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The Siege

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Naval Staff

Sk1 Ia 1601 / 41 g.Kdos. Chefs.
29 Sep. 1941
Re: The future of Leningrad

…The Fuehrer had decided to have Leningrad wiped from the
face of the earth. The further existence of this large town is of
no interest once Soviet Russia is overthrown. Finland has also
similarly declared no interest in the continued existence of the
city directly on her new frontier.

The original demands of the Navy that the shipyard, harbor, and
other installations vital to the Navy may be preserved are known to
the Armed Forces High Command, but in view of the basic principles
underlying the operation against Leningrad it is not possible to
comply with them.

The intention is to close in on the city and blast it to the ground
by bombardments of artillery of all calibers and by continuous air

Requests that the city may be handed over, arising from the
situation within, will be turned down, for the problem of the
survival of the population and of supplying it with food is one
which cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for
existence, we have no interest in keeping even part of this great
city's population…

Naval staff

[From the Fuehrer Directives and other top-level directives
of the German armed forces, 1939-1941. The original US army
translation form the German is held in the Naval War College,
Newport, R.I., USA.

With thanks to the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt,
Potsdam, Germany.]


It’s half past ten in the evening, but the light of day
still glows through the lime leaves. They are so green that they
look like a hallucination of the summer everyone had almost given
up expecting. When you touch them, they are fresh and tender.
It’s like touching a baby’s skin.

Such a late spring, murky and doubtful, clinging to winter’s
skirts. But this is how it is here in Leningrad. Under the trees
around the Admiralty, lakes of spongy ice turned grey. There was
slush everywhere, and a raw, dirty wind of the Neva. There was a
frost, a thaw, another frost.

Month after month ice-fisherman crouched by the holes they’d
drilled in the ice, sitting out the winter, heads hunched into
shoulders. And then, just when it seemed as if summer would forget
about Leningrad this year, everything changed. Ice broke loose form
the compacted mass around the Strelka. Seagulls preened on the
floes as the currents swept them under bridges, and down the
widening Neva to the sea. The river ran full and fast, with fresh
wind tossing up waves so bright they stung your eyes. Everything
that was rigid was crumbling, breaking away, floating.

People leaned on the parapets of the Dvortsovy Bridge, watching the
ice-floes rock as they passed under the arch. Their winter world
was being destroyed. They wanted spring, of course they wanted it,
more than anything. They longed for sun with every pore of their

But spring hurts. If spring can come, if things can be different,
how can you bear what your existence has been?

These are hard times. You can’t trust anyone, not even
yourself. Frightened men and women scuttling in the dusty wind.
Peter’s great buildings hang over them, crushingly
magnificent. In times like these the roads are too wide. How long
it takes you to fight your way across Peter’s squares, and
how visible you become. Yes, you’re a target, and you
don’t know who’s watching. So many disappearances, so
much fear. Black vans cruise the streets. You listen for the note
of their engines, and your heart pumps until it chokes you as the
van slows. But it passes this time, and halts at the doorway to
another courtyard, where you don’t live. You hear the van
doors clang and the sweat of relief soaks you, shamefully. Some
other poor bastard is in the van this time.

Spring stripped everything bare. It showed the grey and weary skin
of everyone over thirty. It lit up lips set in suffering, with
wrinkles pulling sharply at the corners of the mouth.

But the lime trees’ bare branches were spiked by the glitter
of sunlight and birdsong. The birds had no doubts at all. They sang
out loudly and certainly into the still-frozen world. They knew
that winter was on the move.

Now it’s June, and night is brief as the brush of a wing,
only an hour of yellow stars in a sky that never darkens beyond
deep, tender blue.

No one sleeps. Crowds surge out of cafes and wander the streets,
not caring where they go as long as they can lift their faces and
drink the light. It’s been dark for so many months.

A line of young men, arm in arm, drunk, stern with the effort of
keeping on their feet, sways on the corner of Universitetskaya
Embankment and Lieutenant Schmidt’s bridge. They won’t
go home. They can’t bear to be apart from one another.
They’ll walk, that’s what they’ll do, from one
end of the city to another, from island to island, across stone
bridges and shining water.

These are the nights that seal each generation of Leningraders to
their city. These nights are their baptism. The summer light will
flood every grain of Leningrad stone, as it floods from every cell
of their own bodies. At three o’clock in the morning, in full
sun, they’ll find themselves in some backstreet of little
wooden houses, miles from anywhere. There’ll be a cat licking
its paws in a doorway, a lime tree with electric-green leaves
hanging over a high wooden fence, and an old woman slowly making
her way down the street with a little bunch of jasmine pinned to
her jacket. Each flower will be as white and distinct as a star
against the shabby grey. And she’ll smile at the young men as
if she’s their grandmother. She won’t disapprove of
their drunkenness, their shouting and singing. She’ll
understand exactly how they feel.

However old you are, you can’t stay indoors on a night like
this. It stirs again, the promise and recklessness of white nights.
Peter’s icy, blood-sodden marshes bear up the city like a
swan. The swan’s wings are still folded, but they are
trembling in the summer light, stirring, and getting ready to fly.
Darkness scarcely touches them.

The wind breathes softly. Water laps under the midnight bridges.
And suddenly you know that there’s no greater possible
happiness than to be here, even when you’re so old
you’re beyond walking. You lean out of your apartment window,
with stiff joints and fading strength, over the city that will
outlive you.

But Anna is not in Leningrad tonight. She’s out in the
country, at the dacha, alone with her father and Kolya. She
doesn’t belong in the crowd of students celebrating the end
of their examinations. She doesn’t share their jokes any
more, or know which books everyone’s reading. Hers is a
daylight city of trams packed with overworked mothers, racing from
work to food queue to kitchen and back again.

The white nights rouse up too many longings. Anna has a duty to
crush them. She has five-year-old Kolya, her job at the nursery,
and her responsibilities. It’s no good letting herself dream
of student life. She’ll never have long days in a studio,
mind and body trained on the movement of a hand across paper.
It’s no good remembering what it was like to be seventeen,
only six years ago, with graduation from school a year ahead of
her, and a crowd of friends round the table at the Europe, packed
together, laughing and talking so loudly that you could hardly hear
what anyone said. The words didn’t matter. The noise of the
happiness was what mattered, and the warmth of someone else’s
arm pressed against yours. There was a smell of sunburnt skin,
coffee, cigarettes and marigolds.

Don’t think about all that. She’s in the dacha, leaning
out of the window and resting her elbows on warm, silver-grey wood.
It's very quiet. Behind her, Kolya sleeps in his cot-bed. They have
a bedroom divided in two by a plywood partition. One half for her
father, the other for Anna and Kolya. Downstairs, the living-room
opens on to the verandah. Every sound echoes in the dacha's wooden

But to have a dacha at all is a luxury. There's no chance or her
father ever qualifying for a dacha at the writers' colony, but they
have held on to this little place, which once belonged to Anna's
grandmother. They come here whenever they can in summer, when the
city's airless and full of dust. Anna bikes in, on the precious,
battered bike that was her mother's, with Kolya tied to his seat
behind her.

Anna does most of the cooking outside on the verandah. She chops
onions, kneads pastry for meat pies, peels potatoes, prepares
sausage. She even makes jam outside, on the little oil-stove.

All through each summer Anna builds up stores for the winter. She
gives grammar and handwriting lessons to the Sokolov children at
the farm, in exchange for honey, jars of goose-fat, and goat's
cheese. She dries mushrooms, and makes jams and jellies for the
fruit she and Kolya pick. Lingonberries, blueberries, raspberries,
blackberries, wild strawberries. She buys a drink made from
fermented birch sap, which is packed with vitamins and said to be
particularly good for asthmatic children like Kolya. Then there are
red cabbages to be pickled, onions to be tied into strings, garlic
to be plaited, beans to be preserved in brine, potatoes to be
brushed free of earth, sorted, then brought back to the apartment
sack by sack, strapped to the back of her bike. You have to be
careful with potatoes, because they bruise more easily than you
think, and then they won't keep.

Anna doesn't know how she'd have got them through the last two
winters without produce from the dacha. Not only are there food
shortages all the time, but her father can't get his work
published. He survives by translating, but even that might dry up.
Editors have got their own families to consider. Her father's near
perfect French and German are dangerous assets now. He can't help
speaking like someone who has spent time abroad. A year in
Heidelberg in 1912, a summer in Lausanne. He could be pulled in for
questioning as an individual with foreign contacts'.

Her father wanted to take it lightly, the first time one of his
stories was rejected. He was asked to appear in front of a magazine
committee, where the shortcomings of his story were explained to
him. They told him that his tone was pessimistic. He had failed to
take on board and reflect on his work the principles drawn from
Stalin's speech of the first of December 1953: 'Life has become
better, comrades, life has become more cheerful.'

'And yet in your story, Mikhail Ilyich, there is no sense that any
of the characters are making headway! Publication of this would do
nothing to advance your reputation. In fact, it would damage

'Frankly, we were surprised that you submitted it, Mikhail Ilyich,'
said the chairman of the committee. 'We try to be understanding,
but really in this case it's impossible, as I'm sure you'll agree.'
And be chucked the manuscript face-down on the table, lightly,
pityingly, humorously, just as he would have done if a schoolboy
had submitted his outpourings to a top literary magazine, and
expected to get them published. 'No, we can't have this kind of

He twinkled at Mikhail, begging him to see the joke. Other members
of the committee looked down at their blotters, or played with
their pens. Their faces were dark with the resentment we feel
towards those we are about to injure.

Mikhail looked at the familiar faces. A flush of hot blood ran
under his skin. Was the shame in himself, standing there with his
unwanted manuscript, unable to accept the criticism of his
contemporaries? The room itself seemed washed with shame. Even his
story was stained with it.

'No,' he muttered, 'I should never have brought it here.'

'Ex-actly so,' said the chairman, rising. 'But allow me to say,
dear Mikhail Ilyich, that I've always been an admirer of your work.
All you need is a little --- ' his fingers sketched adjustments ---
'a little less gloom and doom. That's not what people want these
days. That's not what we’re here to do.'

He smiled, showing white, strong teeth in healthy gums. The room
pricked with agreement. The room knew what was wanted these

Mikhail continued to submit his stories, which were always
rejected. One evening a colleague from the Writers' Union appeared
at the apartment.

'Don't send anything else in just now. It's for your own good,
Mikhail Ilyich.'

"I'm writing as I've always written.'

"Yes, that's it, that's exactly it. Do you really not see? We all
have to make adjustments.'

'They are good stories.'

'For God's sake, what has that got to do with anything?'

On his way out, he paused. He was waiting for something, but
Mikhail couldn't think what. After the man had gone, it dawned. He
expected to be thanked. He'd taken a risk. He'd tried to help. Not
may did that these days, because it was too dangerous. Each person
taken in for questioning could drag a hundred more down. 'Who
was in the room with you when this occurred? Their names. Write
them here.'

'Better put it in the drawer,' Anna's father would say, as he
typed out the final draft of a new story. His fingers pecked at the
keys. He had never learned to type properly. When Vera was alive,
she typed for him. 'Let the drawer read it. Well, here we are,
Anna, I'm back to my youth again, pouring out rubbish that nobody
wants to print. People pay thousands for rejuvenation treatments,
don't they? I could sell my secret.'

His attempts at humour make her wince. All this is changing him,
month by month. It's scouring him out from the inside. He even
walks differently. Anna can't think what it all reminds her of,
then one day she's at work and she sees little Seryozha hide behind
the binds as a gang of big boys charges around the playground,
windmilling their arms, bellowing, knocking into everyone. They're
the gang. They're the ones who count. Seryozha shrinks against the

In the nursery, you can sort it out. You can break up the gang. You
can put your arm around Seryozha. There, in her little world within
a world, things still make sense. But then out comes her boss,
Elizaveta Antonovna, with the latest directives in her hand. Her
eyes are fixed to the text. She has got to take the correct line.
She must not make an error.

Elizaveta Antonovna doesn't even see the children. She's
frightened, too. The bosses are all frightened now. How should she
interpret the directive? If she gets it wrong, who will inform on

Anna's father still goes to the Writers' House on Ulitsa Voinova,
but not very often, although as a member of the Union of Soviet
Writers he's entitled to eat there every day. 'I don't feel like it
today, Anna,' he says. 'And besides, I've got to rewrite these last
two pages.'

He had a dream one night. He dreamed he was lying in bed and
someone clamped a hand over his mouth and nose. A firm, fleshy,
well-fed hand. The fingers were thick and greasy. They squeezed his
nostrils until he couldn't breathe.

'What did you do?'

'I twisted my head from side to side to try and shake him off, but
he pressed harder. And then I --- '


"I bit his hand. I could taste his blood.'

'Whose hand was it?'

And then his whisper, in the frightened room that held only the two
of them: 'Koba's.'

Anna didn’t answer. She knew there was more.

'And then I woke up. I looked in the mirror and there were marks on
my face. Dirty fingerprints. I tried to wipe them off but they
wouldn't come off. I filled a basin with water and dipped my head
into it and when I looked in the mirror my face was streaming with
water, but the marks were still there.'

He looks at her. She half-expects to see the fingerprints rise to
the surface of his skin and show themselves. But there's nothing.
'It was a dream, that's all.'

'I know that.' He raps it out. There she goes again, stating the
obvious, not thinking before she speaks.

'A nightmare,' says Anna.

'Don't shut the door.'

'No, I'll leave it open.'

Her father has always been afraid of a shut door. He was afraid of
getting trapped in a lift, that was wahy he always took the stairs.
When they went to the cinema he had to sit near the exit.

Her father's income is down to a fifth of what is was three years
ago. Each summer Anna has increased her vegetable plot at the
dacha. She's dug up all the flowerbeds now, except for her mother's
three rose-bushes.

Three rose-trees, bearing dark-red, velvety roses which open
helplessly wide and spread out their perfume. Before winter her
mother packed straw around them, then sacking, and bound it with
twine. Anna can see her now: the quick, expert fingers, the way she
brushed soil off her knees as she stood up. There, it was done for
the winter. Strange, how easy it is to remember her doing that, and
yet there are long, black patches when it seems as if she never
lived at all.

But she lived. Remember it.

Excerpted from THE SIEGE © Copyright 2002 by Helen
Dunmore. Reprinted with permission by Grove Press. All rights

The Siege
by by Helen Dunmore