The Siege

Helen Dunmore's The siege is the last book I'm reading as part of the Flashback Challenge, and it's a real highspot to finish on. The point of the Flashback Challenge, I guess, is to note your changing reactions on re-reading books you haven't read for a while. It certainly made me more aware generally when re-reading of how perceptions can change. I found that generally books that hadn't made a huge impression the first time didn't make much of an impression the second time either, although Edmund Crispin's The moving toyshop was a notable exception to this. Books such as A canticle for Leibowitz  although it still provoked quite a response lacked the surprise element that it had on first reading, and suffered for this.

The siege, however, is just as brilliant on re-reading as it was the first time round. By turns horrifying, beautiful, bleak and lyrical - it is a quite extraordinary book. There were 2 great sieges in the Soviet Union in the Second World War - Stalingrad and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The Stalingrad siege is probably the best known - before reading Dunmore's book, it was the only one I had heard of - probably because of the battle that surrounded it which would mark a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front.

The siege of Leningrad, although less well known, was even more bitter, and lasted for 872 days. As Wikipedia points out it was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history and one of the most costly in terms of casualties - nearly a million Leningraders were to die. Children returned to school to find only a third of their classmates still alive. People froze in the streets, and there were ugly rumours of cannibalism.

The siege follows the lives of a young nursery school teacher, Anna, her dissident writer father, her young brother, Kolya, and their friends Marina Petrovna, a former lover of Anna's father, and Andrei, who will become Anna's lover. They are thrown together first in protecting their city, and then in surviving the first winter of the German blockade. As temperatures plummet, and the cold starts to bite, people change as they struggle to survive. Dunmore follows the events of the siege both in microcosm through the lives of Anna and her family, and looks at the bigger picture too, as the planners struggle to find ways to stretch rations, and bring food into the encircled city, eventually the ice road over Lake Ladoga would prove to be a lifeline for Leningrad.

The little things in this novel stay in your mind - the family sitting around a "hot" stove - the room temperature is actually only 8 degrees celsius, the constant re-iteration through the poetry of Pushkin and other Russian greats of how the people of Russia have survived cold and hunger before, and will again. The astonishment and amusement of the Russians on hearing German soldiers behind their lines say rude things about Stalin, things that many Russians would have liked to have said, but were too afraid to do so, the orchestra members practicing in freezing temperatures, before joining their fellow musicians in the mass grave into which so many Leningraders would be poured.

It's an astonishing book, profoundly bleak, very upsetting, but so beautifully written. There's a real elegance to Dunmore's prose, and she writes so well that I had a real sense of what it was like to be in Leningrad, that beautiful city, at that terrible time. What is also astounding is that this book doesn't leave you depressed, it leaves you with a great admiration for the indomitability and resourcefulness of the human spirit, and a huge amount of respect for those who lived and died in the siege of Leningrad. The purpose of the blockade of Leningrad wasn't to take the city, it was to destroy it, and to murder the entire population - scarred by such brutality and governed by an evil dictator, nothing could ever be quite the same again; but Leningrad resurrected itself - Shostakovich would write a symphony for it, the Kirov Ballet School would produce Nureyev and Baryshnikov, there would be chess grandmasters, a Nobel prize winning poet, and a cosmonaut. This book is all about the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst that can be thrown at it, and the survival of a great city through the will of its people.


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