My first impression of this episode was that it looked to be a virtual repeat of that one two weeks previously about Stalingrad. Once more we were looking at a lengthy German seige of a Russian city, this time of Leningrad, the former St Petersburg, then Petrograd: Peter’s city become Lenin’s city, the second city of Russia, it’s historically long term access to the seas of the West. But though the parallels were there, the two seiges in the end had different purposes and their raising different effects.
So much of this episode, its causes, its effects, the psychological attitudes it created or perhaps merely only exacerbated, had their resonance in the current era, and Russia’s crass and hateful invasion of Ukraine. So many themes were perceivable in the events of this near two-year phase of the War that ordering them in a coherent manner seems extremely difficult. Perhaps it might be easier to summarise the chronology first.
The episode made two points very early on. The first was simple and direct: Russia suffered the most from the Second World War. We all know that who know anything of the War in its totality and not just the aggressive jingoism of the right wing Press. The number was stark: more Russians died in the defence of Leningrad than in the entire British and American War effort in every theatre. This was amplified at the end, as Russian started to push the invader back towards Germany, a deeply affecting poem about death leading to the plain statement that 20,000,000 had died. By then we had seen enough dead bodies, and people finding them andwomen weeping over them and cradling them, that each of the 20,000,000 had become human beings and not merely a mass of numbers.
The other point was less direct but no less valid in our present world. Hitler wanted to eradicate Russia, not just as an Empire, but as a country and even as a concept. It wasn’t just his hatred of communists and Jews, who were to be eliminated, it wasn’t the semi-legendary push for lebensraum, the idea of Germany becoming a self-sustaining nation once it had taken over the industries, the oil-fields and grainfields of Ukraine et al, it was the very idea of Russia as a nation of human beings. The cities were to be razed to the ground, the people subjugated, reduced to servants at best, the very idea of their being human dismissed. Had he succeeded, even the memory of Russia would have been destroyed, to the extent that some future Heinrich Schliemann would have fund it impossible to rediscover it.
This is not, under any circumstances, to be taken as any condoning of the actions of Vladimir Putin in invading Ukraine this year, but from the outset of this episode, and throughout it, the idea that Russia has reasons to fear the West, and to suspect it of wishing to destroy it was inescapable. These things happened only eighty years ago, and the extent of what Russia was put through then could only create a deep psychological paranoia that would hardly dissipate in so little a time. One of the tropes Dennis Wheatley would repeat from book to book was that ‘to understand all is to forgiveall’. Like so much else in the mad old buffer’s work, that’s bullshit. This episode gave me greater understanding of the Russian mentality towards the West, more so than living all my life in the West has done, but I still loathe Putin and all his works.
The actual story in this episode was extremely simple. When Germany invaded from the West, seizing the industrial and agricultural heart of the Soviet Union, the country could not defend itself. Instead, in an astonishing and incomparable manoeuvre, it retreated, tilting the earth so that populations, machinery and factories simply removed further inwards, out of German reach, scorching the earth behind it. From there, it set itself to the biggest, most sustained, most determined programme of militarisation, as if the country was of one mind and that set in hatred og the Germans and intent in seeing them forced back to their own lands.
Of course it must always be remembered that not one inch of the footage we could see from inside the Soviet Union over all this period can be taken at face value. It is, by any definition, propaganda from start to finish, and Stalin was one of the most terrifyingly absolute of rulers during the War, and before and after. Everything has to be taken with lashings of salt, but given the series’ adherence to high standards of objective reporting, and given its own honest references to the issue, I felt confident that what I was seeing did represent a broadly accurate account of the period.
The episode concentrated upon the seige of Leningrad, even though Hitler’s first priority was Moscow, and more men and resources were devoted to that attack. We saw something of this, later on in the episode, but the Moscow front did not assume any real prominence until towards the end. We saw much more of Leningrad, totally surrounded by Germans and Finns, cut off by land on all sides, its only communications and supplies possible by crossing Lake Lagoda to its immediate east. The Lake and the boats that could cross it were inadequate for the citry’s needs, just as the Arctic convoys sent by Britain were inadequate for Russia’s needs. Perhaps not ironically, Lake Lagoda’s access to supplies improved when the Lake froze over in the winter of 1942.
In the beginning, I wondered as I had done about how the Germans couldn’t destroy the city, the same as with Stalingrad. The bombardment, the shelling, the daily destruction, the reduction to starvation resources. How could the city hold out in nthe face of all this, the more so because Germany’s supply lines to Leningrad were far shorter than those to Stalingrad, away down on the Volga. But the city survived, and eventually was relieved, for the same reason: sheer iron determination not to be defeated, whatever the circumstances. Hitler had intended to destroy the very idea of Russia. In the end, to have achieved his goal, he found he would have had to literally kill every single person who called themselves Russian. Even through the propaganda effect, the sheer superhuman determination was awesome.
In the end, the Russian mobilisation, and its ability to call upon men from beyond the range of German reach told. Stalingrad was relieved, in timeto encourage the armies looking to lift Leningrad’s seige. Further south, Germany planned a pincer movement to cut off the Kursk ‘bulge’, and capture three Russian armies, as they had done earlier in the War. |Eliminating the ‘Bulge’ and its defences would open up the road to Moscow, along which overwhelming numbers would pour. But the Russians were ready, and knew the plans. The Germans pentrated ten miles in from the north and twernty from the south but their armies never came close to meeting, and they weee quickly and definitively pushed back. Hitler authorised a retreat. The War was lost.
This was the story of two years or so of the War, in the East. We’ve had two episodes of Russia in quick succession, because at that stage of the War, the Eastern Front was practically the only active theatre in Europe. The British had been dismissed from the Continent in 1940 and were not in a position to return for years thereafter. Here was another basis for anti-West prejudice in Russia. As far as they were concerned, they were doing all the fighting, they were doing all the dying, and their Allies were standing around, taking none of the grunt. Stalin wanted a Second Front, to accelerate German defeat, to reduce the pressure on his country, and he complained when he didn’t get it, and wouldn’t believe the West when it said it was in no position to invade Europe. Britain was not idle, nor playing a game of letting Russia bleed itself into weakness. It was fighting in North Africa, and in the jungles out east, beyond the Soviet Union. But from Russia’s perspective, it looked different.
In so many ways, this episode was about why the world is the way it is today. But it is a much-needed reminder of why, if it had not been for the Soviet Union, little or none of what we have in 2022 would ever have existed.
Midway through the episode a poem was read, which moved me greatly. Though it was not credited, I found it easily online, and give it below. It was written by Konstantin Simonov, in 1941.
Wait for me and I’ll come back!
Wait with all your might!
Wait when dreary yellow rains
Tell you nothing’s right;
Wait when snow is falling fast;
Wait when summer’s hot;
When no one waits for other men
And all the past’s forgot!
Wait when those that wait with you
Are bored and tired and glum,
And when it seems, from far away,
No letters ever come!
Wait for me and I’ll come back!
Wait in patience yet
When they tell you off by heart
That you should forget;
And when my mother and my son
Give up on me at last
And friends sit sadly round the fire
And talk about the past
And drink a bitter glass of wine
In memory of me –
Wait! No rush to drink with them!
Tell them to wait and see!
Wait for me and I’ll come back,
Escaping every fate!
‘Just a lot of luck!’ they’ll say,
Those that didn’t wait.
They will never understand
How, amidst the strife,
By your waiting for me, dear,
You had saved my life!
Only you and I will know
How you got me through!
Simply – you knew how to wait!
No one else but you!