The Siege of Leningrad

Prit Buttar

Prit Buttar looks at the city in the context of the birth of the Soviet Union in the years running up to the Second World War.
Red Army AA battery with St. Isaac's in the background.
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Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina commences with one of the best-known opening sentences of literature in any language: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ In a similar manner, the relatively few nations that enter conflicts in a state of good preparation for what lies ahead have many factors in common: a good understanding of where threats will emerge; the likely means available to potential enemies; the probable enemy plans for war; the resources available for opposing these threats and hostile intentions; and the best way to use these resources. But on far more occasions, nations enter wars either in a state of poor preparation, or with preparations that are unsuited to what lies ahead. The reasons for such an unhappy state of affairs are as varied as the number of nations to which this applies – whilst many of these reasons are shared, others are unique. In the case of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, the weaknesses in preparations for war brought the nation to the brink of defeat. The poor state of the Red Army through the 1930s and into the early 1940s to defend the nation against attack included many factors in common with other countries – flawed doctrine, planning assumptions that were either outdated or simply incorrect, and equipment that was already obsolete by the time that hostilities commenced. However, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the Soviet Union had its own unique contribution to its unhappiness and lack of preparation, and the city of Leningrad and its inhabitants were to pay a huge price for this. By the end of the Second World War, more Soviet citizens, civilian and military, died in and around Leningrad than British Empire war dead from both world wars combined. It was a horrific price to pay for victory, made even worse by the manner in which Leningrad and other parts of the Soviet Union suffered in the years before the conflict. That pre-war suffering was a critical and tragic component in the constellation of factors that brought the Soviet Union to the brink of defeat in 1941.

Since its inception, the Soviet state had faced a variety of threats, real and imagined, external and internal. The turmoil of its birth saw the Bolsheviks seize power, and the attempts by Western Powers to influence the outcome of the Russian Civil War that followed this ranged from supporting anti-Bolshevik ‘White Russian’ movements to active military intervention. From March 1918 to October 1919, an international force made up predominantly of a little over 14,000 British soldiers but including American, Italian, Serbian, Canadian, and French contingents seized the northern ports of Archangelsk and Murmansk and attempted to apply pressure on the struggling Bolshevik regime; at one stage, the expeditionary force advanced far down the valley of the Northern Dvina River before being driven back by growing pressure from the Red Army. Ultimately, with support in Britain and elsewhere for the intervention rapidly evaporating, the expeditionary force was evacuated. The operation achieved nothing militarily, but it left a strong impression upon the new Bolshevik government: the Russian Soviet Republic faced serious external threats. Preparing to face such threats was a military necessity.

Rapidly, Lenin and his contemporaries realised the political advantages that could be gained from the perception of an external threat. Throughout history, political movements have attempted to use external enemies – both real and imagined – as a means of engendering a sense of peril, which they have then used for a variety of internal purposes. There are few things that can unify a nation as much as a generally shared view that the nation is in danger from external enemies. In the case of the Soviet Union, the increasing literacy that was achieved in the years that followed the end of the Civil War gave the Soviet rulers an opportunity to use centrally produced literature to portray the governments of capitalist nations as implacable foes of the Bolshevik Revolution and therefore enemies of ordinary working class people. This sense of external threat served an important internal purpose: it provided an excuse for widespread repression of those who were thought to be actual, potential, or imagined confederates of hostile foreign powers.

Officially created in 1922 as the Civil War came to an end, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or Soviet Union was a traumatised nation. There was widespread lawlessness, the inevitable consequence of the turmoil of preceding years, and there was also considerable opposition to the ongoing dictatorial rule of the Bolsheviks. The assumption of almost complete power by Lenin – and then by Stalin as his successor shortly after the end of the Civil War – was a justifiable expedient during years of strife and at a time when the final victory of the Bolsheviks was uncertain, but by the mid-1920s there were calls both from within the Communist Party and from society as a whole for a more democratic system to be installed. After all, the revolutions and subsequent war had been ostensibly first to overthrow autocratic rule, and then to prevent its re-imposition. It was easy for opponents of Stalin to portray him and his inner circle as little more than replacements for the previous rulers of Russia, particularly as there were widespread and justified allegations of cronyism and corruption. As such opposition became more outspoken, Stalin embarked on a series of countermeasures that did huge damage to almost every institution in the Soviet Union. This damage would be a major factor in the weakness of Soviet preparations for war. One city in the north of the country, the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution, would pay a particularly cruel price for the miscalculations of the pre-war years and deliberate vandalism of Stalin’s purges. The history of this unique city shaped the manner in which Stalin would treat its inhabitants both before and during the Second World War.

Moreover, the lasting legacy and fear that continued into the years of war continued to have a malign influence on the functioning of almost every part of the Soviet state, but most significantly within the military. To fight effectively in a modern war, the Red Army needed to have a leadership structure that permitted officers a degree of freedom and initiative rather than relying on top- down, rigid command structures. By continuing such rigidity, the Soviet Union was doomed to pay a huge price in human life for its ultimate victory, and this legacy persists today.

Prit Buttar is a historian and the author of To Besiege a City: Leningrad 1941–42, published by Osprey.