Essentially a love story set against the horrific siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg) as the Nazis tried to move through Russia in the winter of 1941.
Anna, a teaching assistant, lives with her father and much younger brother Kolya, her mother, a nurse, died in giving birth to Kolya. The father, Mikhail was formerly a successful writer but his ‘style’ of writing has fallen foul of the new standards demanded by the Party under Stalin. They have retreated to their dacha, some 30 miles outside of Leningrad where Anna is commissioned by a reclusive former actress Marina, another who has fallen foul of the new regime and their correct modes of thinking, to draw her likeness.
As the Nazis approach Leningrad, Mikhail volunteers for the civil defence force despite being in his 50s. Anna and Kolya move into the city with him. Anna is enlisted in the civil labour force, made up of women, digging trenches just behind the army’s front lines. Mikhail is injured and takes to his bed, Anna grows ever weaker and cannot keep up with the work – although she meets the handsome young doctor Andrei who is working all hours in the city’s hospital. Eventually all the main characters end up living in same small apartment, freezing and slowly starving through the winter where it is minus twenty inside during the day.
The main purpose of the novel is to describe in minute, demeaning detail the deprivations and hardships suffered by the populace, and that is well done – the joy at finding a small onion thought lost down the back of a cupboard weeks ago; or the weighing up of the quality of leather used to make a wallet and whether that could be cuts to strips, boiled to make a stew and the strips used again for people to chew on to sate the hunger. The absolute cold, which brought its own hardship and which in combination with the food and fuel shortages was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, also proved a lifeline, in that the frozen Lake Ladoga could be crossed by trucks, bringing in desperately needed supplies from mainland Russia, just enough to keep the city alive and therefore able to fend off the Germans.
The love stories (Anna and Andrei, but also Marina and Mikhail) are well-enough done, albeit in a prosaic and well laid-out path. The small moments of these relationships, the details, while being smothered by the cold within the apartment are one of the best aspects of the story: the other being the city’s inability to cope with its own dead – ideas like walking at night between walls of frozen dead bodies piled up because there was simply nothing else to do with them, are affecting. There is precious little interaction with other citizens. Although, in a city of 3 million Anna seems to ‘run into’ her friend and oft-time saviour Evgenia, with remarkable regularity and fortuitous timing. There is little about the politics of the event or the wider politics of the time.
Within its own parameters it is an efficiently told narrative with some interesting turns of phrase, but it seems to have settled for an oddly limiting and unsatisfactory set of parameters at the outset leaving the completed whole, unsatisfactory, unless what you wanted was a love story set against severe privation.