Saint Petersburg from its ground-breaking in 1704; Petrograd from 1914; Leningrad from the arch-demonic founding father’s death in 1924; and St. Petersburg redux, with the hope of civilization restored, in 1991. But the most beautiful and illustrious Russian city is still best known as Leningrad, its name immortalized with the black luster of incalculable wartime suffering. And perhaps the most famous 20th-century symphony is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh (1942), the “Leningrad,” so-called by acclamation. For while the composer did write the first three movements of the work in Leningrad and dedicate the piece to this jewel on the Neva, he did not actually name it after the beleaguered, starving, and freezing city.
Now, the cultivated, much-traveled foreign correspondent and author Brian Moynahan, who has seen a great deal of war in many places, has done valuable service to the city’s years of supreme ordeal and the composer’s tribute. Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, from September 1941 until January 1944, is among the episodes of the Second World War that decent men cannot allow to be forgotten, although the authorized Russian version still prefers that the very worst be deleted from public memory. The war altered the scale by which devastation, physical and moral, is measured, and the whole truth can be too much to bear.
The decent nations’ alliance with Soviet Russia soils the gilded American memory (not to say fantasy) of the Good War. And the ordinary Soviet citizen’s awareness of his motherland’s own political diabolism upends the Russian moral grandiosity of the Great Patriotic War. The savagery Stalin directed against his own subjects made him Hitler’s rival in the darkest princely arts well before the two rulers became certified colleagues in pillage and plunder.
The two dictators, moreover, were closely matched in strategic folly. Hitler’s race-madness and vainglory brought down the Thousand-Year Reich 988 years ahead of schedule, not least because he committed the cardinal military sin of invading Russia, well-known since the tribulation of the Teutonic Knights. But Stalin’s thirst for his countrymen’s blood, and his military incapacity in crisis, ensured that Russia was nearly wiped off the map by his once-trusted ally.
For Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact of 1939 was, essentially, a delaying tactic: No treaty with Slav and Asiatic sub-humans, let alone the Jewish Bolsheviks, could be expected to stand any longer than absolutely necessary. In Hitler’s fever dreams, Leningrad and Moscow were destined to disappear from the earth. German engineering would create an artificial lake whose waters covered the scorched stumps of the capital city. Vernichtung was the ultimate war aim in the east: the extermination of creatures unfit to live in a purified world.
Stalin, of course, had his own ideas of purity. In Moynahan’s words, “Pre-war Leningrad had been a pole of cruelty, the most defiled of all Soviet cities. . . . Leningrad was purged as no other.” Crazed personal resentment helped drive the local effects of this program of destruction. The city’s architectural loveliness, its proud history of literary excellence and intellectual defiance, gave it an almost European grace and refinement—and thus rendered it particularly unforgivable in the eyes of a Georgian provincial only too conscious of his inelegant beginnings.
With its own half-mad tyrant in command, Russia could not have been more unready when Operation Barbarossa headed its way in June 1941. Stalin had gutted the Red Army officer corps during the 1937-38 purges of the Great Terror: As many as half of its 75,000 officers had been arrested, and the higher one’s rank, the more certain one’s end. Three of the five Soviet marshals and two of the four naval fleet commanders received the traditional bullet in the back of the skull. Every corps commander and nearly every division commander went down likewise—though a lucky (or unlucky) few were shipped off to the slow-motion death camps of the Siberian Arctic.
Thus, when the imminence of Nazi invasion became undeniable to all but Stalin, the surviving brass was disinclined to breach the great man’s omniscient serenity. Even as panzer divisions rolled in, and the Soviet Air Force was smashed before it ever left the ground, commissars and generals issued orders not to fire on German forces, for Stalin had decreed that such an invasion was impossible. The commotion must be some gross misunderstanding. As for Stalin himself, he shivered and crumpled in the unexpected and unrelenting west wind: Nikita Khrushchev would say, years later, that the Man of Steel proved useless for weeks after the attack. By September 1941, the Germans had Leningrad under siege.