Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Grove Press

Leningrad: Siege and Symphony

by Brian Moynahan

From Brian Moynahan, award-winning foreign correspondent and European editor with the Sunday Times, comes a brilliant work of military, political, and cultural history.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date October 13, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2430-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $22.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date October 14, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2316-9
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $30.00

About The Book

Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was first played in the city of its birth on August 9, 1942. There has never been a first performance to match it. Pray God, there never will be again. Almost a year earlier, the Germans had begun their blockade of the city. Already many thousands had died of their wounds, the cold, and, most of all, starvation. The assembled musicians—scrounged from frontline units and military bands, for only twenty of the orchestra’s 100 players had survived—were so hungry, many feared they’d be too weak to play the score right through. In these, the darkest days of the Second World War, the music and the defiance it inspired provided a rare beacon of light for the watching world.

In Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, Brian Moynahan sets the composition of Shostakovich’s most famous work against the tragic canvas of the siege itself and the years of repression and terror that preceded it. The symphony was a propaganda triumph, played by a dozen American orchestras, concealing the secret police and labor camps and interrogation chambers that still defaced Stalin’s Russia beneath a veneer of Soviet humanity and artistry. In vivid and compelling detail, he tells the story of the cruelties heaped by the twin monsters of the twentieth century on a city of exquisite beauty and fine minds, and of its no less remarkable survival. Weaving Shostakovich’s own story and that of many others into the context of the maelstrom of Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s brutal invasion of Russia, Leningrad: Siege and Symphony is a magisterial and moving account of one of the most tragic periods in history.


“Moynahan’s Leningrad: Siege and Symphony vividly brings to life a hero city that refused to die.” —New York Times Book Review

“The technique, if not the scale, is Tolstoyan . . .The terrible beauty of the book is in its anecdotal detail, and the horror is of a kind that makes you weep but at times approaches comedy . . . It’s certainly hard to imagine reading his gripping, skillfully woven account without emotion.” —Stephen Walsh, Spectator

“Brian Moynahan interweaves three gripping stories in this compelling kaleidoscope of war-ravaged Leningrad: Hilter’s 900-day siege, Stalin’s purges that decimated the city’s professional and cultural leaders and Dmitri Shostakovich’s desperate struggle to write his haunting Seventh symphony. Its performance by half-starved musicians between bouts of German shelling attests to the triumph of the human spirit amidst the greatest upheaval of the twentieth century.” —Angela Stent, author of The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century and professor at Georgetown University.

Leningrad: Siege and Symphony is a remarkable achievement. Brian Moynahan holds the reader in suspense while teaching an important chapter in the history of the Second World War. His magnificent tale portrays the terror within and without Leningrad during its heroic defiance of the Nazi conquerors and subtle resistance to its Stalinist masters. Like Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, this is a triumph.” —Charles Glass, author of Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II

“A stupendous story, driven by a furious narrative yet biblical in its thematic confrontations of beauty and evil. It’s vivid in three dimensions: The Red Army’s battles with Hitler’s war machine; the ordeals of the Russian people terrorized by the malevolent maniac in the Kremlin; and throughout the faint but swelling counterpoint of hope as the great Dmitri Shostakovich struggles to write the score of his Seventh Symphony to express the soul of his martyred city . . . This is history to cherish.” —Sir Harold Evans, Editor at Large at Reuters, author of The American Century, and publisher of The Russian Century

“Beautifully written and profoundly moving, Leningrad is a stunning, haunting book that has stayed with me long after I turned the last page.” —James Holland, Dam Busters

“A bold attempt to set the composition of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony within the extraordinary context of its times.” —Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday (London)

“A really gripping read . . . the narrative is fantastic, very skillfully done . . . I couldn’t put it down. It’s like reading a novel.” —Professor Erik Levi, Music Matters BBC Radio 3

“A fine study of the city of Leningrad’s terrible trials from 1934 to 1942 . . . Moynahan’s story is one to remember for its emphasis on the willingness of people to sacrifice for each other and for the ways in which art inspires and helps humans overcome the worst brutalities. It gives hope, even today.” —America Magazine


It dawned chilly on 9 August, a Sunday. The Seventh Symphony of “Shostakovich” was due to be played later in the day. Crowds began flooding towards Arts Square in the early afternoon. “It seemed that the whole city had come,” Bogdanov-Berezovsky said.

The audience stood packed together. “We were stunned by the number who had turned out,” the trombonist Mikhail Parfionov recollected. “Some were in suits, some had come straight from the front. Most were haggard and emaciated. And we realized that these people were not just starving for food, but for music. We resolved to play the very best we could.”

After a few moments of silence the Symphony began. “It made the heart bleed—once again the pictures of the beginning of the war became alive. The faces of the musicians were unrecognizable. They resembled the images on ancient icons, parchment skin, stretched cheekbones but shining eyes set alight by inner creativity,” wrote V. A. Khodorenko.

Thousands of Leningraders were also listening in on the radio, it bound them together in the hope of victory. The writer V.

Vishnezitsky noted: “People were captivated, tears of deep feeling welled up in their eyes.” They had not cried over the dead bodies of their loved ones in winter, but now the tears came, “bitter and relieving” and unashamed.

An artilleryman at the front listened to the loudspeakers that relayed the radio broadcast as the first movement built to a crescendo: “My unit were now listening to the symphony with their eyes closed. It seemed as if a cloudless sky above us had become a storm, bursting with music.”

As the symphony neared its end, some musicians had given their all and started to falter. “It was so loud and powerful I thought I was going to collapse,” the trombonist Mikhail Parfionov said. The audience spontaneously rose to its feet willing the orchestra on and revived them.

At the end, there was a moment of silence. It was broken by clapping at the back, and the ovation swelled into a thunder. “People just stood and cried and cried,” Eliasberg said. “They knew that this was not a passing episode, but the beginning of something.” All that is best in humanity was seen, in those eighty minutes in the Philharmonia, to have survived all that the lowest and most cruel had flung at it.