This post is the second in our Urbanography series of book reviews about cities.
One might ask, why I am including this authoritative book written by Harrison E. Salisbury about the destructive and lethal siege of Leningrad during World War II? My answer is four-fold:
- The book describes in unambiguous detail the horrific events that took place during the war, which should never be forgotten or minimized; and
- It clearly describes the heroism, steadfastness, and fortitude of the citizens and defenders of greater Leningrad. The true strength of character of a community can most often be observed in times of peril; and
- The book gives valuable insight into the City of Leningrad, its history, its culture, and its design; and
- Rebuilding a city almost entirely destroyed by warfare is the ultimate revitalization story.
To Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the taking of Leningrad was among the key goals of Operation Barbarossa. In June of 1941, Hitler defied the very peace treaty he had made with Josef Stalin and set out a three-prong attack to wipeout the Soviet Union. The northernmost of these three prongs was aimed right at Leningrad.
The Soviet Union’s key port on the Baltic Sea, Leningrad (originally and once again St. Petersburg) was built on the marshy delta of the Neva River by Peter the Great. Also situated on the Karelian Isthmus between the Baltic and Lake Ladoga, Leningrad is located in an extremely strategic position, geographically.
Mr. Salisbury describes in vivid detail the events that led up to the siege, the battle and siege of Leningrad itself, and the struggle for survival the befell the residents and defenders of this great Baltic seaport and former capital city. For, without a single narrow, tenuous, lifeline across the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga, Leningrad would have surely fallen to the Nazis potentially beginning a domino effect across the other eastern frontiers.
As an American our understanding of World War II has largely been shaped by the battles, activities, and events fought by our armed forces. We are very familiar with Pearl Harbor, Midway, Iwo Jima, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge. Sadly, far too many Americans are not familiar with the incredible sacrifices made by those fighting and living on the eastern front. Low-end estimates say more than 20 million Russians perished during World War II – that is 40 times as many as Americans whom died. In Leningrad alone, nearly half of the city’s three million residents died during the battle and subsequent siege, with most succumbing to starvation.
If there is a single book that could be read by Americans that best illustrates the viciousness and complexity of World War II on the eastern front, it is The 900 Days. It is a long read, very well-researched and written, and immensely heartbreaking to digest or even ponder the sorrowful tragedies that occurred in this historic and architecturally beautiful city over a two and one-half year period in the mid-20th Century. I highly recommend it.
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