I think that Helen Dunmore has been successful in the telling the story through the Levin family. She clearly depicts the trials and tribulations, yet Dunmore could’ve done justice by letting the audience know more about the major events of the progress of the Siege.
The Germans surround the city cutting off the food supply and escape routes. Over six thousand people were killed in Leningrad during the winter, mainly from starvation.
Throughout the novel, Anna and her family have been very well off. They all live together in safety, none of them are in prison or forced to be in the world war and have the skills needed for survival. We are told that they had an apartment which was very large and “desired by many” and that people would kill to live in such a large place. They own a burzhuika, have wood and food and are have money and their possessions.
Anna, the central character of the novel is a believable mixture of vulnerability and strength already having a very busy lifestyle. Dunmore portrays Anna’s selfless maternal qualities towards Kolya and her father. We learn that instead of chasing her ambitions of art in college that she feels responsibility towards her 5 year old brother, her job at the nursery and other commitments which show that she is very hard working. She sustains her family financially and physically. Due to food shortages, Anna returns to the Dacha, to collect food for the future. This shows that she is realistic about the tough future. When Anna is at the dacha, she manages to cull out a good quantity of potatoes and put them into her bag. We can tell from her behaviour that she is a hard working character. On her way back from the dacha, Anna is stopped and questioned by the militia. She bribes the militia-man by offering him some of her potatoes and onions.
Also Anna goes out daily during the Siege to provide for the family. She spends hours, weak from hunger, queuing for bread, negotiating with store owners and digging out scraps of wood to light a fire to make sure her family don’t freeze to death which is very common on the streets of Leningrad. She also has to fight for what she has and be resilient and not trust anyone. When she refuses to lend her chisel to a woman, she is nearly attacked as they falsely accuse Anna of stealing their wood.
On her way back she is questioned lies about what is in her bag, this puts her at the mercy of the robber as he is well fed and Anna dares not to try and attack him. He takes the wood from her knowing that it is precious. She wildly chases any rumours of any sausage deliveries and travels far and wide to provide food for the family. We learn of all the people who wait in these queues, their morale, health and their desperation. Anna goes to the black market to try and buy a burzhuika to keep everybody warm. We learn of how everyone is feeling the cold and are suffering from chest infections and pneumonia. Also how everyone is starting to lose energy and stay indoors to conserve heat as each day you get colder and hungrier.
Mikhail, Anna’s father tries to help out and volunteers to fight in the People’s Volunteers. Through his character we meet the old lady on the farm who is not able to move and be evacuated like her family and has only the animals and farm jobs to keep her busy. We see how the siege has destroyed her and she is just waiting for the Germans to take over. Also, after Mikhail gets injured, we see Andrei with him and taking him to the hospital as well as the other wounded volunteers in the truck and some who die on the journey.
Mikhail is a testament to the way Stalinism was crushing people. He is unable to accept the changing times, the rejection of what were in his eyes, good stories. He is under the iron fist of the Soviet state and is breaking down. After he returns from the hospital he has changed so much physically and mentally that even his own children couldn’t even recognise him. He has been affected greatly by the horrors of the war he has fought in and by Vera’s death.
Even though there are certain characters such as Andrei and Marina who are not actualAndrei is a very patriotic Siberian and is a very committed doctor who is scarred from the experiences at the Luga Line. He seems generous and kind-hearted towards his patients feels he is unequipped to help some of them on the front line. He is a doctor who works with method and will only speak about things which he has personally experienced.
Andrei and Anna are drawn together through their similar experiences. Both have been on the Luga Line and have shared similar traumas of seeing death. Both on their return are slightly scarred by this and it has changed their characters slightly. Andrei is able to comfort Anna as he is more used to seeing death as he is a doctor urging her to not “think about it.” They therefore share a unique understanding of each other. They are also brought together by their physical/sexual desire. He informs the family of the current situation at the hospital, that the numbers of casualties are rising and more and more are dying each day.
The Germans bombed the warehouses which contained a lot of the food which the Leningraders needed for the winter. Food became scarce and by comparing a “bag of flour” to “days of life” shows how the extent to which the family have bare the pain of “shelling and bombing” The value of food has gone so high, people wish each other good luck as food has become so scarce people will do anything for it.
Kolya is Anna’s 5 year old baby brother. She takes care of him as she is much older and as it is her responsibility to look after him after her mother’s death. Kolya is very lazy and stubborn which irritates Anna, “She had made him lazy” The cause of his laziness is that Anna will do it all for him. He is so caught up in his own games; he has no interest in helping Anna such as the time when she was showing him how to plant crops and has a very short attention span. He is a representation of the life of a child in a war situation.
He is innocent in the fact that he doesn’t know the consequences of war as he plays with his toy soldiers. Anna feels responsible to what happens to him during the siege, he becomes skinny, he is constantly cold and hungry, has no energy and lacks motivation and enthusiasm to do anything anymore. He is quite a dependant and selfish character. He relies on everything from Anna and forces her to buy the burzhuika and for him to get extra bread from everyone else’s ration.
When Marina asks to live permanently with the family at the start of the siege, Anna inwardly rejects another demand on her as she does not want another person to look after and also the fact that she hardly likes Marina. This shows how she in a sense is a bit like her mother due to her conscious hatred to Marina. Marina brings food and money which is very useful in the siege and uses Anna’s need to befriend the family and get close to her. She looks after Kolya and Mikhail while Anna is out getting food for the family.
We learn of her love towards Mikhail, motivating him to get up and walk around and by staying with him just after he has died. Also she shows her love to Kolya by helping make the fort and keeping him busy by playing with him. She helped Anna in preparing the food and making decisions. She too has been affected by starvation, we are told that her ring can no longer fit her, that her fingers are so thin and bony. She gives the family some hope and motivation.
Also the deaths of the two lovers, Mikhail and Marina once again show the story of the Siege through the family. We see their suffering, to provide for their family and we see that for some close family members of the citizens that death gave way to victory. This shows the losses that all had to face, losing loved ones and not being able to bury them as the ground is too hard and no one has the energy to do so.
Overall, I believe that showing the trials and tribulations of Anna and her family have given us a good idea of how the siege was affecting the citizens and that Dunmore has been successful. We see through all the characters the hardships faced, whether it was the young children or the old women and that the Siege affected all and that wealth did not matter. The novel ends on an optimistic note, with the remaining members of the family walking outside in the summer’s which shows new life and some hope.