the heart, gripped it as in a vise, and then the end came.

Death overtook people anywhere. As he walked along the street, a man might fall and not get up. People would go to bed at home and not rise again. Often death would come suddenly as men worked at their machines.

Since public transportation was not operating, burial was a special problem. The dead were usually carried on sleds without coffins. Two or three relatives or close friends would haul the sled along the seemingly endless streets, often losing strength and abandoning the deceased halfway to the cemetary, leaving to the authorities the task of dispoising of the body. …There was not strength enough to dig into the deeply frozen earth. Civil defense crews would blast the ground to make mass graves, into which they would lay tens and sometimes hundreds of bodies without even knowing the names of those they buried.

–May the dead forgive the living who could not, under those desperate conditions, perform the last ceremonies due honest, laborious lives.

Over 600,000 people died of starvation-related causes during the blockade.

  1. Wow. That is simply staggering.
    I knew about the siege before, but this is a whole new level of detail. Thank you for sharing this, Rob, now I’m curious to learn more.

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