symphony for the city of the deadBiographies or any sort of nonfiction relating to the siege of Leningrad that occurred amidst World War II can become depressing to read because of the many, many atrocities committed and the vast number of people who died. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the opposite of the traditional heavy nonfiction. Anderson breaks up his story of Shostakovich and the evolution of Leningrad by dropping in back-and-white historical photographs that allow readers to put a face to a name. This inclusion breaks up the chaos and destruction happening within his descriptions of Stalin’s purges and the eventual siege of Leningrad by bringing in pictures and maps to connect the history presented with an actual physical place and actual people. It may seem easy for people to ignore and write off atrocities committed, but I find that when authors choose to add pictures into their books, the subject matter becomes even more real and life-changing.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad really brought to life for me the importance of art and culture to a nation and its citizens, both in a negative and a positive light. Anderson tells readers the story of Stalin and his purges: how he rid the country of top military officials, science experts, and a wide variety of other people and effectively set his country up for more widespread¬†disaster when Hitler invaded and he had no experts to ask for advice. This book focuses on art and culture, specifically music and Dmitri Shostakovich. This Russian composer escaped death at the hands of Stalin and instead found himself navigating the tricky tight-rope of composing the music that Stalin finds appropriate while¬†still staying true to himself. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is the one that he writes for Leningrad, “The City of the Dead,” and this book effectively sets the stage for discovering Shostakovaich’s mindset around that time and also the necessary cultural and political framework that he was up against. Highly recommended!

Check out the following fiction and nonfiction books for more information about the siege of Leningrad and related topics!

the madonnas of leningradcity of thievesleningrad siege and symphonyinferno the world at warstalin the court of the red tsarabsolute war

The setting for David Benioff’s City of Thieves is grim and brutal – the siege of Leningrad during World War II – yet there is also light and optimism, even laughter in this book. Lev Benioff, is a naive, 17-year-old is picked up for looting, a sentence punishable by death. Instead of the firing squad, he is thrown together with brash, confident, Red Army soldier Koyla Vaslav (arrested for deserting). They are given a task: find 12 eggs for the general’s daughter’s wedding in five days. If they succeed, they’re free; if not, they’ll be shot.

What follows is the nearly impossible search for fresh eggs in a city that has virtually no food (conservative estimates place the number of Soviet deaths during the siege at 1.7 million, most of whom starved to death) The unlikely pairing develops from forced to begrudging to a true partnership. What these two see, both the cruelty and kindness, is almost unfathomable now in our comfortable, well-fed lives, from the desperate couple resorting to cannibalism (who they barely escape from), to the former call girl that shelters artists and surgeons made homeless by the relentless bombing, to the Nazi commander they must outwit, the book is full of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping tension.

At first, you will want to hate Koyla. He is arrogant and brash and a bit of a braggart. He is also charming and charismatic and at heart, a kind and generous man who does the right thing for others time and again. Lev, who narrates the story, is full of self-doubt and (he believes) weakness, but finds unimaginged courage and strength when he needs it, partly because of Koyla.

Based on Benioff’s grandfather’s memories, this is storytelling at it’s best, the kind of book that stays with you – a story of cruelty, desperation and hardship, but also of kindness, strength, loyalty, love and friendship.