Alexander Werth / History

Extract: Leningrad 1943

Leningrad 1943The Siege of Leningrad is the most powerful testament to the immeasurable cruelty and horror of World War II. From 1941 to 1945, the Eastern Front was the site of some of the bloodiest atrocities of the war. After 872 days of aggression, one and a half million people lost their lives, mostly from starvation.

Out this week, Leningrad 1943: Inside a City Under Siege by Alexander Werth – the sole British correspondent to have been in Leningrad during the blockade – is a unique eyewitness account of the savagery wrought by the Nazis against the city.

In this extract, Alexander Werth visits Leningrad’s State Library, where he meets Egorenka, the chief librarian, and learns of the inspirational lengths gone to document the city’s struggle, and defend ‘9 million books from 80 million Germans’.


It was a beautiful sunny day when we drove up to the public library, but as the Sadovaya street corner is a dangerous one, and shelling had been going on since morning, it was decided that we park the car in the Alexandrinka Square on the other side of the library. Here we were, standing outside the car, and looking at the beautiful building of the Alexandrinka, with its freshly repainted yellow stucco, and with the whole exquisite ensemble of Rossi’s stucco buildings beyond, and to the left of us the little square in front of the Alexandrinka Theatre, with the bottle-shaped monument of Catherine, with Rumiantsev and Potemkin and other great men nestling below the sovereign’s equally bottle-shaped skirt.

It seemed almost miraculous how this beautiful corner of old St. Petersburg had escaped without a scratch. Although the streets were now very deserted – for the shelling was becoming heavier and heavier – this Alexandrinka Square looked more beautiful than it had ever looked. And just then one shell, and then another, crashed into something quite near, perhaps 500 yards away, on the other side of the Nevsky, somewhere behind the enormous granite pavilion with its plate glass windows, which was once the most Gargantuan delicatessen shop in Europe – Eliseyev. Two clouds of what looked like brick dust shot up into the air. The tramcars in the Nevsky stopped and the few passengers came running out and dived into houses. A few other people could also be seen running for cover. We waited beside the car for a few minutes, not feeling too comfortable, but perhaps reassured by the extraordinary ‘luckiness’ that it missed Alexandrinka Square. An ambulance dashed past, turning into the Nevsky. I uncomfortably recalled Major Lozak’s experience of the man who had staggered two steps down the Nevsky already without his head. The firing continued, but the shells were no longer exploding in this part, so we walked into the Nevsky – I had the feeling of slinking rather than walking.

We were taken up a narrow staircase into the office of the chief librarian, wearing the Leningrad medal. Her name was Egorenkova. A sort of hard defiance was written on her face, as on so many other Leningrad faces. She showed neither pleasure nor displeasure at seeing us, and simply treated our visit as a small job that had come into her day’s programme. Like every other job, she would do it competently. Personally, I had the impression that she was a woman with whom personal reactions no longer mattered; her whole existence had become public service and nothing else. Her one aim in life was to save the Leningrad State Library, and it was a sufficiently large task for any ordinary human being. She was defending 9,000,000 books against 80,000,000 Germans – against those creatures who, for the first time in many centuries in Europe, had made bonfires of books. Leningrad is, in many ways, a fanatical city – only a city with a touch of divine fanaticism could have done what Leningrad did – but in this rather frail, overworked young woman who was the chief librarian of the Leningrad State Library was this inner fanatical fire, a fire of devotion and a fire of hatred particularly noticeable. She said nothing to indicate it; her remark about a shell that had killed a lot of people in the Sadovaya, just outside the library, was made almost casually, with a complete air of ‘objectivity,’ but I felt she would gladly make any German suffer all the torments of hell for what Germany had done to Leningrad and had tried to do to the State Library.

Defending Leningrad's Library

Young Leningrad girl on an anti-aircraft observation post.

‘The outstanding fact about the library is,’ she began, ‘that it never closed down. Not even in December 1941 or January and February 1942. By the time the blockade started, we had managed to evacuate only a very small part of our most valuable things. We had evacuated the most important incunabula and manuscripts, some unique Russian and foreign eighteenth and nineteenth century books, and our unique collection of newspapers published during the Civil War – 360,000 items in all, out of a total of over 9,000,000. Our staff put in an enormous amount of work for the protection of this library. Our staff filled the attics of the building with sand – carrying there 2,200 cubic metres. To some extent we had to decentralise the library, and also to store away in our basements some of the most valuable items. Windows had to be bricked up and sandbagged; we secured water-tanks, pumps, fire-extinguishers, and large quantities of sand, and organised the whole fire-fighting system with the maximum thoroughness – allowing for the difficulties arising, for instance, from the absence of a normal water supply. Our A.R.P. staff consisted of 102 people. We were lucky though. The only trouble we had from air raids was a few incendiaries in the autumn of 1941. Since then we have had three direct hits from shells; they damaged our roof, but no books suffered, and there were no casualties. A more serious problem was the lack of fuel and the effect of the cold and damp on our books.

‘Before the war there were seven reading rooms in our main building; we had as many as 3,000 readers a day and as many as 9,000 books were issued in one day; moreover, we had to deal with some 400 written queries a day.

‘On June 22nd there was a sudden sharp drop in the library attendance. In August we closed down the main reading-room and opened a safer reading-room on the ground floor, with 150 seats. People who were very nervous could do their reading in the air raid shelter. Not all people react the same way to bombing.

‘Our real problems started with the coming of winter. We closed all the reading-rooms but opened two small ones – one used to be the newspaper room, the other was the staff dining room. Both of these had little brick stoves. But in January 1941 we had to close down the first of these two rooms, and the former dining-room remained the only reading-room in this whole great library. There were days in January 1942 when only five readers came. But we continued to receive queries from soldiers and from various organisations, a lot of them on problems of nutrition, on the manufacturing of matches, and the like.

‘Today we have about sixty readers a day; the number of readers is growing. We have tenor twelve new entries a day on the average. Now that the various technical and other colleges such as the Polytechnic, the Pædagogic Institute, part of the University are about to open again, the number of our readers is sure to grow in the coming months. But for the present, our principal readers now are engineers, army doctors, scientific workers – in short, specialists dealing with practical present-day problems. We have no young students among our readers just now.’

She was factual throughout, without any expression of approval, disapproval, hope or regret. What she said during our inspection of the library was also confined to statements of fact – without comment.

Leningrad, Alexandrinka Square

Girl in Alexandrinka Square

With its miles of bookshelves, the famous library looked almost normal. Here and there were large gaps of empty bookcases – for instance a large set of bookcases labelled ‘Biblioth`eque de Voltaire.’ The magazine room was open, with a somewhat scrappy collection of the latest numbers displayed on a large table – the Ministry of Information’s Britansky Soyuznik, and copies of the Lancet, the British Medical Journal (about six months old) and (significantly) the American Journal of Nutrition, and other scientific magazines.

‘These things come very irregularly,’ said Egorenkova. ‘Our great problem now will be to keep the books in good condition for another winter with little or no heating.’ And, pointing at the windows in one of the rooms, with no glass panes in them, she said: ‘We have had most of our windows blown out four times, but we are not putting in new glass or plywood just yet; the fresh air coming in is good for drying the books. We shall close the windows when the rainy weather starts.’

On the main staircase was a display of various charts and diagrams, including several depicting the Allies’ war effort. On another wall was a display of photographs and various documents on the occasion of the eighty-fifth birthday of Bychkov, the director of the manuscripts department of the library. ‘He isn’t feeling very well, so he is not here today,’ said Egorenkova. ‘From the start he has refused to leave Leningrad.’ Again no comment.

Up till now there had been few signs of human life in the enormous building. But now we came into a large room which was buzzing with activity. Fifteen elderly women were here, filling in index cards, writing notes, sorting out piles of material – posters, manuscripts, newspaper cuttings, cartoons, ration cards and what not. ‘This is quite a new and special department,’ said Egorenkova, ‘here we are building up a complete record of the life of Leningrad and the Leningrad front in wartime. Meet Vera Alexandrovna Karatygina, a specialist in the history of Leningrad, Petrograd and St. Petersburg.’ No one could be more different than these two women. Karatygina was a handsome elderly woman with white hair, rouge and lipstick, a loud exuberant voice, and the shrill delivery of an enthusiastic school teacher.

‘We disdain nothing,’ she said. ‘Everything that seems of the slightest historical value for the full reconstruction of the history of our defence of Leningrad, we keep and catalogue, and classify. Brochures, and invitation tickets of every kind, pamphlets, leaflets, membership cards – everything is important. Theatre tickets, concert tickets, programmes, concert bills – for instance the bills announcing the first performance in Leningrad of Shostakovich’s Seventh – documents relating to our industrial, scientific and literary life; ration cards of the different periods of the blockade and after, a list of all the houses of Leningrad with, as far as possible, details of the number of people living there, damage through shelling, etc., A.R.P. instructions – some printed, other simply manuscripts, photographs, copies of front newspapers and other publications, however ephemeral – all these we are collecting and classifying. We are also compiling large files of newspaper cuttings on every conceivable subject concerning the defence of Leningrad. And just now,’ she said, ‘several of us are here compiling an album of the rupture of the Leningrad blockade – with letters from soldiers who actually took part in it, and, masses of other printed, written and photographic material.’

The old ladies were so absorbed in their work that they scarcely seemed aware of our existence – any more than of the shelling that was continuing outside. As we went out I remarked to Egorenkova, ‘It must give these old ladies great satisfaction to take part in such a highly valuable enterprise.’ ‘Why do you call, them old ladies?’ she said, a little acidly. ‘They are not “old ladies”.’ ■

Out not, more details on Leningrad 1943: Inside a City Under Siege can be found on our website.

Alexander Werth (1901-1969) was a Russian-born British writer and war journalist. He was the BBC’s correspondent in the Soviet Union from 1941-1945, and the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian from 1946-1949. He was one of the first outsiders to be allowed into Stalingrad after the battle, and wrote several books describing his experiences.

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