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Minds Under Siege: Rethinking the Soviet Experience inside the Leningrad Blockade, 1941-45

  • Author(s): Peri, Alexis Jean
  • Advisor(s): Slezkine, Yuri
  • et al.

The Blockade of Leningrad during the Second World War was one of the longest and most devastating sieges in modern history, which claimed the lives of about one million of the city's residents. Rather than invade Leningrad, Hitler vowed to simply "let the city devour itself." For those trapped inside the city, the war became first and foremost an internal struggle against the demands of their own bodies, which, under conditions of severe starvation, literally fed upon themselves. Over the course of almost 900 days spent under siege, Leningraders turned their attention inward and closely monitored the deterioration of their city, their community, and their lives.

During the Blockade, Leningraders were confronted with the transformation of virtually every aspect of daily life, the defamiliarization of all that was known to them. Leningraders grew estranged from their physical bodies as well as from the identities, communities, attitudes, and beliefs that characterized their prewar lives. The Blockade thrust many established narratives--personal, historical, scientific, and ideological--into crisis. This dissertation examines how Leningraders struggled to make sense of the Blockade, and it draws on diaries that were kept during the siege as its main source base. I have uncovered a large corpus of blockade diaries from state, private, and family archives across Russia. These intimate accounts, which have largely been unknown to and untapped by scholarly research, are replete with insights about the how individuals endure extreme deprivation and the effects of prolonged trauma and starvation on the mind.

Although the diaries do not provide direct access to Leningraders' innermost thoughts, they do give us insight into the various interpretive and narrative strategies that the diarists used as they struggled to find meaning in such horrific, almost unthinkable suffering. This study traces how the diarists studied their new surroundings and attempted to formulate new, meaningful narratives of the body, self, society, and history in their journals. I demonstrate how the diarists placed their society under a critical microscope and, from their unique vantage point "inside the ring," reconsidered certain fundamental aspects of Soviet life and of human existence more generally. Although they were aware of the particularity of their situation "inside the ring," the diarists viewed their discoveries in universal terms, suggesting that the Blockade led them to new insights about human nature, laid bare by the siege. The Soviet regime may have attempted to radically restructure human nature through socialism, but, according to the siege diarists, the Blockade actually was succeeding in doing so.

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