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W&L Historian Writes New History of Siege of Leningrad with Previously Unseen Sources

Washington and Lee University historian Richard Bidlack used previously secret Soviet documents to paint a vivid picture of the 872-day siege of Leningrad by the Germans and Finns during World War II in his new book, “The Leningrad Blockade, 1941-1944.” Co-authored with Nikita Lomagin, professor of economics at St. Petersburg State University, it is the latest book in the Yale University Press series Annals of Communism.

“I contend that the siege of Leningrad was not only the most horrific siege in human history, but also an act of genocide on the part of the Germans,” said Bidlack. “Using these new documents that had been classified and unavailable, along with some diaries by Leningraders , we wanted both to clarify the high-level politics that led to the lengthy siege and to look at popular attitudes of the people in Leningrad.”

Between approximately 1.6 and 2 million Soviet people died within the city of Leningrad and in battles of the surrounding region between 1941 and 1944. Bidlack observes that even the lowest estimate of deaths would exceed the total number of Americans, both civilians and military personnel, who died in every war, from 1776 through Afghanistan.

The number of civilians who perished by hunger, cold or the aerial bombardment of the blockaded territory is estimated at about 900,000.

“No city ever suffered more over a comparable period of time than did Leningrad during its epic struggle to survive,” the authors write in the introduction.

The key difference between this book and others about the siege is the documents to which the authors had access. The book includes reproductions of 66 documents and 70 illustrations  The documents reveal tensions and sharp conflicts among leaders of the Communist Party, the NKVD (political police, who were the forerunner of the KGB), and the military.

Some of the key documents are reports from secret informants on political attitudes.Both the Communist Party and the NKVD had thousands of informants through the city, Bidlack said. The NKVD reports, in particular, are controversial because the police were preoccupied with stamping out anyactivities they considered to be subversive

“You have to be careful in using those materials to gauge public opinion,” Bidlack said. “The Communist Party basically wanted to show that the people of Leningrad were loyal, while the NKVD was looking for bad guys, as they defined them.”

The documents were declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some of them were made available only shortly before the book was published. Because Soviet historians did not have access to the documents and because their histories were censored, their accounts of the Leningrad blockade were heavily distorted, Bidlack said.

For instance, Bidlack added, Soviet historians tended to write glowingly about the heroic struggle of the people of Leningrad.

“The whole concept of heroism is a tricky one,” he said. ‘The heroic struggle of the people became one of the foundational myths in the way the history of the siege was written.

“It’s not a myth in the sense that it’s a falsehood. But it’s overemphasized. There were heroes, but there were also people who were very selfish, who didn’t care at all about their fellow man.”

In particular, Bidlack said, the documents demonstrate that some people who had special access to food made a fortune on the black market by purchasing works of art for loaves of bread.

At the same, Bidlack noted, “youlearn something about human nature as you examine an event of this kind through these documents.  People were willing to put up with extraordinary privations to defend their homes and their families. Hitler thought the city would collapse in chaos, but it didn’t happen.”

German barbarism together with the repressive policies of the NKVD, which punished overheard subversive comments with long prison sentences or execution, encouraged Leningraders to remain loyal to Soviet authorities.  Leningraders were also hoping for a better future.  Soviet propaganda implied that at the end of the war there would be more autonomy for the people, a greater role for the church and the return of traditional institutions to the fore. None of those things happened.

When it came to heroism, the documents make clear that those who acted in the most heroic fashion were mothers. “Most of the men were off at the front, so the city was predominately female in terms of the adult population, and these women would make any sacrifice to take care of their children.” he said.  Many also took care of orphaned children of which there were many thousand in the city.

Some desperate mothers resorted to cannibalism to survive.

“Altogether, about 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism — something that was never included in Soviet histories,” said Bidlack. “This ranged from hacking corpses for food to murder with the intent to sell human flesh.”

“Most of those who were hacking food from corpses were women who were not from the city itself but were part of an influx of refugees into the city before the blockade  started. They did not have access to food ration cards and had two or three kids to feed.””

Bidlack contends that the siege of Leningrad was, next to the Holocaust, the greatest act of genocide in Europe during World War II, because Hitler would not accept surrender of the city through the winter of 1941-42..

“They were trying to subdue the city by starvation and hoping that it would be like 1917 in Petrograd in World War I. I think Hitler wanted a collapse but not a surrender, because, for logistical reasons, he did not want to be responsible for feeding 2.5 million people,” said Bidlack. “They were just going to let them starve.”

A member of Washington and Lee’s faculty since 1987, Bidlack specializes in Russian and European history. He received his bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest and his master’s and Ph.D. from Indiana University.

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