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on 1 September 2008
What puts this book apart from the existing literature on the subject, is the extent to which the author seeks to go beyond writing a straightforward account of the suffering of the population during the siege (horrendous though that suffering was). Instead, Michael Jones writes evocatively about the mindset of the German besiegers and reveals in great detail the ineptitude of the Russian authorities. He also charts the inhuman depths that some people within the besieged city sunk to in order to survive. Drawing from a huge number of original and authoritative secondary sources Michael gives a very readable account of this black period in the history of Russia. I thoroughly recommend this book and would place it above Salisbury's 'The 900 Days' as the definitive account of this titanic struggle.
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on 8 March 2017
This is the most dramatic war history that I have ever read and the best written. The overwhelming German advance, the tragic story of the siege experiences of the Leningraders - you are led on through these to the drama of the final Russian strategy leading to the lifting of the siege. Jones's book is just right on military details and has maps perfect for each stage of the history. Both these aspects are in contrast to Beevor's books two of which I have read (Stalingrad and Battle of the Bulge) - sorry now I did not read Jones on Stalingrad instead.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 February 2010
I have read a few books on Leningrad and I would state categorically that this is the best of the bunch. Mr Jones really fleshes out both the military and the civilian experience that made up the longest siege. It is the humanity of Mr Jones writing that makes this book - and his others on the Eastern Front: Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed (Pen & Sword Military) and The Retreat: Hitler's First Defeat - stand out from the crowd. A great book that adds a new dimension to a siege largely ignored in the West.
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on 14 June 2008
This book is not an easy read, but one that needed to be written, especially considering all the new literature out there in both English and Russian about the siege. This work then brings together accounts from dozens of sources and interviews to tell an altogether harrowing tale of how millions trapped within Leningrad had to struggle to survive. One of the main points this book will try to address, as Jones did in his previous book on Stalingrad, is how the citizens and soldiers of this city managed to survive and eventually defeat their German opponents. The psychological angle is one that is not often presented as being important. Usually, weapons, commanders, and numbers are glorified or blamed by one side or the other. Here, we have that idea of 'morale' being given center stage, as well as seeing what it is capable of achieving.

Very interesting descriptions are given in regards to when Zhukov took over control of the North Western Front from Voroshilov. On September 11th, 1941, Zhukov assumed command and soon after the 4th Panzer Group was taken out of the area and switched over in preparation for Operation Typhoon, which would throw it against the defenders of Moscow. Zhukov, apparently, couldn't be convinced by those around him that the Germans were digging in around Leningrad and further offensive actions were being discontinued. The end result was a series of needless offensives by Red Army troops in the Oranienbaum bridgehead and around Leningrad which needlessly wasted lives. When a commander refused to obey, in one instance, he was 'sacked' and his replacement was given the same orders. At another part of the front a marine landing unit of 200 men was sent against their target in broad daylight, they were picked off in the water by the Germans and only 14 managed to reach the shoreline (pg. 117). The actions on the Nevsky bridgehead are quite telling of the time and desperation the Red Army found itself in. Units of the 54th Army, under Kulik, were a mere 9 miles away from the Nevsky bridgehead, which if broken through to would have created a corridor to besieged Leningrad. As Kulik's forces could not break through, it appears that Zhukov tried his hardest from the other side. He threw unit after unit into action, trying to break through to the 'main land'. Divisions were ground down to mere hundreds of men and, at least one marine brigade, simply ceased to exist. This seems to ring quite true with what I am familiar with in regards to Zhukov. He seems to be more than willing to sacrifice ten thousand or twenty thousand men if it means saving millions. On the 21st of November, Zhdanov, after taking over when Zhukov left to help defend Moscow, ordered Colonel Ivan Frolov and his 80th Rifle Division into battle with exhausted soldiers who were short on ammunition. Frolov refused to issue the orders and was replaced by another commander who would send his men into a frontal assault over an open expanse of a frozen lake, "the men were mown down in their thousands" (pg. 140). In the end Zhdanov needed a scapegoat and Frolov, along with the divisional commissar, who was also dismissed, were brought in front of a military tribunal. Both were found guilty of "cowardice and criminal negligence that resulted in the failure of the operation" and were shot on December 3rd.

The chapters the author devotes to the people living and suffering in Leningrad will gnaw at your heart. The elderly, women and children slowly lost their sanity as hunger began to take its toll on them. In the midst of all that suffering, they still endured constant German artillery bombardments. Yet, there was still hope. In one instance, during a bombing of the city, violinists are trapped in a shelter with civilians. In the middle of explosions one begins to play his violin and, miraculously, no longer are the deafening noises the only thing those trapped in the shelter can think about, the terror that had gripped them all was somehow transported outside their bodies, and the powerful music, was all they could concentrate on. Another account portrays a woman pulling her double bass through the snow on a sled, trying to make it to a hospital for a concert recital. Behind the sled, pushing, was her young child.

Disturbing are the scenes of cannibalism and dead bodies in the streets missing limbs or simply the meat from their bones. While the civilian administration and those with high status seemed to be well fed, the rest of Leningrad, suffered and died by the thousands during that first winter of 1941/1942. While cannibalism might have been heard about via rumors during the siege, I believe this book shows more than enough evidence that it was at times an all too common phenomenon. The suppression by the government and local administrators of what the siege did to the people and the city was enlightening, I had never really encountered such information before. One would think the government would use this cruelty, on the part of the Germans, to their advantage and their people's suffering to its greatest effect on the population, but apparently talk of it was forbidden. I can only guess that such full disclosure would cause the citizens of the Soviet Union to question their government in ways which were not wanted. One story which I ran across, and have read before (in Bellamy's "Absolute War") was in regards to "The Rebel" which was leaving leaflets, trying to incite the population against the Soviet leadership, and sending letters to Zhdanov, etc. The resources poured into investigating this one man were enormous, tens of thousands of people were interviewed and their hand writing was compared to try to find the culprit. The author feels this was a waste of resources considering what the city was going through, I'd have to agree on one hand. On the other, it seems the perpetrator had to be found and, as the NKVD had been known to do, any person could have been hauled off the street and put in prison or killed for the offense (a confession could have been beaten out of them, etc) but instead the authorities tried their best to actually find the guilty party.

The majority of the stories told here, be they from the military or civilian population, will make you think twice about what it might take to survive an event like this. Words can't begin to describe what these people endured and overcome. What kind of will power and stamina it takes to stand in line for hours trying to get food, to lead a normal life and go to work everyday as people slowly die in front of your eyes. How much can one endure as death becomes a constant companion on each trip to visit a loved one, a friend, or a co-worker and check up on how they are doing? Many times civilians would walk along the street only to see someone in front of them slowly fall to the ground and lay there without the strength to even ask for help. I found myself having to reread passages dozens of times, the meaning of these words and what they represented just couldn't sink in. How humanity is capable of such cruelty and indifference and yet such love and devotion baffles the mind.
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on 3 March 2011
I have been looking for a book on the seige of Leningrad for sometime and came across this gem on Amazon. This book is brilliant. The author has done a wonderful job of bringing together the full story, looking at the military operations and mistakes, the baseness of the leaders of Leningrad and, most startling of all, the strength of spirit of the ordinary Leningrad citizens.

Michael Jones starts the book with a concise overview of the start of the war, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and the launch of Operation Barbarossa. He then looks in detail at how the military supremacy of the Wehrmacht, coupled with the military inadequacy of the Soviets, led to the city of Leningrad being cut off and under seige. This part of the book is beautifully done, the narrative is intelligent and concise, but does not assume the reader is an authority on the subject. It is obvious from the way he writes that he cares deeply about telling the full story and he shows no obvious bias to either side.

The book then moves onto the story of the citizens living under the seige. He uses accounts from diaries kept by the citizens and soldiers, interviews with survivors and accounts from the German side. He brings them together beautifully, keeping together the concise lucidity that he started the book with. It is here that the author, very sensibly, lets the stories unfold naturally, he does not try to raise emotion in the reader, but lets the stories invoke the emotions naturally, and trust me, the emotions will come quickly enough.

The stories of the ordinary citizen are just dreadful, the hardship they had to endure was incredible. The severely reduced rations, no heat, light or water and the constant German bombardment are enough to send a chill down the spine. Reading this book made me hurt for these people. The constant threat of disease, or violence - as ration cards or worse still rations were stolen must have been horrific. The author touches several times on the subject of cannabilism and the black market and these pieces are tough to read. It is also dreadful to read how clinical the Nazi's were about the starvation of an entire city. The author does divulge in the book that the Nazis never planned to take the city by force, but decided to starve the city into submission. However, the author does show (and more plentifully than you would imagine) the goodness and strength of the inhabitants. How they pulled together, continued to study, to form groups for support, continued to play music (the part about Shotakovich's 7th Symphony moved me to tears) and to keep engaging with each other and with the Soviet soldiers stationed in the city shows the incredible strength of the human spirit.

For me however, one of the most sickening facts of the entire book is how Zhadnov and his cronies (also known collectively as the leaders of Leningrad) did not go without food, heat or light and completely ignored the plight of their fellow countrymen dying every day by the thousands. It is incredibly to think that Stalin's cronies could be so callous, but they were. Worse still, is the fact that their poor leadership and organisation heaped even more misery onto the Leningraders once the seige started. As just one example, they were supposed to move the food stores for the city out of the main warehouse and distribute it to several different locations around the city, their failure to do this meant that one of the first targets was the main food warehouse which was destroyed in the first few days of the siege.

Overall this is an excellent book, it is informative, well written and comprehensive. The author cares deeply about this subject and it shows. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and would urge everyone to read it. I strongly believe that not enough credit is given to the Soviet people for the strength in standing against the Nazis, and I also believe that without them the war may very well have not gone our way. This book helps people to understand that the Soviet citizens paid a very high price for standing up to the Nazis. (Please note I do not say Soviet Leaders as they were a completely useless and brutal group who caused a great deal of the suffering of their own people). Read this book, you won't be disappointed.
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on 7 August 2011

Breaks the taboo of hunger and cannibalism during the Leningrad siege. The issue of cannibalism being uncomfortable, a blind eye is generally turned on it. However, in this book, you get a glimpse of, basically widespread cannibalism verging on horror, with cannibal-hunters preying the weakest i.e. children and women, but not only. In one related episode a girl, Vera Rogova, weakened by hunger, imprudently takes a shortcut that day, but is still on her guard, and suddenly feels, when going through a corridor, that she is really crossing the hunting grounds of a cannibal-hunter, who indeed gives hunt; at the climax, she is pursued by the hunter, with an axe, true horror, ... when shell falls into a group of Red Army soldiers, her salvation.

The military campaign leading to the encirclement of Leningrad is well told, and the ideological background too. In the Nazi mythology this was a war to annihilate the Slavic jew-bolshevik sub-humans, so it makes complete sense, within the ideology, to lay out siege and wipe out by hunger, efficiently, the entire population of the cradle of the bolshevik revolution.

Idem for Govorov's offensive, that broke the encirclement of the town.


The book is to a some extend boring.

It bashes endlessly Voroshilov for the initial defense of Leningrad, and Zdanov too (who was in charge of the administration of the town, and, after Voroshilov's dismissal, of its defense up to Govorov's appointment). The author has evidently a point with Voroshilov, a Stalin cronie. Voroshilov was fighting the last war, and shown himself incapable to adapt to the modern mechanized war of the blitzkrieg, multiplying errors. Zdanov, a civilian, also did mistakes, such as with the food warehouses of the town (the food was just left there, an easy target fot the Luftwaffe). Zhukov is also criticized, for being "ruthless".

To me, this bashing takes an ideological turn, to the point where the Soviet Authorities may seem to take the primarily guilt for the fate of the town, and one sometimes forget there was a siege being laid by a formidable force, the German WWII army. For one, Voroshilov, for all his incompetence, fairly represents those soldiers that keep fighting the last war, like Gamelin in France. It is a matter of technical incompetence, not of ideology, one can argue. As for Zdanov, he and his administration are constantly bashed since the administration staff was better or even, at the top, very well fed. I do not see it as surprising that, in a besieged town, the administration and the army would be better fed than the rest, but it all turns down, almost, as if the Soviet Authorities were cunningly participating in the massive starvation of the city. I see also as ideological the repetitive labeling of Zhukov as "ruthless", he had to be so in such a war, it is besides the point, I would argue.

In conclusion, what appears to me as an ideological mindset plus the highly fragmented, repetitive, nature of the testimonials end up turning substantial parts of the book boring, and I honestly had trouble to finish it. It is a pity since the author has two very good books on the WWII Russian war, 'The Retreat' and 'Stalingrad'.
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on 15 January 2011
The common people of Leningrad -formerly St. Petersburg when the Germans and their allies commenced their invasion of the former Soviet Union on June 22, 1941- endured a 900 day siege in conditions of both enforced and willed deprivation before German forces were driven back and the course of the post-war world was indirectly formulated. As with so many things in life -and indeed death- the devil of that situation is in the detail, and Michael Jones, a military historian with a particular interest in battle psychology, is as effective a dealer in that detail as the reader could wish to encounter.

Quite rightly he largely ignores the propaganda surrounding the story -not for him are the stories of superhuman courage and the prevailing of collective will on the Soviet side to be taken at face value- and instead concentrates on the human aspect, which in view of how difficult it was for the besieged to retain any humanity at all reminds us of something deeply ingrained in all of us, indeed something which is indicative of a collectivity far greater than any that could be forged by means political or otherwise.

It's because of this that I've referred to deprivation both enforced and willed above. The enforced aspect stemmed of course from the German will for the city to be reduced by design, in a quasi-scientific fashion, the `art of war' swathed in a veil of cold calculation. The willed aspect came from the willingness of a city and Communist party hierarchy which was well provided for throughout the siege's duration. Mired in venality and corruption in both cases and probably only too appreciative of the fact that the old Tsarist elites had simply been replaced by themselves, it was to these favoured individuals that the task fell of portraying the siege and its lifting as a triumph of collective will the like of which they were unable to grasp. Thus the likes of Andrei Zhdanov, for whom there was no such thing as too many executions in the name of party loyalty, and Lidiya Tager, ballet school director and wife of the head of provisions for the entire Leningrad front, emerge as characters from a comic opera the blackness of which would have guaranteed that it never got past the censor.

But ultimately no heroes emerge at all, not in the widely understood sense of the term. Instead the reader encounters -and this is entirely down to Jones's skill at handling his material- a score or more of individuals who managed to cling to something human in face of the ravages of starvation, extreme material and spiritual deprivation, and cannibalism. Amongst their number are people who were no more than children at the time, which perhaps more than anything else is indicative of what it means to be human.

In our superficial, seemingly fame-obsessed world this book is thus on one level essential reading.
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on 13 July 2009
Such a very moving, disturbing, revealing and faith-strengening history.

At times the suffering tears at your heart, and the cruelty in the mind of the enemy leadership is beyond humanity. Th epiologue is particularly poignant where, after the war, the now grown up young russian girl goes to Berlin to take the elderly German veterans of the besieging army on a tour of her art work. She receives a weeping apology from a veteran :- "We tried to destroy you - we destroyed ourselves as human beings. On behalf of all of us, we ask your forgiveness" . No such apology was ever offered by the fiendishly corrupt and well-fed city administrators who ignored so callously the suffering of their people.
It reveals so vividly the monstrous nature of all war.
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on 29 August 2017
Graphic tale of evil in the human race!
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on 26 December 2009
I have read many books this year and can honestly say that this is one of the best. At the end I just said to myself "Wow". Not one chapter was dull. Military details were comprehensively and intelligently presented but only as much as necessary as a backdrop to the staggering ordeal that the city's inhabitants went through. I was in turn saddened, sickened, and outraged by the behaviour not only of the aggressors and the profoundly evil strategy to starve the city out of existence purely because of its status as the symbolic birthplace of Bolshevism but also by the ruthless and cynical behaviour of the Russian authorities towards its own citizens, Granted, Stalin was preoccupied with the struggle for Stalingrad, but nonetheless his disregard for the actual lives of his people is astounding. At the other extreme, I was uplifted and humbled at times by the heroic and selfless endeavours amongst the long suffering population. I was moved to tears by the description of the orchestras performance in the frozen theatre towards the end and was left wondering about the remarkable nature of the human spirit in times of great adversity. I read many non-fiction works and for me this work would go down as a beacon of excellence in its genre.
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