Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was brought up in Cambridge, and went to an all-girls’ day school filled with dons’ daughters. The emphasis was on bookishness rather than glamour. We all became very good at writing essays, but remained hopeless at dealing with the opposite sex.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen, and thirty? And why?
Twelve – a zoologist. I watched a lot of wildlife programmes, and saw myself somewhere in Africa, observing lions through binoculars.
Eighteen – a lawyer, inspired again by television, this time an American soap about Harvard law students falling in love amidst intense debates about the nature of justice.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I’m not sure I believed in anything very strongly at eighteen. I wasn’t passionately political, and tried on or discarded new opinions every day.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
First, getting sacked from an au-pairing job in Sweden in the university holidays. I fled by ferry to Poland, which was under martial law following a crackdown on the ‘Solidarity’ pro-democracy movement. For the first time, I realised that Eastern Europe was actually a real place – until then it had been a big black blank on the map.
Second, being there when the Berlin Wall came down: bemused British squaddies standing on top of their Landrover, as crowds flooded through Checkpoint Charlie; the scared faces of small East German children, peering up from the back of Trabbies at hastily-scribbled ‘Willkommen’ signs; families wandering open-mouthed through a shopping mall, all carrying bunches of bananas.
And in my reading life – perhaps reading War and Peace for the first time, while on a back-packing holiday in India. Still memorable is the disconnect between my surroundings and the film playing inside my head.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book, aren’t they obsolete?
Of course not! It’s the content, not the medium, that matters!
6. Please tell us about Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44
Leningrad is the Communist-era name for St Petersburg, Russia’s old imperial capital on the Baltic, and still its second-largest city. The German armies besieged it from September 1941, when they cut the last road out of the city, until January 1944, when the Red Army finally pushed them west again. During those two and a half years about three-quarters of a million civilians – between a quarter and a third of the city’s population – died of starvation, mostly during the mass death winter of ’41-2.
My book tells the story of that tragedy, one of the first to do so since Harrison Salisbury’s classic, but now very dated, account of forty years ago. Unlike him, I was able to draw on a wealth of official documents – reports, telegrams, memos, directives – from government archives, as well as on dozens of uncensored memoirs and siege diaries, some of them published, others given me direct by diarists’ families. The picture that emerged was immeasurably sad but also immeasurably fascinating, because so detailed and vivid, and also because my diarists – inhabitants, mostly well-educated, of a sophisticated first-world city – were so easy to identify with. Research and writing took me five years, but I would happily have carried on for as long again. Leningrad won’t, and shouldn’t, be the last work on the subject.
7. If your work could change one thing, what would it be?
It would be to make non-Russians more aware of the siege in general, and to make Russians aware of it as it really was, rather than in its idealised Soviet version, which was not only off-puttingly saccharine and moralistic but actually distorted and obscured Leningraders’ genuine heroism. The book is coming out in a dozen languages, but I’m especially excited that we’ve just got a Russian publisher. Many Russian readers won’t like it; others, I hope, will be pleased to find something that combines respect for the siege dead with historical truth.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
I’m probably guilty of idealisation myself in having a soft spot for Elizabeth I. She was so human, so shrewd, and such a good writer – and yes, a woman. I love her pragmatism and ability to compromise – the phrase about ‘not wanting to make a window into men’s souls’ gives a shiver of pleasure. My least admired historical figure? The disastrously dim and pig-headed Nicholas II, last tsar of Russia.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Currently, to restore relations with my neglected family.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read a lot of good writing – fiction, non-fiction, everything. And if you want to be a professional historian, think about studying modern languages, rather than history, at university. The history you can teach yourself later; languages, only with difficulty.
Anna, thank you for playing.
On 8 September 1941, eleven short weeks after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his brutal surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Leningrad was surrounded. The siege would not be lifted for two and a half years and during the 872 days of blockade and bombardment as many as two million Soviet lives would be lost. Had the city fallen, the history of the Second World War – and of the twentieth century – would have been very different.
Leningrad is a gripping narrative history interwoven with personal stories – immediate accounts of daily siege life drawn from diarists and memoirists on both sides. These twentieth-century European civilians living through unbearable hardship reveal the terrible details of life in the blockaded city: the all-consuming and daily search for food; crawling up ice-rounded steps on hands and knees, hauling a bucket of water; a woman who has just buried her father noticing how the cemetery guards have used a frozen corpse with outstretched arm and cigarette between its teeth as a signpost to a mass grave; another using a dried pea to make a rattle for her evacuated grandson’s first birthday, and putting it away in a drawer when she hears, six months later, that he has died of meningitis. In Leningrad, Anna Reid answers many of the previously unanswered questions about the siege.
How good a job did Leningrad’s leadership do – would many lives have been saved if it had been better organised? How much was Stalin’s and Moscow’s wariness of western-leaning Leningrad (formerly the Tsars’ capital, St Petersburg) a contributing factor? How close did Leningrad come to falling into German hands? And, above all, how did those who lived through it survive? Extract
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.