Leningrad: Siege and Symphony: The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich

Leningrad: Siege and Symphony: The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich

by Brian Moynahan


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In Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, Brian Moynahan sets the composition of Shostakovich’s most famous work-his seventh symphony- against the tragic canvas of the siege itself and the years of repression and terror that preceded it. Using a wealth of new material, Moynahan tells the story of the cruelties inflicted by Stalin and Hitler on a city of exquisite beauty and rich cultural history, and the symphony that inspired its survival.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802124302
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 394,979
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Brian Moynahan's books include the much-praised William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life. As a foreign correspondent, he covered fighting in the Far and Middle East and Africa, and was latterly the European Editor of the London Sunday Times.

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The Terror – to this day, the Russians speak of 'the Repression', painstakingly bland, as if the memory of their true malevolence to one another remains too much to bear – the Terror started with a murder, and a slap in the face on a railway platform.

The dead man was Sergei Kirov, the ruling Bolshevik in Leningrad. Six cities, a naval cruiser class, lakes and factories, and Leningrad's premier Ballet, were to be named in his memory. So was the great avenue where he lived, battered but aching with beauty, running from the Trinity Bridge on the Neva across the Petrogradsky district, the red granite and the soft pastels of the stucco, glowing in the cold northern light. It is back now to its tsarist name, Kamennoostrovky Prospekt, as the city itself is once more 'Peter', St Petersburg, for the Tsar who had raised it two centuries before in the marshes and frosts of the mouth of the Neva. But Kirov's apartment at No. 26–28 remains as it was when he left it on his way to work, and to his death, on 1 December 1934.

Its size alone reflected his status: eight high-ceilinged rooms, in a place where a single room, divided by sheets or curtains, housed three families. The vertushka telephones, linked to the Kremlin, were in banks of four in the drawing and dining rooms. The one with a direct line to Stalin was marked with a red star. In the bedroom, with twin art nouveau beds in light wood, another vertushka with a red star sat on the matching bedside table. Stalin liked to call him at night. Framed photographs of Lenin and Stalin enjoyed pride of place.

The rooms revealed his personal interests. He was a hunter. There was a polar bear rug (a gift), and a brown bearskin (a trophy), in the drawing room. He had two stuffed pheasants, and a large hawk, and a model of a fishing trawler named for him in recognition of his reputation as a passionate angler. His library had thousands of volumes, a globe, and the rare books that he collected. He was a gourmet in a hungry city, and the kitchen had a giant General Electric refrigerator, one of ten imported into Russia, and a deep sink in the scullery for keeping fish fresh, with stone slabs for filleting meat.

Kirov loved music. A leather-covered pass, stamped 'Number 1', entitled him to two free seats at any of the city's eight opera, ballet and dramatic theatres, at the Philharmonia concert hall, the music hall and the State circus. Despite his heavy workload, he used his pass frequently: he and his wife were childless and he had, it was said, an eye for ballerinas. His apartment had a telephone-cable link that brought him live performances of ballet and opera. He carefully kept his invitation to Box 1 in the Dress Circle at the Maly Opera for the premiere of Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, on 24 January 1934. It was a treasured memento of a composer he much admired. He had a poster for the opera, too.

An aura, an affection, clung to him as it did to none other in the regime. Kirov could be cruel. As a young Red commissar in the civil war that flowed from the Revolution, he ordered the 'merciless extermination of the White Guard swine' during a rising in Astrakhan. Four thousand died in the bloodletting, but it was the making of his career. He met Stalin, and, as importantly, fell out with Trotsky.

For all that, he was handsome, and open, and he made friends easily. He had run Leningrad for eight years, and his popularity was real and unforced. He was close to Stalin, closer than any other, more than a crony, bringing him a warmth and comfort after Stalin's wife Nadezhda Alliuyeva had shot herself two years before. 'My Kirich,' Stalin called him, 'my friend and brother.' On holiday, they had villas close to one another in the Crimea. They went to the banya (sauna baths) together – though Stalin's skin was pitted from smallpox and psoriasis, and he concealed it from most – and Stalin waited on the beach while Kirov swam. On his visits to Moscow, Kirov stayed in Stalin's apartment in the Kremlin, amusing the children, who adored him, little Svetlana Stalin putting on a puppet show for him.

The two last saw each other on 28 November in Moscow. All seemed well. Stalin went personally with Kirov to his compartment on the Red Arrow express to see him off on his overnight trip back to Leningrad.

There were tensions, though. The 17th Party Congress at the start of 1934 had paid Stalin lip service as the 'ardently loved Vozhd', the great leader. Leon Trotsky, who had despised him, was in exile. Other senior Bolsheviks were careful to applaud him. Kirov, though, was given a standing ovation that was spontaneous and heartfelt. At the end of the Congress, Stalin's name was crossed out on at least a hundred, and perhaps as many as three hundred, of the ballot papers confirming his place on the Party's Central Committee. Just three or four of Kirov's were spoiled. The ballot papers were suppressed, but Stalin was to make his displeasure brutally clear. Of the 1,966 delegates at the Congress, 1,108 would be arrested. Two-thirds of those were to be shot, as, without exception, were those senior figures who had shown a trace of hostility or indifference to him. Leningrad suffered as no other city. All seven of its members of the Central Committee, the most powerful party organ, and the heads of all its major factories, were purged. Of 154 Leningrad delegates to the 17th Congress, only two survived to be re-elected to the 18th. Of 65 members of the city's provincial committee, just nine reappeared.

Stalin was disturbed by Kirov's popularity. He spoke of recalling him from his power base in Leningrad but Kirov resisted. Attempts were made to dislodge the head of the NKVD secret police in Leningrad, Feodor Medved, and replace him with one of Stalin's drinking cronies. Kirov liked and trusted Medved, and refused to let him go. Four NKVD men from Moscow were added unasked to Kirov's security detail, which was itself reduced.

Kirov spent the morning of 1 December at home working on a speech, before setting off for his office in the afternoon. It was in the Smolny, part convent, part school, the Institute for Noble Maidens, with a blue and gilt cathedral cascading with baroque elegance, its restrained Palladian facade picked out in white and ochre. Lenin had used it as the Bolshevik headquarters during the Revolution. The Party retained it when the government was moved to Moscow and the Kremlin.

He was with his bodyguard, Borisov, who may have been detained for a few moments by the Moscow NKVD men. Kirov walked up the main staircase, turning off into the corridor to his office when he reached the third floor. A young man, dark-haired, thin, small, let him pass and then walked behind him. Leonid Nikolayev, nervous, unstable, was a political gadfly. He had been expelled and then readmitted to the Party, blaming it for his debts and unhappy marriage. He had been found wandering in the Smolny some weeks before, with a loaded gun, but had merely been asked to leave the building.

He shot Kirov in the back of the neck with a Nagant revolver, before turning the gun on himself. An electrician close by seized him and the second bullet lodged in the ceiling. Kirov fell face down on the floor.

Three doctors were summoned. Artificial respiration failed. Stalin was informed by telephone. One of the doctors was Georgian, like Stalin, and they discussed the assassin in their mother tongue. Stalin's response was immediate. A decree was issued ordering that terrorists be executed immediately after sentencing. Later in the evening, Stalin left on a special train for Leningrad.

He arrived at about 7.30 the next morning. Medved was on the platform at the Moscow Station to meet him. Stalin struck him on the face with his gloved hand. He went on to the Smolny. The key witness, Borisov, was killed the next day, apparently in a fall from an NKVD truck. Medved and the leading NKVD men in the city were sent to the mines and labour camps of the Gulag.

Before he returned to Moscow, Stalin personally interrogated Nikolayev. It is still not clear if he ordered Kirov's murder. There were mysteries enough – the failure to arrest Nikolayev earlier, the removal of Kirov's own security men, the death of Borisov – for Valerian Kuibyshev, Stalin's principal economist, and an accomplished musician and poet, to demand an investigation. Kuibyshev was dead, officially of heart failure, within a month. His wife and brother were later shot, but, with the black humour that marked him, Stalin honoured him with burial in the Kremlin wall, as he carried Kirov's coffin at that funeral, and renamed the Volga city of Samara for him. Shostakovich was to complete the score of the Seventh Symphony in Kuibyshev.

It is certain, though, that the murder suited Stalin well. Nikolayev was tried in secret at the end of the month, and shot the same night, using the new decree. Thirteen others were also shot. A 'Leningrad centre' was identified, a nest of supporters of the exiled Leon Trotsky, to which all who displeased Stalin could be pinned. Borisov's widow was committed to an insane asylum.

Three of the small party who accompanied Stalin from Moscow were to be executed themselves. Genrikh Yagoda, the overall head of the NKVD, was shot, with his deputy, and the head of the Komsomol, (the Young Communists), Aleksander Kosarev, like Shostakovich a football fanatic, whose club, Moscow Spartak, the composer watched when he was in the capital.

A fourth man was Andrei Zhdanov. Stalin chose him to succeed Kirov in Leningrad. He was very much a survivor. For the rest of his life, he was to run the city, and to hound Shostakovich. Leningrad itself was about to be engulfed.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was twenty-eight. He had already composed an astonishing range of pieces: three symphonies, a brace of ballets, a piano concerto, scherzos, preludes, film scores, music for plays, orchestrations and two operas. His First Symphony, written as his graduation piece when he was nineteen, had been performed by Toscanini and Klemperer. His opera Lady Macbeth, which Kirov had loved so much, had brought him world renown. It played simultaneously in Leningrad and Moscow, and across Europe. Its theme, of lust and murder, was a sensation in New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The BBC broadcast it in London. 'The Conquest of Soviet Musical Thought', the headlines ran.

His mother had started giving him piano lessons on his ninth birthday. Sofiya Shostakovich was a fine pianist herself, a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatoire. 'We have an outstandingly gifted boy on our hands,' she said after two days. A week later, he was playing four-handed with her. He had perfect pitch, and he learned pieces instantaneously, without any need for repetition. 'The notes just stayed in my memory by themselves,' he said. 'I could also sight-read well ... Soon after I made my first attempts at composition.'

Both his parents were Siberian-born, with enough revolutionary colour in their family background to avoid easy branding as burzhui (bourgeois), though his mother had danced for the Tsarevich Nicholas at her school in Irkutsk. They were well-to-do now, with a dacha and a large apartment in the city – 'enormous,' his sister Mariya recalled, wistfully, of those tsarist days: 'six rooms, with another off the kitchen where the servants slept' – and his father had a car, a Russian rarity.

The young boy displayed a gift for mathematics, too, when he was sent to Maria Shidloskaya's, the school of choice of the Petrograd intelligentsia. He was sharp and lively, and mischievous. At eleven, he went to see Glinka's Ruslan. The opera made 'an enormous impression on me, in a purely musical sense', independently of the drama on the stage, he said, 'most of all Ratmir's aria'. He was left cold by his first symphony concert, a Beethoven cycle, a little later, but he was already set on music.

He was writing preludes for the piano at twelve. A friend remembered him playing Beethoven's C-minor sonata (No. 5) at a concert. A classmate, Irina, the daughter of Boris Kustodiev, a crippled painter of rare power and colour, recalled how he played for her father. 'A little boy with a shock of hair, he went up to my father, said hello, and handed him a long strip of paper, on which his entire repertoire was listed in a neat column,' she said. 'Then he went to the piano and played all the pieces on the list, one after the other.'

At thirteen, in the autumn of 1919, he left school to enter the Conservatoire. The great grey building seemed too severe and classical for a child, an adult place that in the hungry years of the civil war that followed the Revolution was cold and damp and reeked of cabbage, the only food in enough supply. Its reputation was brilliantly lit, though, by those who had passed through: Anton Rubinstein, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Diaghilev. He took to the Conservatoire, and to composing, directly.

He worked at a breakneck pace, oblivious to noise and distraction, seldom trying out a sequence at the piano. 'He wrote out his music in full score straight away,' his sister Zoya said, 'and then took his scores to lessons without even having played them.' He never needed to try things out on the piano. He 'just sat down and wrote whatever he heard in his head, and then played it through complete on the piano'. These first pieces embraced eight preludes for piano, a theme and variations for orchestra, 'Two Fables of Krylov' for mezzo-soprano, female chorus and chamber orchestra, three 'Fantastic Dances' for piano, and a suite in F-sharp minor for two pianos.

The composition of the suite, in 1922, demonstrated an obstinacy that persisted and might at any moment, if it displeased Stalin and Zhdanov, now prove lethal. It was Shostakovich's abiding misfortune that both men were fond of music, taking a personal interest in it and those who composed it. They shared a religious education, resonant in Orthodox chants, and a love of Georgian songs. They sang together. Stalin had a fine tenor voice. He liked ballet, and opera, and he went often to the Bolshoi in Moscow, where he kept a box, armoured against assassins, with a curtain that allowed him to hide his face. He enjoyed classical music on the radio, and he listened to all the new recordings, scrawling 'good ... so-so ... rubbish' on the sleeves. Zhdanov was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatoire. His mother was a fine pianist and taught her son to play. Lavrenti Beria, the sadist who in time became head of the NKVD, nicknamed him 'The Pianist'.

Those who did not bend to their whim, they broke. In his music, Shostakovich abandoned whole genres – ballet, opera, at grievous cost, for this was the snuffing out of a master – and he accepted that pieces, up to an entire symphony, vanished unheard for decades. But he did not bend in how he wrote. When his professor at the Conservatoire ordered him to rewrite the piano suite, he refused. The professor insisted, and he did so. The piece was played at a student concert. 'After the concert, I destroyed the corrected version and set about restoring the original,' he recalled later, responding to questions from Roman Gruber, the Conservatoire musicologist. He thought that criticism from above, and what he called the 'dictatorship of "rules"', could wreck the creative instinct. 'It's not right to cripple people,' he said. 'Some people are more weak-willed than I am, and they can be crippled for life.' Indeed they could.

His passions outside music, as a twenty-one-year-old, were for literature: for Dostoevsky's Demons, and Gogol's Dead Souls, and Chekhov. 'And I adore Goethe,' he added. Next was classical ballet, then sculpture and architecture – above all Leningrad's St Isaac's Cathedral, and Falconet's monument to Peter the Great, the statue of the bronze horseman rearing from his plinth of stone, and gazing over the Neva.

'I love the art of theatre very much,' he said, 'and am strongly attracted to it.' Vsevolod Meyerhold was a hero. 'In general, I consider Meyerhold to be a genius as a stage director ... I love the circus very much and often attend.' The acrobats particularly attracted him, 'and the jugglers'. He also had a lively interest in the swirl of history, of revolution and violence and social cataclysm, in which he was seized. 'Generally speaking,' he said, 'I compose a lot under the influence of external events.' That was not to change.


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Copyright © 2013 Brian Moynahan.
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Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae,
Ouvertyura Overture,
1. Repressii Terror,
2. Voyna War,
3. Do serediny sentyabr' To Mid-September 1941,
4. Do serediny oktyabr' To Mid-October 1941,
5. Oktyabr' October 1941,
6. Noyabr' November 1941,
7. Dekabr' December 1941,
8. Noviy god New Year,
9. Yanvar' January 1942,
10. Fevral' February 1942,
11. Mart March 1942,
12. Aprel'–Maj April–May 1942,
13. Iyun' June 1942,
14. Iyul' July 1942,
15. Simfonya Nr. 7 Symphony No. 7,
Do svidaniya Farewell,

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Leningrad: Siege and Symphony: The story of the great city terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
CMKmom More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book this morning - at the end of the book - when the 7th Symphony was being performed in Leningrad for the first time, I had tears running down my face. The verbiage was so vivid I could almost see myself in that beautiful symphony hall knowing what those people had gone through and hearing it played for the first time in their city. I knew that the Russian people had suffered during that period, but had no idea of the depth of that suffering. This is simply a wonderful book. Lots of pages to slog through, emphasizing the starvation and privation of those brave people. Going through them though just reinforced my knowledge of the times and brought this performance to life. I can't recommend this book too highly - worth every page.