May 2004

Jack D. Crispin, Jr.

nonfiction

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison E. Salisbury

When I was told my next review assignment was 900 Days, I thought that was the name of the book, not how long it would take to read it! Sheesh, what a book! I have it on good authority that two unauthorized copies of this manuscript materially aided in the sinking of the Battleship Bismark. (Dropped from 20,000 feet from a B-1 bomber, or so the story goes.)

Let's start with what Harrison E. Salisbury's work isn't. It isn't a suggested project from a publisher (as in: Why don't you write a book about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II?). This author lives and breathes Russian and Soviet history. This is one of those 25 years in the making type works. The source material for it hardly exists anymore as the people that lived through it are old or dead now, and the records of the events have been extensively altered by the Soviet history revisionists. Many trips to Leningrad were required to talk to those survivors and compile this book.

This is not a good first book on the subject. A good degree of understanding of Russian/Soviet history, social structure and politics is assumed of the reader. Combined with strange Russian names of places and people that look more like a bad roll in a Perquackery game than actual words, I was left bewildered and backtracking in places. The author's device of going over the same incident or short time period several times from the point of view of different people at first was irritating (didn't I just read this?). It reminded me a saw passing through the same groove in a log, each time producing a few more grains of sawdust. I finally realized the large pile of viewpoints gave more understanding than one glimpse of the log.

Two criticisms I will offer. The first is the use of statistics in paragraph form. To try to include the measurement of decreasing stores of various foodstuffs in a narration dilutes the impact of those figures because you cannot retain the various amounts in your brain long enough to see the trends. I realize that the use of charts, graphs and tables detracts from the writing and gives a more textbook image, but the figures thus displayed would convey more meaning.

The second is the overuse of the views from the arts and crafts crowd (poets, writers, musicians, etc.). Perhaps there is more written record from these people, or perhaps they are more eloquent in their presentations, but the main story is the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of Leningraders, not just the privileged. No, I realized they suffered and died too, but many also received extra rations and better living conditions due to their status.

How can you convey the magnitude of this epic story with less than The 900 Days? Whatever my shortcomings as an ill-prepared reader were, I was pulled into the saga, and immersed in the horror, the desperation, the struggle of the citizens of that great city, both survivors and the dead.

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison E. Salisbury
DaCapo Press
ISBN: 0306812983
640 Pages