Citizens of Leningrad, during the German seige of 1942, dig up water from a broken main (AP)

The Siege of Leningrad, the pitiless epic of the Nazis’ 900-day encirclement of the Soviet Union’s second city, is a story that has drawn many chroniclers — each with a special kind of bravery to attempt a fresh recounting. Brian Moynahan’s entry point is the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the starving and brutalized city on Aug. 9, 1942, Day 335 of the siege and “perhaps the most magnificent, and certainly the most moving, moment ever to be found in music.”

In “Leningrad: Siege and Symphony,” Moynahan weaves back and forth among descriptions of the battlefield around Leningrad, the horror visited upon the starving city, and the galvanizing and piercing work of music Shostakovich wrote to honor his home town (now called St. Petersburg). The first two movements were written before Shostakovich and his immediate family were evacuated in October 1941 to a city on the Volga, and the complete score was flown back in nine months later, the pilot skimming Lake Ladoga to avoid detection by German fighters.

The symphony had been performed in Moscow, London and New York before it returned to Leningrad, where it was played by a makeshift orchestra of emaciated musicians for an audience whose “stick-insect limbs” were hidden beneath their prewar finery. “The Seventh might have been performed better in some places but never has it been performed the way we played,” said an orchestra leader. The radio broadcast was carried by propaganda loudspeaker to the front lines and heard by Russian and German troops alike. The music proclaimed that the city Hitler had planned to level instead endured.

The piece came to embody Soviet valor and sanctify the wartime anti-Nazi alliance. “The allies wanted, badly, to believe in the Russians, in their survival, and in their decency,” Moynahan writes. “Leningrad still lived, and fought, and, in drowning out the mechanical squeal and clang of the enemy’s tank tracks in a creative storm of music, it seemed to the anxious watchers to confirm Russia’s resilience and humanity.”

Moynahan, an English journalist and historian, is a vivid writer, and his account bulges with the reminiscences and contemporaneous accounts of participants; the accumulation of individual experience sears his narrative while sometimes threatening to overwhelm it. He reaches into the guts of the city to extract some humanity from the blood and darkness, and at its best “Leningrad” captures the heartbreak, agony and small salvations in both death and survival.

‘Leningrad: Siege and Symphony: The story of the great city terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich’ by Brian Moynahan (Atlantic Monthly)

After launching the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis had by mid-September cut off the last land route out of Leningrad. The German advance was relentless, and Soviet resistance was often futile, but in the mountains of Soviet dead, and with the arrival of the Russian winter, the seeds of the Nazi defeat, still four years away, became visible. Moyna­han’s descriptions of the battlefield, which also draw from the diaries of the cold, lice-ridden, hungry combatants, are haunting.

Life inside the city deteriorated as food stocks dwindled to near-nothing. Moynahan depicts all the raw desperation — the willingness to eat anything, including, in some cases, human flesh. “And from its depths, the wails ‘Bread!’ rising up to the seventh heaven,” the poet Anna Akhmatova wrote. “But this firmament is without mercy. And from all the windows, death looks out.”

The residents were traumatized not only by the German bombing and shelling, as well as hunger and despair, but by the terror of the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB. Moynahan sometimes lingers too long on the interrogation transcripts of prisoners held for alleged defeatism, espionage and other mostly fabricated sins. Here, and in some other parts, the book could have been strengthened by some judicious slimming.

The thinnest weave in Moynahan’s construction is Shostakovich himself. For long stretches he vanishes from the story, and I never quite felt I understood him, perhaps because he was dwarfed in the narrative by the scenes of battle and the agony of the city on its deathbed.

Like other genuine independent-minded artists, Shostakovich lived on the edge of ideological condemnation that could lead to isolation, the gulag or even death. In 1936, at the Bolshoi, Stalin walked out of Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” after the third act; there could be no more frightening review, and Shostakovich, at the end, appeared only briefly and “white as a sheet” to take applause. The following day Pravda, the official state newspaper, described the work as “perverted” and “bourgeois,” and warned darkly that the composer was “playing a game” that “may end very badly.” It was rumored that Stalin himself wrote the piece. The shaken Shostakovich promised “greater clarity and simplicity” in his creations.

The Seventh Symphony hit the notes desired by his country’s masters, and it was awarded the “Stalin Prize, First Class.” Critical opinion, as distinct from the popular reaction, was more mixed in the West. In London, after a performance at the Albert Hall, the Sunday Times wrote that, to find the symphony’s place on the musical map, one “should look along the seventieth degree of lassitude and the last degree of platitude.” “An overblown bore,” the Philadelphia Inquirer opined when it was performed in the United States. And the Nation added that it was “feeble, inane, banal . . . unresourceful, crude, blatant.” The American public heard it quite differently, and when it was first broadcast the “studio audience jumped up and cheered as if it had heard news of a Nazi defeat.”

Of course, the Seventh wasn’t just about the music. It was about a moment in a war and a temporary alliance. It was a cloak for all that was corrupt and malevolent in the Kremlin. And, whatever its artistic merits, it was also a piece of propaganda such that the poet Carl Sandburg could write in The Washington Post in 1942 that it “tells us of a great singing people beyond defeat or conquest who across years to come shall pay their share and contribution to the meanings of human freedom and discipline.”

Peter Finn is The Washington Post’s national security editor and the co-author of “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.”


The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich

By Brian Moynahan

Atlantic Monthly Press. 542 pp. $30