For 872 days between September 1941 and January 1944, the Russian city of Leningrad suffered one of the longest, deadliest and most destructive sieges in history.
It is estimated that at least 800,000 of the city’s 2.5 million inhabitants perished – most of them simply starving to death – when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin, declared war on the Soviet Union and ordered the German army, with the help of Finnish forces, to surround the city.
Rather than waste military resources occupying Leningrad, Hitler decided that he would bombard it with artillery fire and simply let its citizens starve to death. ‘We have no interest in saving any part of the civilian population of this large city,’ stated a directive from German naval command.
In the months and years that followed, the little food available was increasingly rationed, electricity and sanitation disappeared, families killed their pets to survive, hunger drove some to cannibalism and thousands dropped dead on the streets.
Throughout the horrors of deprivation, death and suffering, a teenage schoolgirl living in Leningrad kept a remarkable diary of life under the Nazi siege, recording her experiences including the desperate hunt for food, the bitter cold of the Russian winter and the cruel deaths of those she loved.
Amazingly, that girl, Lena Mukhina, survived and was evacuated from Leningrad in June 1942… but her diary was left behind. Twenty years later, it was discovered amongst documents at the State Archive of Historical-Political Documents in Leningrad, and another 50 years after that, it has finally been published, thanks to three Russian researchers.
And within these pages is a girl’s personal account of life under siege, a story more powerful, more moving and more terrifying than any that can be read in a whole raft of history books.
Lena Mukhina died in 1991 but in May 1941 she was just an ordinary 16-year-old, living in Leningrad, worrying about her homework and whether Vova, the boy she had a fancy for, liked her too. Like a good Soviet schoolgirl, she was also diligently learning German, the language of Russia’s Nazi ally, and was keeping a diary, in which she recorded her hopes and dreams.
When Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Leningrad was besieged, hunger soon set in and life quickly became a living hell. Bread was rationed but was not easy to come by and 40 per cent of the flour was replaced with additives including wallpaper dust and wood cellulose.
New dishes had to be created from soybean husks and cabbage heads, and people ate crows, pigeons, cats and dogs. Human flesh was cut from corpses and either eaten or sold on the black market, while some murdered not only strangers but their own family members.
Over 2,000 arrests were made for cannibal ‘bandits’ but the majority of citizens ‘kept their humanity’ despite the terrible deprivation which saw an average of 110 to 160 people dying every hour. As Lena wrote in her diary in March 1942, ‘Lord! When will this end?’
The stoicism and determination of the people of Leningrad was truly inspirational. Amidst the inhuman conditions, workers still repaired weapons, some children and students carried on with their classes and hospitals remained open. Lena even attended a New Year party with some of her classmates.
By the time Lena was evacuated in the summer of 1942, she had lost much of her spirit and optimism, and she never mentioned her diary to the next generation of her family. She had many jobs within the Soviet system during her lifetime and died in Moscow in 1991.
But she left behind an extraordinarily poignant and gripping eye-witness account of one of the Second World War’s most brutal and deadly episodes… a story that just has to be read.
(Macmillan, hardback, £16.99)