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Darwinian siege

(D. Trakhtenberg/Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images)


Darwinian siege

Book chronicles the plight of Leningraders trapped between Communism and Fascism

Depressed as income tax time comes? An old but good little book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs (see WORLD, Nov. 20, 1999), offers great spiritual advice but also doesn't neglect a piece of homely wisdom: Think of people who have it really bad, and count your blessings.

My application: Read Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones (Basic, 2008), which details the German encirclement of the Russian city (now once again called St. Petersburg) for 900 days beginning in 1941. At least 1.2 million Leningrad residents (of a pre-war population of 3 million) died during this most murderous siege in world history, now largely forgotten, in part because Soviet leaders tried to destroy many records of it.

Food rationing left many citizens with only 500 calories a day, month after month-adults normally need 2,000 to 2,500-but Communist Party leaders and their families ate well. Jones tells the story well by quoting survivors like Elena Skrjabina who found herself in a vehicle with her starving children alongside an official's wife and her two well-fed girls who were gorging on fried chicken and meat pies. They didn't offer any of it to their fellow passengers, even as Skrjabina's son fainted.

Jones also tells of the city's ballet director ordering a performance before Soviet officials even though all her dancers had scurvy and their legs were too weak to perform the classics: "The concert commenced, with the starving dancers struggling to entertain the self-satisfied and well-fed." One dancer collapsed at intermission, "vomiting up the small amounts of bread he had been given."

Cannibalism was the last refuge of the starving: "Twelve-year-old Valentina Rothmann had volunteered to help remove bodies from abandoned apartments. She was uncovering more and more of them, and to her horror she found many had their buttocks cut away. Seeing one row of disfigured corpses, Rothmann . . . knew that remaining bits of flesh were being torn off and sold on Leningrad's black market."

Secret police records released in 2002 show the execution of 300 people for cannibalism and the imprisonment of 1,400 more. Hitler relished hearing reports that gangs were attacking, killing and eating women and children, because this descent into barbarism resulted from a strategy he himself had ordered: "In this struggle for survival, we have no interest in keeping even a proportion of the city's population alive."

That Social Darwinistic language ("struggle for survival") showed how theory justified murder. The goal of a typical siege is to make the enemy surrender, but in Leningrad giving up and getting bread wasn't even an option: Germans set up a minefield outside one area of the city to keep civilians from leaving and stationed artillery at other points with orders to fire on groups trying to surrender. The goal was extermination.

Trapped between the rocks of Communism and Fascism, Leningraders died, and kept dying. As do histories of the Holocaust, descriptions of terrible times like that of Leningrad drive us to our knees. Some churches sport only upbeat services that assume good times, but tough books make them seem superficial indeed.

Going deeper

A different kind of emergent church? Collin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed (Crossway, 2008) portrays Calvinists who dress casually for church services that include loud music. Their heroes are Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Their mentors include theologian R.C. Sproul and Minneapolis pastor John Piper. They are people like Jose Troche, who came to Christian faith in Bolivia through a charismatic ministry and is now getting a Ph.D. in computer science. Their pastors are people like Josh Harris, who famously kissed dating goodbye.

In a readable 160 pages Hansen tells how many young pastors and church members are becoming Reformed, but not after sleepless nights of agony over predestination. "A vision of the transcendent God takes their breath away," Hansen writes. "When they see that theology can drive a deeper and more passionate relationship with God, they tend not to worry about potential debates over doctrine."