Triumph of art over barbarism

On the documentary “The Miracle of Leningrad” and its historical background

by Dr phil. Winfried Pogorzelski

27 January 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The Soviet Union had been attacked by the troops of the German Reich on 22 June 1941.

The composer Dmitry Shostakovich as air-raid guard on the roof of Leningrad Conservatory 1941. (picture ma)

Siege and liberation of Leningrad

In the course of September, the siege ring around Leningrad closed because Hitler had decided “to wipe the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth”.1 During the siege, which lasted 872 days, about one million Leningrad inhabitants died, they starved to death, froze to death – particularly numerous in the extremely cold winter of 1941/42 with minus temperatures of up to 40 degrees – and died by violence. This barbarity is the biggest war crime of the Nazis after the Holocaust.
On 9 August 1942, the performance of Dmitry Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony under extreme conditions in the concert hall of the Leningrad Conservatory made a significant contribution to strengthening the resistance.2 It had been ordered by the Soviet leadership for the 355th day of the siege in order to strengthen the morale of the population. The composer had left Leningrad for security reasons. He stayed in Kuibyshev on the Volga (since 1990, Samara again), southeast of Leningrad, where he completed the work. The sheet music had been brought to Leningrad by a daredevil military pilot who had broken through the German air blockade.

The Docu-Drama “The Miracle of Leningrad”

This impressive event is the subject of a recommendable “Docu-Drama” genre film by Christian Frey and Carsten Gut­schmidt.3 At the centre of the events are the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, his son Maxim, the then 17-year-old governess Olga Kvade, the German non-commissioned officer Wolfgang Buff and the conductor of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra Karl Eliasberg. In lavishly produced feature film scenes, actors embody the involved parties of the time, some of whom speak as contemporary witnesses themselves. Excerpts from interviews with experts and original film footage provide valuable information and unforgettable impressions. With this approach, the authors achieve a level of immediacy that is second to none.
The heroes and their fate
When the German troops close the siege ring around Leningrad in September 1941, the future expectations of the young music-loving governess Olga Kvade, who works in an orphanage and loves her hometown above all, suddenly collapses. The longer the siege lasts, the more the population, including some 400,000 children, struggle round the clock for their naked survival: Hunger, sickness and death are omnipresent, and what’s more is the bitter cold in winter. Year after year thousands lose their lives. At the end of the siege about one million people are killed. The radio is constantly on. Its broadcasts are intended to encourage the population and the soldiers to hold out.
Dmitry Shostakovich, a native of Leningrad, is working on his 7th Symphony, which is to become a beacon of resistance. After the completion of the first three movements, the composer is evacuated together with his family at the express request of the party leadership and against his will, in order to complete his work safely. Until then he had fulfilled his duty as air-raid guard at the Leningrad Conservatory. Shostakovich completes the score in exile. He presents “his Leningrad” on camera with the words: “I dedicate my Symphony No. 7 to our struggle against fascism, our certain victory over the enemy and to my hometown Leningrad.”4

Preparation of the concert under extreme conditions

Karl Eliasberg, conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Leningrad, has the great task of performing the demanding 75-minute work as soon as the score is available. It actually does reach the besieged city! In a hurry, the sheet music is copied for the musicians by Eliasberg’s wife. Finally, the work may be rehearsed by the musicians. The concrete circumstances, however, make the project considerably more difficult. It is even endangered. Only thirteen members of the orchestra are still available. The others are no longer alive or too weak to be able to play music. Finally, the other musicians needed can be found through searching in hospitals and by a radio call. All those involved in the great task are affected by hunger and other deprivations. Eliasberg speaks of a “bunch of amateurs and military musicians”.
The conductor stands under enormous pressure because of the most important commission of his life. Does he succeed in fulfilling his duty within a reasonable time? Should he fail, he reckons with his liquidation, since he acted on behalf of the dictatorial Soviet leadership. Often, he is close to despair. Over and again, his wife’s encouragement keeps him from giving up. The perseverance of the orchestra and its leader is a model for all Leningraders.

Performance and effect of the “Leningrad”

In the summer of 1942, the time has come. First, Eliasberg delivers a speech on the radio stating: “[…] Shostakovich wrote this great composition. […] Europe thought that Leningrad was finished. But this performance bears witness to our spirit of resistance, our courage and our willingness to fight. Listen, comrades!”5 The symphony will be performed in the concert hall of the Leningrad Conservatory, broadcast on the radio live and will be heard throughout the city over the loudspeakers. Emotionally, Eliasberg’s wife congratulates her husband: “You have made possible the impossible”. There are no flowers for the conductor; but he and the orchestra receive a huge applause. The performance does not fail to have its effect. It is viewed as the turning point of the war, since it sustainably strengthens the stamina and resilience of the visibly moved inhabitants and it also reaches and deeply impresses the German soldiers. “It dawned on us”, veterans told conductor Eliasberg after the war, “that we would never take Leningrad. We realised that there was something stronger than hunger, fear and death – the will to remain humane.”6
In his commentary, Dmitry Shostakovich includes his massive criticism of Stalinism when he writes in his memoirs, the authenticity of which is still controversial today: “I feel inconsolable grief for all killed by Hitler. Yet the thought of those murdered by Stalin’s order causes me no less pain. I mourn for all those who have been tortured, tormented, shot and starved to death. There were millions of them in our country even before the war against Hitler had begun [...]. I have no objection to the Seventh being called the ‘Leningrad Symphony’. However, it is not about the siege. It is about Leningrad, which Stalin destroyed. Hitler only marked the end.”7

The daily sufferings in wartime

There are also reports from the perspective of German soldiers. Right at the beginning of his first assignment in the Soviet Union, the young German non-commissioned officer Wolfgang Buff is mercilessly confronted with what it means to fight in Russia. He observes how a wounded comrade is not taken out of the line of fire by anyone. He watches in horror as not only the wounded man is shot by a comrade, but another one also who tries to save him! Buff’s superior comments on the inhuman scene with the cynical words: “Welcome to Russia!” The believing Christian Buff can only stammer: “Lord, have mercy on us”.
During the winter months, supplies are brought in by lorries over the frozen lake Ladoga. Nonetheless, starvation and freezing to death are part of everyday life. One time, Buff meets an old Russian, who chops pieces from a dead frozen horse with a hatchet. As a symbol of Christianity, the young German soldier draws a fish into the snow, whereupon the old man crosses himself. Later, as Buff himself wants to help a wounded comrade, he is hit by a bullet, too; he dies with the words: “When I fall, it is into the arms of the heavenly Father”. Scenes of the feature film drastically show the events to the viewer. Wolfgang’s brother Joachim reads quotations from the young soldier’s war diary.
These and other shocking fates are highlighted. With German military thoroughness, deprivation and death come into the city, which demand everything from the population in stamina and bravery. This is illustrated in an oppressive way through images and film scenes from the archives8. There is neither electricity nor running water, food runs out, cat meat, boiled tree bark and glue is consumed, there are cases of cannibalism, water is obtained from Neva ice holes, starving and dead people lie on the streets, including children, coffins are transported by horse-drawn sleighs ...
What the documentary drama describes with feature film scenes and testimonies from contemporary witnesses is further specified by excerpts from expert interviews with the historian Sönke Neitzel and the British journalist and writer Anna Reid.9

Music – teacher of history

In 1944 Eliasberg was honoured as a deserving artist of the USSR, later he was forgotten until his death in 1978. Three years earlier Dmitry Shostakovich dies – showered with honours and awards – as one of the most important composers of the 20th century, who could never be sure of his life under the Soviet dictatorship. The monumental “Leningrader” with its exemplary content and meaningfulness – resistance to violence and the victory of art over barbarism – still offers today a direct, sensual access to events of historical importance and their effect on people.10 Once again, we are encountering music as an outstanding teacher of history. It is “a general expression of violence and threat, a timeless symphonic accusation against injustice, reign of terror and the ruthless negation of the individual. Shostakovich and countless citizens of the Soviet Union had painfully experienced all this at first hand, long before the beginning of the war through the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.”11 In 1975, at the end of his life Shostakovich sums up: “But the most important object of art remains […] man, his spiritual world, his ideas, dreams, desires.”12 According to musicologist Vera Baur, the 7th Symphony by Dmitry Shostakovich incorporates equally “the basic sound of violence and the deep longing for humanity”13 .        •

1    Quoted after: Mijnssen, Ivo. The other genocide. 75 years ago the Soviet city of Leningrad was liberated from the German siege by the Red Army. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 26 January, p. 7
2    Resistance to violence, injustice and war has been the subject of music for quite some time. With regard to the Second World War, one thinks only of Benjamin Britten’s famous work “War Requiem”, a 90-minute piece for vocal soloists, choir, chamber orchestra and symphony orchestra in memory of the victims of the Battle of Britain. It’s premiere was in 1962 in the newly built cathedral of Coventry, the previous building was largely destroyed during the German bombing of the city of Coventry during the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. See also Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. “Wie den Frieden in Töne setzen? (How to translate peace into tones?)” www.bpb.de/apuz/29179/wie-den-frieden-in-toene-setzen
3    Leningrad Symphony/Das Wunder von Leningrad, (The Miracle of Leningrad) documentary drama, D 2017, 90 minutes, director: Christian Frey, Carsten Gutschmidt, camera: Jürgen Rehberg, Marc Riemer, Tom Bresinsky, Michael Kern, Yuri Ermolin
    Editing: Marcel Martens, Production: gebrüder beetz filmproduktion (Reinhardt Beetz), In coproduction with: NDR, NDR/Arte, SWR, RBB, DR, NRK, LVT, Czech TV.
    The film was and still shown from time to time by various TV stations, such as Arte, ARD and others. Over a certain time, it will be available from the respective media libraries. A DVD can be obtained directly from the producer: gebrueder beetz filmproduktion Hamburg, Eppendorfer Weg 93a, D 20259 Hamburg, e-mail: hamburg@gebrueder-beetz.de
4    To be viewed on the Internet at www.spiegel.de/einestages/leningrader-sinfonie-von-schostakowitsch-1942-ueberleben-mit-musik-a-1194616.html
5    Quoted after Iken, Katja. “Leningrad Symphony. Mit Pauken und Trompeten gegen den Terror”. (With timpani and trumpets against terror) In: Der Spiegel of 27 February 2018, under the title, to read under www.spiegel.de/einestages/leningrader-sinfonie-von-schostakowitsch-1942-ueberleben-mit-musik-a-1194616.html
6    ibid.
7    Baur, Vera. The “Leningrad” – supertemporal indictment, quoted after BR Klassik, www.br-klassik.de/themen/klassik-entdecken/schostakowitsch-leningrader-siebte-symphonie-100.html
8    Thirty photos with informative legends and some film materiel is also included in the article by Katja Iken, loc.cit.
9    Reid, Anna. Leningrad, The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944, this: Blokada, Die Belagerung von Leningrad (The Siege of Leningrad) 1941–1944, Berlin 2011
10    Recommended CD recordings: Mariinsky Orchestra (Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in Petersburg), Valery Gergiev, Shostakovich, Symphony No 7 in C major, Op. 60 ‘Leningrad’, see also: www.mariinskylabel.com
11    Vera Baur, loc. cit.
12    ibid.
13    ibid.
(Translation Current Concerns)