Publisher: Independently Published
Page Length: 386 Pages
To engage in a war on all fronts is difficult enough. But to fight a war when you are already being persecuted by those who are meant to be leading your country to victory is a catastrophe. For the residents of Leningrad, the war with Germany brings a new set of challenges. If they are to be victorious, then the Red Army must hold its ground and the government must look after its people. But this is Soviet Russia, a place where mistrust spreads quicker than misinformation and the Great Purge had already stolen some of the Red Army’s most talented generals. The peace treaty Stalin agreed with Hitler had turned out to be a worthless piece of paper—another terrible betrayal for Stalin to come to terms with. For the citizens of Leningrad, however, the battle to survive has only just begun...
From the devastating aftermath of the Great Purge to the desperation of a people whose city is surrounded by enemy forces, Leningrad: The People’s War by Rachel R. Heil navigates the horror of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II.
Heil has presented her readers with a historically rich tale, where nothing is beneath her attention. The fear of the NKVD, and the horrors of the Great Purge resulted in a nation that lived in constant terror. The immediate threat to life was not the distant rumblings of the German army, but Russia’s own Communist government, whose paranoid leader saw danger even where there was none. When the threat of war becomes something that can no longer be ignored, Stalin begins to blame, for the most part, imagined foreign enemies for all of their internal problems. Heil has depicted a country conflicted. Could Hitler be any worse than Stalin? Was it better to stick to the devil you know rather than risk it all with the devil you don’t? Stalin’s Iron fist reaction to every problem meant innocent people were persecuted, and this fear is depicted in this novel with a careful understanding of what it must have been like to live in Russia during this period.
This novel, as the name suggests, is about The Siege of Leningrad. What we witness through the pages of this remarkable book is the systematic genocide of a city due to starvation and deliberate destruction of the city’s civilian population. At times this makes for some harrowing reading, especially as people start to slowly starve to death. Heil does not whitewash the horrors that the citizens of Leningrad faced. Through the eyes of Tatiana Ivankova we witness everything, including the disturbing desensitising of death.
This deeply haunting novel tells the intimate and harrowing story of Tatiana Ivankova. Tatiana has good reasons to loath Stalin’s cruel and dangerous regime. She has already lost two members of her family, and she fears that it is only a matter of time before Stalin orders another purge. She will do anything to ensure that the lives of her immediate family are not threatened, even if it does mean agreeing to do whatever Josef Krasnoff, a newspaper reporter with an influential father, tells her to do. What she could never have imagined was that he would force her to join a unit of female volunteers who would help protect the city from the fascists that surrounded her. They were to represent the Party and Comrade Stalin. Failure was not an option. Tatiana’s initial response to this news was a desperate sense of despair. She felt utterly powerless. Tatiana had been forcibly conscripted into the army, and although she loathes Josef for what he has done to her, she excels at the job. Tatiana is a character that I came to care about. She is this bright and really lovely young woman who just wants to live in peace, to be free from both the Party and the German invaders, but life dictates otherwise. There is also an air of vulnerability about her which made her character very appealing. She is forced into the dangerous game of espionage, and there is nothing she can do about it. I thought Tatiana’s depiction was sublime. She is a character that a reader can get behind and root for.
The other character of interest is Heinrich Nottebohm, a German officer with a mysterious past and who, like Tatiana, feels utterly disgusted by what they are being asked to do as well as what they are witnessing. Heinrich was a breath of fresh air, and a stark contrast to his commanding officer, Max. He is a quiet soul, but that does not make him weak. He knows how to play the game, he just wishes he was not playing it.
There are many harrowing scenes in this novel, but there is one scene that stood out from the rest. Tatiana overhears a conversation, where a Russian Jew declares that he would rather have a German head of state than the one they currently have. He was not at all worried about being taken to a camp, for he was so sure that he would be released when they realised what a good citizen he was. This scene is very brief, a couple of sentences no more, but the innocent portrayal was utterly heartbreaking.
Heil has explored the use of propaganda to inform, or misinform more often than not, the citizens of Leningrad. I thought Josef’s character was really interesting because he is a journalist who refuses to see the truth even when it is staring him in the face. He toes the Party lines and tries to turn every disaster into a victory and those who don’t agree with him are traitors. I could not decide if this blinkered vision of events was caused by fear, or by an unshakable arrogance and determination to make a name for himself.
The dropping of leaflets from the Germans onto Leningrad to frighten them into compliance backfired because the residents were not even allowed to look at the leaflets, let alone read them, unless they wanted to be accused of treason. It must have been so confusing and frightening to know that the things you were told were probably not true, but then, as Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it...” Stalin promoted an image of himself as a benevolent ruler and champion of the Soviet Union, but his increasing paranoia meant his country was in no fit state to fight a war with Germany. Not yet, anyway. Heil demonstrates the destructive nature of propaganda and how some citizens were not so hoodwinked by what they were being told. They saw through the lies.
As a tutor of modern history which encompasses Russia during this era, I am very familiar with the Siege of Leningrad, which made this story all the more poignant, and although I don’t know how this story will end, I do know how the siege ends. As I neared the end of this book, I wondered how Heil could fit in the rest of the story but, to my relief, I discovered that this is book one of a series, and thank goodness for that, for I am not done with these characters yet and I am looking forward to following their journey in the following books.
This novel is a must-read for fans of quality Historical Fiction set in World War II.