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"Memory: Using Leningrad"

Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: November 04, 2011 
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Last week I made myself sick writing about the siege of Leningrad.  World War II was a horrible time for everyone involved, and a lot of people had it very bad, indeed.  No one had it any worse than the poor population of Leningrad, however.  They got surrounded, deprived of every kind of supply that a city needs to survive, and they starved to death in unprecedented numbers.  Workers got fed, barely, because they were "essential."  Their families–wives, children, elderly, dependents–weren't considered essential, however.  Bringing food home to them (that is, going without so that your loved ones could live to see another day) was considered a diversion of resources from the "productive" to the "unproductive," and punished by the authorities.  By death.

Oh, and by the way, how about those "authorities"?  Will anyone reading this be surprised when I say that they always had enough to eat?

I'd like to tie up this discussion of Leningrad, which is threatening to become a kind of personal obsession, with a final point about the way it has been remembered.  Say what you will about Soviet communism, the system paid a great deal of attention to history and historians.  So much so that it monitored scholars carefully, watching what they wrote and didn't write, and offering socialist "guidance" when they didn't seem willing to write the correct thing.

Historians in the modern U.S. often complain that no one cares what we write.  No one official, that is.  And just about every day, I wake up and give thanks for that.

After 1945, the Stalinist regime was very concerned, indeed, about what historians were writing about Leningrad.  Intuition would tell us that Stalin should have opened up the archives.  Tell the world!  Let them see how Hitler had tried to kill us all!  Let them see the brutality of Fascism!  The Wehrmacht gave us their best shot, we took it, and threw it back in their faces.  All hail to the Soviet Union!

Er… no.  That's not at all the way it went.

After the war, the siege of Leningrad became a one of the century's classic victims of memory politics.  The Soviet Union, after all, was a land where the government had raised lying to a high art form.  The Ukrainian famine in the 1930s, the massacre of a huge portion of the rural population labeled "kulaks" (prosperous peasants), who were nothing of the sort, the purges of hundreds of thousands of "traitors" and "wreckers," who were nothing of the sort:  Stalin and his minions had invented false justifications for all of them.

They had learned to do nothing but lie, in other words, and so it was with Leningrad.  At first, the regime denied that anything bad had happened.  Nothing to see here; move along.  Admitting that 500,000 civilians had starved to death in that first winter would have meant owning up to official incompetence.  A city museum that tried to tell the truth was closed down, and the director sentenced to 25 years in the Gulag.

Things stayed that way for a long time.  By the 1970's, new lies had arisen.  An increasingly unpopular Soviet regime needed all the help it could get, and World War II seemed made to order.  The victory over the Nazis was, after all, the regime's great justification, its single positive accomplishment.  Brezhnev (and his minions) now made a kind of cult of the Great Patriotic War.  While they admitted everything, they also heroicized the victims.  No one grumbled, they said, no one despaired, no one stole.  No one ate corpses.  The Leningraders had made a long journey, from helpless victims to selfless heroes.

Only the attitude of glasnost ("openness") during the Gorbachev years and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union allowed more truthful and balanced views to come to the fore.  But there are so few witnesses left, so few blokadniki, to step forward and testify to the truth about what happened to them.

I'm a historian by trade, and frankly I'm proud to be one.  But I also try to be aware–and you should, too–that history (what happened) and memory (what the powers-that-be want us all to remember) are not always the same thing

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3 Responses to “"Memory: Using Leningrad"”


  1. 1
    Chris Bartley says:

    As a nurse, I have never said this to anyone before. I'm glad you were sick. We should be all be sick.

    I just emailed the war museum in Reading who I saw on the web is having a 21st WWII weekend extravaganza. This makes me angry and sick as I'm the daughter of a deceased RAF who saw what this war did to him.

  2. 2
    Marion says:

    This is sad! And I would have gotten sick as well! Just reading it makes my stomach ache

  3. 3
    Jacob DeWitt says:

    Interesting post, Doc. Just picked up a copy of Reid's book, looking forward to reading it.



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