Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Siege

by Helen Dunmore

“The best historical fiction delivers emotional truth through the lives of imaginary but ordinary people, making it possible to feel the texture of events that have been smoothed out by the generalizations of conventional histories. In The Siege, the specific becomes epic as five people huddle in one freezing room and Dunmore describes what is happening to them in language that is elegantly, starkly beautiful.” –Janice P. Nimura, New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date January 24, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3958-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Called “elegantly, starkly beautiful” by The New York Times Book Review, The Siege marks an exciting new phase in a stellar career. Her canvas is monumental–the Nazis’ 1941 winter siege on Leningrad that killed six hundred thousand–but her focus is heartrendingly intimate.

One family, the Levins, fights to stay alive in their small apartment, held together by the unlikely courage and resourcefulness of twenty-three-year-old Anna. Though she dreams of an artist’s life, she must instead forage for food in the ever more desperate city and watch her little brother grow cruelly thin. Their father, a blacklisted writer who once advocated a robust life of the mind, withers in spirit and body. At such brutal times everything is tested. And yet Dunmore’s inspiring story shows that even then, the triumph of the human heart is that love need not fall away.

Tags Literary


“Helen Dunmore’s brilliant novel of love, war, and human suffering . . . is an intimate record of an extraordinary human disaster . . . a moving story of personal triumph and public tragedy.” –Laura Ciolkowski, San Francisco Chronicle

“The best historical fiction delivers emotional truth through the lives of imaginary but ordinary people, making it possible to feel the texture of events that have been smoothed out by the generalizations of conventional histories. In The Siege, the specific becomes epic as five people huddle in one freezing room and Dunmore describes what is happening to them in language that is elegantly, starkly beautiful.” –Janice P. Nimura, New York Times Book Review

“In Helen Dunmore’s hands, this epic subject assumes a lyrical honesty that sometimes wrenches but more often lifts the spirit.” –Frances Taliaferro, Washington Post

“As much a poet as a novelist, Dunmore shows that one of the worst winters in Russian history was also a magical time of sacrifice and perseverance.” –Michael Shelden, Baltimore Sun

“An affecting, devastating work.

” –Allyssa Lee, Entertainment Weekly

“With fierce determination, Anna holds on to life while many others do not; it’s the little acts of living that make the holding unforgettable.” –Rachel L. Pfisterer, Elle

“A moving historical romance, as well as a lightning-quick read.” –Vladimir Paral, San Diego Union-Tribune

The Siege is history from the inside out, told from the perspective of one cobbled-together family. . . . Dunmore fills in the fine details of hunger and cold with a vividness that betrays either a feverish imagination or meticulous research–probably both.” –Lionel Shriver, Philadelphia Inquirer

“A novel that proves equal to its gigantic subject.” –Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe

“British author Helen Dunmore’s electrifying, dark-bright seventh novel, The Siege, celebrates the indomitable spirit of hope and love during the 1941 German army invasion.” –Lisa Shea, O, The Oprah Magazine

“No history book could bring [the German siege of Leningrad] more alive than this account does. Hunger, deprivation, and the long winter take their toll, but courage and the nobility of the human spirit shine through.” –Marilyn Gardner, Christian Science Monitor

“A story of how the expansiveness of the human heart can triumph over the most dire of circumstances.” –Sarah Gianelli, The Portland Oregonian

“In a novel where every observation is so sharp that words almost hurt, Dunmore takes a giant step away from her praised domestic psychological dramas set in England. This urgent narrative brings shocking news, although the events Dunmore chronicles took place six decades ago, and mirror ancient, universal struggles. . . . The novel is a signal achievement, and Anna is a true heroine for our times–tender in love, passionate in art, unyielding in her will to survive.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

‘dunmore, in very lean prose, tells a compelling story.” –Bob Schwarz, Gazette (West Virginia)

“Here, with exquisite precision, [Dunmore] explores the physical and emotional sensations experienced by aspiring artist Anna during the first winter of the siege of Leningrad. . . . That Dunmore unravels the tangle of suffering, war, and base emotions to produce a story woven with love, hope, and desire is a celebration of widely revered human values, made especially poignant in light of the tragedy of September 11. Any library with even a smattering of World War II material will want this extraordinary novel for its readers.” –Library Journal (starred review)

“At last: novel that unites the externalized horrors of war with the internalized battles of the domestic; that fuses the world of Tolstoy with that of Virginia Woolf! The Siege is an important as well as a thrilling work of art.” –Amanda Craig, The Independent on Sunday (London)

‘deeply moving . . . A world-class novel.” –Anthony Beevor, The Times (London)

‘dunmore writes beautifully of privation and desire. She writes about food as though it were art, and about art as though it were hunger. She writes with piercing tenderness about the way in which nurturing can be both a burden and a joy.” –Jane Shilling, The Sunday Telegraph (London)

‘deeply moving, unsentimental, restrained and powerful, [The Siege] is a stunningly well-conceived portrayal of a city under siege, and a stark, honest account of the ravages of war and its effect on the lives of ordinary people.” –Greg Eden, Scotland on Sunday

“This remarkable, affecting and extremely accomplished novel represents a pinnacle in Dunmore’s fiction, and in the year’s fiction too. There are few more interesting stories than this; and few writers who could have told it better.” –Rachel Cusk, The Telegraph (London)

“[The Siege] is a moving and powerful novel in which Dunmore employs all her celebrated descriptive and narrative skills while bravely extending her range.” –Michael Arditti, The Daily Mail (London)

“I love this novel set in 1941 Leningrad for its detail, the beautiful writing, and its message of hope: that the human spirit can indeed survive what seems to be utter disaster.” –Nicola Rooney, Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI, Book Sense quote


New York Times–Notable Book for 2002
New York Times Book Review–Notable Fiction 2002
Washington Post Book World–Raves 2002
St. Louis Post–Best Fiction 2002
Whitbread Award–Finalist for Novel of the Year
A Book Sense 76 Selection



The first Turkish troops came beneath the walls of the fortress on June 18. They spent the day pitching camp. By evening the entire army had still not arrived. New units kept on coming in. A thick layer of dust lay on men, shields, flags and drums, horses and wagons, and on the camels laden with bronze and heavy equipment. As soon as each marching group came on to the plain that lay before the garrison, officers from a special battalion would allocate a specific camping site, and the weary soldiers, under orders from their leaders, would busy themselves with setting up the tents before collapsing inside them, half-dead from fatigue.

Ugurlu Tursun Pasha, the commander-in-chief, stood alone outside his pink pavilion. He was watching the sun set. The huge camp throbbed with the noise of horseshoes and a thousand voices, and with its long lines of tents, it looked to him like a giant octopus which would stretch out one tentacle after another and slowly but surely encircle and suffocate the castle.

The nearest tents were less than a hundred paces from the ramparts, the furthest were beyond the horizon. The Pasha’s lieutenants had insisted his pavilion be placed at least a thousand paces from the castle walls. But he had refused to be so far away. Some years earlier, when he had been still a young man and of less elevated rank, he had often slept less than fifty paces from the ramparts, almost at the foot of the besieged citadel. Later on, however, in successive wars and sieges, as he rose in rank, the colour of his tent and its distance from the walls had changed in tandem. It was now pitched at a distance slightly more than half of what his lieutenants recommended, that is, at six hundred paces. That was a lot less than a thousand, all the same.

The Pasha sighed. He often did that when he took up quarters before a fortress that had to be taken. It was a reflex prompted by the first impression, always the deepest, before he became accustomed to the situation – it was rather like getting used to a woman. Each of his apprehensions began the same way, and they always also ended with another sigh, a sigh of relief, when he cast his last glance at a vanquished fortress, waiting, like a small and dusky widow, for the order for restoration, or for final demolition.

On this occasion, the citadel that soared up before him looked particularly gloomy, like most of the fortresses of the Christians. There was something odd, or even sinister, in the shape and layout of its towers. He had had that same impression two months earlier, when the surveyors responsible for planning the campaign had brought him drawings of the structure. He had spread out the charts on his knees many times, for hours on end, after dinner, when everyone else in his great house at Bursa was sleeping. He knew every detail of the lay-out by heart, and yet, now that he was at last seeing it with his own eyes, it aroused in him a sense of foreboding.

He glanced up at the cross on the top of the citadel’s church. Then at the fearsome banner, the two-headed black eagle whose outline he could barely make out. The vertical drop beneath the East Tower, the wasteland around the gallows, the crenellated keep, all these other sights gradually grew dark. He raised his eyes to take another look at the cross, which seemed to him to give off an eerie glow.

The moon had not yet risen. It struck him as rather odd that the Christians, having seen Islam take possession of the moon, had not promptly made their own emblem the sun, but had taken instead a mere instrument of torture, the cross. Apparently they weren’t as clever as people claimed. But they had been even less bright in times when they believed in several gods.

The sky was now black. If everything was decided up on high, why did Allah put them through so many trials, why did he allow them to spill so much blood? To one camp He had given ramparts and iron doors to defend itself, and to the other, ladders and ropes to try to overcome them, and He was content just to be a spectator of the ensuing butchery.

But the Pasha didn’t rebel against fate and he turned around to look at his own camp. The plain was gradually being drowned in darkness and the myriad white tents appeared to hover above the ground like a bank of fog. He could see the different corps of the army laid out according to the plan that had been agreed. From where he was standing, he could see the snow-white flags of the janissaries, and the copper cauldron they hung on top of a tall pole. The raiders, or akinxhis, were taking their horses to drink in the nearby stream. Further on lay the endless tents of the azabs, as the infantry units were called; beyond them were the tents of the eshkinxhis, the cavalry recruited for this campaign; then, further on still, the tents of the swordsmen known as dalkili”, then the quarters of the serden ge”ti, the soldiers of death, then the m’sl’man or Muslim troops, and the prettier abodes of the sipahi, the regular cavalry. Spread out behind them were the Kurdish units, then the Persians, the Tartars, the Caucasians and the Kalmyks, and, even further off, where the commander’s eye could no longer make out any clear shapes, there must have been the motley horde of the irregular volunteers, the exact number of whom was known to no man. Everything was gradually falling into order. A large part of the army was already sleeping. The only noise to be heard was the sound of quartermasters unloading supplies from the camel trains. Crates of bronze pieces, cauldrons, innumerable sacks bursting with victuals, gourds of oil and honey, fat cartons full of all kinds of equipment, iron bars, stakes, forks, hempen ropes with hooks on their ends, clubs, whetstones, bags of sulphur, and a whole array of metal tools he could not even name – all now came to rest in growing piles on the ground.

At the moment the army was swathed in darkness but at the crack of dawn it would shimmer like a Persian carpet as it spread itself out in all directions. Plumes, tents, manes, white and blue flags, and crescents – hundreds and hundreds of brass, silver, and silk crescents – would burst into flower. The pageant of colour would make the citadel look even blacker beneath its symbolic instrument of torture, the cross. He had come to the end of the earth to topple that sign.

In the deepening silence the sound of the azabs at work on the ditches became more noticeable. He was well aware that many of his officers were cursing through their teeth and hoping that as he was himself half-dead from fatigue he would give the order to halt work on the drains. He clenched his jaw just as he had when he had first spoken about latrines at a meeting of the high command. An army, he said, before it was a marching horde, or a swathe of flags, or blood to be spilled, or a victory or a defeat – an army was in the first place an ocean of piss. They had listened to him open-mouthed as he explained that in many cases an army may begin to fail not on the field of battle, but in mundane details of unsuspected importance, details no one thought about, like stench and filth, for instance.

In his mind’s eye he saw the drains moving ever closer to the river, which would wake in the morning looking dull and yellow ” In fact, that was how war really began, and not as the hanums in the capital – the ladies of high society – imagined it.

He almost laughed at the thought of those fine ladies, but oddly, a sense of nostalgia stopped him. It was the first time he’d noticed himself having feelings of that kind. He shook his head as if to make fun of his own plight. Yes, he really did miss the hanums of Bursa, but that was only part of it. What he missed was his distant homeland, Anatolia. He had often thought of its peaceful, lazy plains during the long march through the Balkans. He had thought of it most of all when his army had entered the land of the Shqipetars and first seen its fearsome peaks. One morning before noon, when he was drowsing on horseback, he had heard the cry from all around: ‘daglar, daglar”, but said in a special way, as if expressing fear. His officers raised their heads and looked to the left, then to the right, as if they were trying to get a better view. He too gazed at the mountains at length. He’d never seen any like them before. They reminded him of ghastly nightmares unrelieved by waking up. The ground and the rocks seemed to be scrambling madly towards the sky in mockery of the laws of nature. Allah must have been very angry when he created this land, he thought, and for the hundredth time since the start of the campaign he wondered if his leadership of the army had been won for him by his friends, or by his enemies.

In the course of the journey he had noticed that the mere sight of these mountains could make his officers agitated. They spoke more and more often of the plain they hoped to see before them as soon as possible. The army moved slowly, for now it hauled not only its arms and supplies, but also the heavy shadow of the Albanian mountains. The worst of it was that there was nothing he could do to be rid of it. His only resource was to summon the campaign chronicler and to ask him how he was going to describe the mountainous terrain. Trembling with fear, the chronicler had said that in order to portray the Albanian landscape he had assembled a series of terrifying epithets. But they hadn’t met with the Pasha’s approval, and he ordered the scribbler to think again. Next morning, the historian appeared before him, his eyes bloodshot from the sleepless night he had spent, and read him out his new description. High mountains, he declaimed, that reached even higher than crows can fly; the devil himself could barely climb up them, the demon would rip his sandals on their rocks, and even hens had to have their claws shod with iron to scale them.

The Pasha had found these images pleasing. The march was now over, night had fallen, and he tried to recall the phrases used, but he was tired and his weary mind could think of nothing but rest. It had been the longest and most exhausting expedition of his soldiering life. The ancient road, which was impassable in several places and which his engineers had repaired as fast as they could, bore the strange name of Egnatia. It went back to Roman times, but seemed to go on for ever. Sometimes, in the narrow gorges, his troops had stayed stuck until sappers cut a detour. Then the road became passable once more, and his army resumed its slow and dusty advance, as it had on the first, third, fifth and eighth day prior. Even now, when it was all over, that thick and unpleasant layer of grey dust still hung over his memory.

He heard horses neigh behind him. The closed carriage which had brought four women from his harem was still there, parked beside his tent.

Before leaving he had wondered several times whether he should bring his wives with him. Some of his friends had advised against it. It was a well-known fact, they said, that women bring ill fortune to a military campaign. Others took the opposite view and said that he should take them with him if he wanted to feel calm and relaxed and to sleep well (insofar as anyone can sleep well during war). Usually pashas did not take women with them in similar circumstances. But this expedition aimed to reach a very distant land; in addition, according to all forecasts, the siege was likely to last a long time. But those weren’t the real reasons, because on all campaigns, however far-flung or long-drawn-out they might be, captives were always taken, and women won at the cost of soldiers’ blood were indisputably more alluring than any member of a harem. However, friends had warned him that where he was going it would be difficult to take any female prisoners. The girls there were certainly very beautiful, but in the words of a poet who had accompanied an earlier raid into those lands, they were also as enticing and, alas! as unattainable as a dream. To escape from pursuit they would often throw themselves off a cliff. That’s just poetic licence, some said, but the Pasha’s closest friends shook their heads to say it was no such thing. In the end, as he was taking his leave, the Grand Vizier had noticed the small carriage with barred windows, and asked him why he was taking women to a land famed for the beauty of its own. Avoiding the Vizier’s sly glance, he replied that he didn’t want to have any share in the prisoners his valiant soldiers would take by their own efforts and blood.

During the march he hadn’t had a thought for his wives. They must now surely be asleep in their lilac-coloured tent, worn out by the length of the journey.

Before feeling them on his own skin, he heard the raindrops falling on the tent. Then, after a short while, from somewhere inside the camp there rose the familiar sound of the rain drum. Its ominous roll, so different from the banging of heavy crates or the blare of the trumpets of war, summoned up the image of his soldiers who, despite their exhaustion, had to haul out the heavy tarpaulins to cover up the equipment, cursing at the weather as they laboured. He had heard it said that no foreign army except the Mongols had a special unit, as theirs did, whose job was to announce the coming of rain. Everything that’s any use in the art of war, he said to himself, comes from the Mongols. Then he went inside his tent.

Orderlies had set up the Pasha’s bed, placed the divans around it, and were now laying carpets on the floor. A strip of cloth embroidered with verses from the Koran had been hung at the entrance. Hooks had been hung in the customary manner from the top of the main pole so he could stow his scabbard and his cape. Contrary to what he had always expected, the more he rose in rank, the more gloomy his tent became.

He sat down on one of the divans and put his head between his hands as he waited for his chef-de-camp to finish his report. Almost all troops had now arrived, they had been allocated their proper camping places, guards, sentries and scouts had been posted all around – in sum, everything necessary had been done and was in order. The commander-in-chief could sleep peacefully.

The Pasha listened without interrupting. He didn’t even take his head out of his hands, so that the chef-de-camp couldn’t see his eyes, but only the ruby on his commander’s middle finger. It was a ruby of the kind that because of its hue is called a bloodstone.

When his subaltern had left, Tursun Pasha stood up and went out once again. The rain was lighter than he had thought it was from the noise it made inside the tent. His ears were still ringing with the chef-de-camp’s litany of guards, sentries and scouts, but instead of calming him down, it had made him even more agitated. Night always bears a litter, he thought. He had heard the saying somewhere or other in his youth, but only when he was much older had he discovered that it did not refer to the consequences of love or lust, but to nasty surprises.

The night was pregnant and he was in its belly, all alone. He could see a faint glow leaking out of tents to the right of his own. Others were still awake, as he was. Maybe they were quartermasters, or exorcists or sorcerers warding off evil spirits. Normally, the astrologer, the chronicler, the spell-caster, the exorcists and the dream-interpreters had tents set next to each other. All of them knew more than he did about what lay in store, that was certain. Nevertheless, he did not trust them entirely.

The patter of raindrops was getting louder. The Pasha felt he was quite close to the sky and separated from it only by the feeble crown of his tent. A strange nostalgia overcame him as he thought of his bedroom at home, in his palace, where you could barely hear the sound of bad weather. He was usually more prone to longing for war. At home, lying in a room soundproofed by carpets, he would think eagerly of his campaign tent with the wind howling around it ” Had he not now reached the age when he should don his slippers and retire to his peaceful Anatolian home? Should he not let go before the fall?

He knew it was not a practicable proposition. He was still young, but that was not the main reason. He had attained a rank where it was impossible to stand still. He was condemned either to rise even higher, or else to fall. The Empire was growing by the day. Whoever could prove himself the most energetic and courageous could have it all. Thousands of ambitious men were clawing their way like wild beasts towards wealth and fame. They were shoving others aside, often by intelligent manoeuvring, but even more often by plot and by poison.

He had recently felt the ground shifting under his own feet. There was no obvious cause for that uncertain sensation, which made it all the less easy to deal with. Like one of those mysterious diseases no one knows how to cure.

He had used all the means at his disposal to find out which hidden circles were plotting against him. A waste of time. He had not uncovered anything at all. His friends had begun to look at him pityingly. Especially after receiving his latest gift from the Sultan – a collection of armour. Everybody knew it was a bad omen. People were expecting him to fall, when, all of a sudden, news went round that he had been appointed commander of a huge expedition due to set off in short order against the Albanians. People said he must have still had some friends in high places, even if he had enemies aplenty. At the same time, however, it was clear that by sending him off to fight Skanderbeg, the Sultan was giving him one last chance.

It wasn’t the first time the Padishah had acted in that way. He always appointed men who were playing their last card to head the most hazardous expeditions, well aware that the fiercest of warriors are those with their backs to the wall.

The Pasha rose and began to pace up and down on the plush carpet of his tent. Then he sat down again and took a thick swatch of papers and cardboard from a large leather satchel. Among the documents was the map of the fortress. The Pasha put it on his lap and pored over it. It contained very full details of the location and especially the height of the ramparts and the towers, the slope of the ground on every side, the specifications of the main door and of the secondary entrance to the south-west, the gully on the west side, and the river. The draftsman had put question marks in red ink in three or four places to mark the probable locations where the aqueduct entered and left the fortress. The Pasha stared fixedly at these marks.

One of his orderlies brought him his dinner on a tray, but he didn’t touch it. His fingers ran through his worry-beads but the faint noise they made did no more than the patter of raindrops to dissipate the feeling of emptiness inside him.

He clapped his hands, and a eunuch appeared at the tent door.

“Bring me Exher,” he said without even looking at the man.

The eunuch bowed to the ground but stayed where he was. He seemed to have something to say, but was too scared to open his mouth.

“What is it?” the Pasha asked, seeing the man was still there.

The eunuch mouthed something but made no sound.

“Is she ill?” the Pasha asked.

“No, Pasha, but you know that the hammam ” and perhaps she “”

The Pasha motioned him to keep quiet. He looked at his beads once again. The night was going to be as long as a winter night.

“Bring her to me all the same,” he blurted out.

The eunuch bowed again and then vanished like a shadow.

He came back a few moments later holding a young woman by the hand. Her hair had been done up in haste and she looked as if she was still asleep. She was the youngest of the women in his harem. Nobody knew her age, and nor did she. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen.

The Pasha motioned to her. She sat on the bed. She did not arouse him one bit, but he lay down beside her nonetheless. She apologised for not having been able to perform her ablutions that night, for reasons beyond her control. The Pasha grasped that the sentence had been put in her mouth by the eunuch. He didn’t answer. As he smelled the familiar perfume of the girl, which for the first time was blended with the smell of dust, it occurred to him briefly that maybe he should not lay his hand on a woman on the night before a battle, but the thought left his mind as casually as it had come into it.

He gazed at her pubis and was almost surprised by the vigorous tuft that the eunuch had not had time to shave, as he usually did. With this shadow over her sexual organ, the girl looked slightly foreign, and all the more desirable for it. He often told himself that he should abstain from making love when an affair of State was on his mind, but swung just as often to the opposite view, that it would help him cope. On this night, he overcame his hesitation.

He opened her legs with a gentle touch and, contrary to habit, as if he were afraid of bruising his young wife, he penetrated her with similar tenderness. The unusual consideration he showed did not surprise him; he guessed vaguely that it was connected to the long journey the girl had put up with alongside his soldiers, which made her almost part of his army.

He moved clumsily, as if his desire lay outside of his body, and it was only when he felt his seed spurt from him into the girl’s warm belly that he livened up. His pleasure was brief but intense and sharp, as if it were all concentrated in itself, like the trunk of a tree with no branches.

The girl realised he had made love without desire. As she ascribed his coldness to the black tufts of her pubic hair rather than to her not having been bathed beforehand, she apologised once again. He didn’t respond. He propped himself on his elbow, leaned back on the cushions, and started counting out his beads again. With a blush in her cheeks and her head on the pillow, she marvelled at the harsh and rough-hewn face of the man to whom she belonged.

He forgot all about her. He reached over to the pile of documents and extracted the map of the fortress from it. He drew two signs on it, and then a third, in black ink. The girl raised herself on an elbow and with her beautiful eyes cast a quizzical glance at the paper and its multitude of strange marks. Her master’s cold, grey eyes did not budge from it. She made a small movement, as carefully as she could, so as not to disturb him. However, when she shifted her elbow, which was going numb, the bed moved, and one of its heavy pendants almost fell on to the sketch. She held her breath – but he hadn’t noticed a thing. He was completely absorbed by the map.

She looked alternately at the Pasha’s face and at the marks he was making on the map. She was extremely curious, and just as bold, for she asked:

“Is that what war is, then?”

He looked up and stared at her, as if surprised to see her lying there, then turned away and went back to poring over the map.

He carried on marking up the map for a long time. When he turned around, she had fallen asleep. She was breathing deeply, with her lips half-parted. She looked even younger than her years.

Rain was still falling and drumming on the tent.

As the Pasha gazed at the eyelashes and pale long neck of his fourth wife, his mind went back – who knows why? – to the latrines that had been constructed at top speed. The first ditch would now be creeping up to the river, like a water-snake ” He lifted the blanket and, against his normal practice, took a look at his partner’s delta, with its lips still wet. He thought he might have impregnated her. In nine months’ time, she might give him a son ” Approaching sleep made his mind wander to the mat”riel that should by now be under the tarpaulins, to the sentries, tomorrow’s meeting of the war council, and back again to that woman’s belly where his son may just have been engendered. When he grew up, would he ever imagine he had been conceived in a campaign tent, in the pouring rain, at the foot of a sinister citadel, far beyond the setting sun “? Maybe he too would become a soldier, and as he rose in rank, maybe his tent too would move two hundred, six hundred, twelve hundred paces from the ramparts ” “Allah! Why hast Thou made us thus?” he sighed as his head nodded, as if over a bottomless pit.

Their white tents have surrounded our citadel in the shape of an immense crown. At dawn on the morning after their arrival, the plain looked as if it were covered by a thick layer of snow. You could see no ground, no grass, no rocks. We climbed up to the battlements to get a view of this wintry scene. That was when we realised what a huge conflict our Castrioti had entered into with Murad Han, the most powerful prince of the age.

Their camp stretches out as far as the eye can see. The ground has vanished from sight and our hearts sink. We are now alone with only the clouds for company, as it were, while at our feet, like some nightmare vision, a myriad tents are forging a new landscape, a nowhere world, so to speak.

From here you can see the pink pavilion of the commander-in-chief. The day before yesterday he sent a delegation to seek our surrender. They stated their conditions quite clearly: they would not touch any of us, they would let us leave the citadel with our arms and chattels, and we could go wherever we chose. In return all they wanted were the keys to the castle so they could take down the black bird-flag (which is what they call our eagle) from the tower where it flies, for in their view it offends the firmament. In its place they want to raise the true son of the heavenly world, the crescent.

That is what they have been doing everywhere in recent times: they pretend to be pursuing a symbol when their real aim is conquest. They kept the issue of religion to the end, since they were sure it would be their winning bid. Their chief pointed to the bell-tower and said that as far as the instrument of torture was concerned (that is what they call the Holy Cross), we could, if we wished, hang on to it, and also, obviously, keep our Christian faith. You’ll renounce it yourselves in due course, he added, because no nation could possibly prefer martyrdom to the peace of Islam.

Our answer was short and firm: neither the eagle nor the cross would ever be removed from our firmament; they were the symbols and the fate we had elected, and we would remain faithful to them. And so that each of us may keep his own symbols and fate according to the dispositions of the Lord, they had no alternative but to leave.

They did not wait for the interpreter to translate our last words before rising hurriedly to their feet in fury. They called us blind, said they had parleyed enough already, and that it was now time for arms to speak. Then they hastened towards the rear gate, taking a path through the centre of the courtyard so as to show off their magnificent costumes.

Copyright ” 1970 by Ismail Kadare. English-language translation copyright ” 2008 by David Bellos. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide


The Siege marks an exciting new phase in the stellar career of Helen Dunmore. Her canvas is monumental–the Nazis’ 1941 winter siege on Leningrad that killed six hundred thousand–but her focus is heartrendingly intimate.

One family, the Levins, fights to stay alive in their small apartment, held together by the unlikely courage and resourcefulness of twenty-three-year-old Anna. Though she dreams of an artist’s life, she must instead forage for food in the ever more desperate city and watch her little brother grow cruelly thin. Their father, a blacklisted writer who once advocated a robust life of the mind, withers in spirit and body. At such brutal times everything is tested. And yet Dunmore’s inspiring story shows that even then, the triumph of the human heart is that love need not fall away.


1) How is Leningrad portrayed in the novel? It is, of course, the setting, but the sense of place–seasons, rivers, streets, history–is so strong that the city itself is a major character.

On a June night, “however old you are, you can’t stay indoors on a night like this. It stirs again, the promise and recklessness of white nights. Peter’s icy, blood-sodden marshes bear up the city like a swan . . . trembling in the summer light, stirring and getting ready to fly . . . The wind breathes softly. Water laps under the midnight bridges. And suddenly you know that there’s no greater possible happiness than to be here, even when you’re so old you’re beyond walking” (p. 3). Yet we read in the German directive in the preface, “The Fuehrer has decided to have Leningrad wiped from the face of the earth.” The city operates under a death sentence that only gradually becomes clear to its citizens.

As characters change in the novel, so does the city. How are these changes made manifest? At the end of summer, not having yet been bombed, it is still “floating, lyrical, miraculous Petersburg, made out of nothing by a Tsar who wanted everything and didn’t care what it cost. Peter’s window on Europe, through which light shines. Here’s beauty built on bones, classical facades that cradled revolution, summers that lie in the cup of winter”(p. 107). Yet what are the ominous signs that life is changing here forever? Think of the trenches gashing the parks, Hermitage treasures hastily shipped out for safekeeping, statues stowed in cellars or wrapped like mummies.

What is the essential paradox about Leningrad? As even their city itself grows into an enemy full of distrust, disappearances, black vans, yet its people contemplate destroying it to save it from the Germans. We also think of the man wringing the neck of one more chicken the Fascists won’t eat. And outside the city, at the dacha, Anna brutally roots up potatoes and onions and turnips she cannot carry. “No matter who invades, they’ll find nothing. The land won’t feed them . . . She kicks the soil over the food she has destroyed” (p. 116).

2) How does Helen Dunmore create for us simultaneously both epic sweep and intimate portrayal of character? We are reminded of War and Peace as we feel caught in the rush of grand and terrible events that are made more meaningful for us through identifying with the people suffering. For one thing, Dunmore often uses the second person, “you,” to draw us into scenes. How else does she balance these elements?

3) How is the theme of the quest developed? For instance, Anna early on fights her way through the brambles to reach Marina Petrovna as if she were on a medieval quest. How is the idea of journeying used throughout the novel to propel plot as well as reveal theme and character? At the end of the book, does the epilogue, a quotation from Pushkin, make you as a reader feel that you, too, have been on a journey? (“No, I shall not wholly die . . .”) In the depth of winter and the siege, Anna, back from the dacha, with her remaining, unconfiscated pannier, calls,” Andrei Mikhailovich! Is that you? . . . He looks up at her call. “Anna.” He says it as if her name is the end of a journey . . .” Their life connection is established, but it is still only the beginning of their journey.

4) Pushkin, the great Russian poet, rises from the past to enspirit his people. How is Pushkin important to Mikhail? To Anna? Even to Fedya, the crass neighbor? How is Pushkin part of the fabric of various characters (not only the intelligentsia)?

5) Anna, through whom events are seen as through a prism, is a very real person who is forced by circumstance to become a heroine. We think of Job as she is beset by adversities. What is the catalogue of horrors for Anna? Her youth is cut off by her mother’s death that delivers Kolya into her arms, an event that also signals the end of art school and friends her own age. Because her father cannot earn a living, Anna is forced into menial labor, including scrubbing toilets at the nursery school. What urges her on to keep this job at all costs, a job where she is constantly humiliated by the aparatchnik Elizabeta? Is it just duty or something deeper in her nature that keeps Anna bicycling long distances to work and to the dacha to find food, then transport it to cook for the two helpless males at home? Anna, who never has enough sleep, seems already pushed to her limits even before war begins in earnest. Is she extraordinary, or is she meant to be representative of thousands of fellow citizens similarly beset?

What are other sides of Anna that show her as a human being? When is she petty or jealous or resentful? Do these moments make us identify with her even more? “No one tells me what to do’ (p. 119). Her independence, fierceness even, are part of her retorts to Andrei. She feels graceless, especially compared to Marina, heavy, clumsy, often dressed in hand-me-downs from her parents . . . but this is the Anna that Andrei loves, her heat and curves and direct gaze. Marina brings out her competition, some on behalf of her mother. “No, thinks Anna, don’t come any closer. I am not a girl who’s looking for a mother. If you sent me a letter, I would send it back unopened” (p. 123).

6) If you were in charge of making a movie from the book, whom would you cast as Anna? Mikhail? Andrei? Marina? Evgenia? Others? What music would you choose? Which scenes seem to call out for music? Would you limit yourself to Russian music?

7) Do you see ways in which the characters are reduced, distilled almost, to elementals? When? With all the unspeakable hardship–hunger, fatigue, fear, disease–are there still ways in which Anna and her expanding family discover deeper humanity? What are these ways? How, paradoxically, has war given them connections to each other that might never have happened otherwise? Which relationships are forged exclusively by the war and siege?

8) How are children important thematically to the book? There are poignant memories of Anna as a child with her mother, Kolya and his survival are central, Anna’s nursery charges are vividly depicted, as are the children headed for evacuation. There is the lost child of Marina . . . and Zina’s baby. Consider also Anna’s ambivalence about whether she will ever have a child of her own or whether she even wants one. What is particularly wrenching about these pictures of childhood in the siege?

9) The tale of General Winter and General Hunger, initially told to Anna as a child by Mikhail, grows to appalling significance, as fairy tales often do. The pincer image is a grim one, not only for Finns and Germans, in the minds of Leningraders, but also for the inexorable weather and food shortages. How does the book bring the bitter cold and starvation to life for the reader? It is as though we are not just reading about it, but we are actually experiencing it all . . . These are northern Russians, who know winter as a potential enemy in the best of times. From the beginning, it looms, menacing, as people think how bad it can get.

We recall Anna’s countless Sisyphean trudges through the Arctic cold to fetch bread or fuel. “Anna’s not even sure that she’s moving forward . . . Perhaps only the veil of falling snow is moving and she herself is treading in the same footprints, over and over again. (p. 163)

And the hunger: ‘she forces herself on. She’s so hungry. Somehow the hunger feels sharper out here. Indoors you become torpid. You’re weak, but you don’t understand quite how weak until you try to do something which demands energy. You move slowly, and rest a lot, like an invalid. You take time to build up to making tea, and lean against the table while the water boils. Hours drift past, glazed. But out here it’s frightening. She mustn’t rest, not even for a minute, or the cold will get her . . . the snow seems to be pushing her backwards’ (p. 163).

What images brought the hunger home to you most forcefully? The wallpaper paste from Kolya’s fort? The leather from Mikhail’s forgotten case that Anna boils up for soup? The joy of finding one small onion in the broom bristles, when, for Anna and Andrei, it is a sign of hope, however tenuous. For some readers, after reading The Siege, even making soup out of what’s in the larder or throwing another log on the fire become acts of grace.

10) Bread, the staff of life, the sine qua non of survival in winter Leningrad, quickly grows into a central symbol. What scenes do you recall that clarify the preciousness of bread? For example, “These are not sacks of flour, but days of life. If a truck rolls into a crevasse, this number of people will die . . . Kolya must chew . . . bit by bit . . . in order to extract every morsel of goodness from the bread. She will smear it with a few drops of sunflower oil she bartered for her mother’s sheepskin coat. Kolya’s whole life is in his mouth.

“The bread queue surges. It’s arrived, the bread which is still called bread even when it’s mostly cellulose and warehouse sweepings. The smell of it drifts out as if from the lips of heaven. In front of Anna the woman in the fox-furs begins to cry and laugh, crossing herself over and over. She had believed there would be no bread today. That today the ration would simply cease to be. it would disappear, like the last little circle of water that a wild duck struggles to keep open in winter, by constantly swimming round and round in the same spot” (p. 195).

Or the scene on the twelfth of December, when there is no electricity, no running water. “Leningrad is garlanded with ice, pinned down by heavy blankets of snow . . . The bread ration is now 250 grams per day for workers, and 125 grams for everyone else. How much is that? A couple of slices of bread. One, if you cut thickly. But you don’t cut thickly. You cut the bread into cubes. You moisten each one with saliva. As long as it lasts, you have food in your mouth. But your stomach tears at you. It’s not fooled” (pp. 191-2).

How can one ever again take bread for granted?

11) In this stark tale of struggle and privation, there are few moments of levity. But they exist as part of these indomitable characters. Anna and Evgenia share their wry memories when they part: ‘don’t waste bloody sausages! . . . And don’t let those hands get soft! Piss on your blisters!” (pp. 88-9). They have been comrades digging defenses, and so they remain, different as they were to start with. Another moment that piques Anna’s sense of humor is her hoping that Elizabeta will somehow entangle her telephone cord and knock off all her carefully arranged bureaucratic papers. (Alas, it is not to be, but it was an idea of merit.)

Can you remember other moments of humor, black or otherwise? Of course, in this totalitarian state, “Jokes are the worst thing, everyone knows. Nothing gets you disappeared faster than a joke overheard by the wrong person” (p. 58). What is it to live in a world where humor is forbidden, where it is dangerous?

12) How is art significant in the book? To Marina, with her Shakespeare and all the roles not played? To Mikhail, who writes through his civil defense duties, who writes with no hope of being published and valid fears of recrimination if his scribblings are found by authorities? To Anna, with her recognized gift at drawing?

“To stay alive is not enough, if everything else has gone.” In the height of the siege, Marina reads Shakespeare aloud, and Anna draws, with a new intensity and sureness. “Tonight, the charcoal seems not just to sweep the paper, but to understand every grain of it” (p. 185). This portrait of Marina is far more authentic than the one Anna began earlier. Now life together on the edge, shared battles for survival, have forged this new piece of art. What other times is Anna’s art called on to capture lives, even as they have seeped away?

How does art function as a creative outlet, a connection, a last bastion against brutality? At times we are reminded of Goya drawings of war and other crimes to humanity. What scenes are particularly visual, ones you might like to draw or see illustrated?

13) What is the role of the past? How do you react as a reader as the past is revealed, mainly in the last part of the novel, even though you glean hints steadily throughout? What we learn is not only about these particular characters but also about a different era. Marina tells Anna the theater was at the center of a new spirit of adventure and creativity. In contrast to the stupor of Leningrad in 1941, Marina describes a time of heady excitement and freedom! “Everyone looked beautiful, even those who were ugly” (p. 211). But “the time of hope didn’t last long. Everything solidified so quickly.” . . . How does this revelation contribute to our understanding of both Marina and Mikhail? Vera?

The past is always with these people, whether it is the dacha that belonged to Anna’s grandmother or the bicycle of her mother, Vera. Do you think the past will continue to be so important to them, or will the war, winter, siege and famine have seared it all away? Is it possible they will, if they survive, be somehow born anew to create their own histories?

14) Among the dreadful consequences of both a totalitarian regime and war is the dehumanization of people. Dunmore is relentless in her images underscoring this idea. “We scurry about like ants with a stick poked in their ant heap” (p. 44). People ‘scuttle past you, heads down” and informers “weaseling” off to the authorities. And ‘soldiers, gray-faced, mongrel-looking in exhaustion and defeat” (p. 77). Kolya regards his father Mikhail, returned from the front, a victim of the ravages of war and injury. “The thing in the bed didn’t look like his father at all . . . the silent grey thing on the bed” (p. 11).

What other images of dehumanizing did you find? For instance, “The streets are almost empty. She passes the hump of a body frozen into a doorway, covered with drifted snow. It looks like a bag of rubbish, but . . . it’s an old woman. . . .There are people sitting on benches, swathed in snow, planted like bulbs to wait for spring. They stay there day after day. No one comes to take them away” (p. 225).

15) Dunmore’s characters such as Anna and Marina, even Evgenia, are remarkably faceted. Yet she also creates people who have become their own stereotypes. How is Elizabeta drawn? And Fedya, the neighbor? “Fedya’s a Party member, the real thing. When he sees any member of the Levin family, his face closes over. He doesn’t trust them . . . the Levins are trouble. . . . Fedya certainly believes that enemies of the people exist. He reads his paper thoroughly, and scans the staring little photographs of engineers and university lecturers who have been unmasked as spies, Trotskyites and saboteurs. They thought they’d fooled him, did they? Well, look at them now, and a good thing, too!” [Part of Anna, to her shame, still wants Fedya to like her. She wants to tell him that she works, too, at toilets and children’s bottoms.] “But it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. He knows her origins. She’s the daughter of a member of the intelligentsia, and a dodgy one at that. No amount of toilet-scrubbing will get rid of that stain” (pp. 177-8).

In that brief portrait is the face of an entire people Sovietized. How does Zina’s slavish following of Fedya lead to tragedy? Is it inevitable that any strong, centrally-governed society will produce such drum-beat personalities? Any institution?

16) What happens to humanity as a result of the siege? How does hunger turn people Hobbesian? (Think of the uniformed official playing with Anna’s head with his steel-toed boot, as if he would crush her for sport as he confiscates her wood.) Even Anna becomes suspicious and ruthless like everyone else. She even imagines knocking Galya on the head and running with the stove. Marina coldly asks if Anna will give a hundred grams of sugar to the starving neighbor baby, only to watch her own Kolya starve and die. “It’s going to go on like this, getting colder and colder, and with less and less food” (p. 183). We are reminded of Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole, life in extremis, with only endurance to save them.

17) Who is the man Mikhail? By the time we meet him, he is a memory of his former vibrant, publishing self; he is in pain and degradation, with a lost sense of self. But he is still writing, and it is his voice we hear in his journals. “But here we are, looking into the face of something even more terrifying than the misery we’ve been able to pile up for ourselves . . . our lives and houses are upside down . . .That’s what war means: blunders and muddle, and doing things without understanding why you’re doing them. A long time later, if you’re lucky, someone comes along and writes things down so that they make sense, and calls his story history. This I should not be writing down. How can a man with children be so criminally irresponsible? But there’s something deep within me that says: Write, whatever happens’ (pp. 44-45). How else is Mikhail drawn for us? Do we have a sense that he is nothing but a has-been? He makes no practical contribution to the household, but what does he represent otherwise to the family?

18) Marina Petrovna, like Mikhail, denied her m”tier, is barred from the stage because she is considered subversive. ‘she is invisible for the same reasons as Anna’s father is unpublishable” (p. 19). She has to find a new road. What do you think of her invasion of the Levin household? How does she turn her talents into a major contribution? How else does she help this family survive? What do you think of her as a person by the end of the novel?

19) Andrei appears on the scene as a result of the war. What precipitates his arrival at Anna’s house? He is different from other people in the family. How? For one thing, he is, almost a doctor, functioning as one. He is described as methodical, looking for carbolic acid. “What he has touched and talked to: that he believes . . . what he can see and touch and smell” (p. 79). In these ways he could not be more different from the more artistic and intuitive Levins. Yet he brings Anna gifts of a different kind. How does his being Siberian add to his characterization? In what ways do these two, Anna and Andrei, represent a synthesis that sustains them and others in the family? Unsentimental as this love story is, what makes it indelible?

20) Enemies are not only the Germans, and General Winter and General Hunger, but also the greedy, vindictive officials who prey on weaker citizens. Evgenia says, “We may have eaten all the real rats, but we’ve still got the human ones around” (p. 241). What examples of treacherous behavior do you find, official and otherwise?

21) Pavlov is portrayed with detail and understanding even though he is an official. How does he lend credibility to the desperation of the story? He could be a caricature, with his charts and calculations, but he cares about a solution to the insoluble, at the very least. His employees, who fear him, also pity him.

Another employee of the state whose vignette links the big story of famine with the personal, is Vasya Sokolov, “who never expected to end up driving lorris over the ice” (p. 277). How is his scene memorable, and how does it connect to Anna?

22) War creates an upside-down world. Values are perverted and subverted. Think of the surgeon who offers Andrei a guinea pig in a package. “Besides, you know, I have no dependents. These days that is a blessing” (p. 201). Or the unfathomable question in a home of book lovers: “How many volumes did you burn, Marina?” When else do we see life as it should be turned on its ear?

23) At the end, in spring, the graves are dug, and the casualties are buried. “The memorial stone will swear that they will never be forgotten, and this may be true . . . is that enough for them, those ones under the grass? They’re Leningraders, after all. They know the score. Leningraders will always be aware that stones can be lifted, statues can be felled, names changed, engraved words erased overnight. Invaders can come again. There’s no use relying too much on a memory that’s only set in stone” (p. 290).

“Only set in stone.” Are we meant to think of Ozymandias of Shelley? Is it art, ultimately–pictures, poetry, novels–that will preserve human lives?


The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman; Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally; And the War Is Over by Ismail Marahimin; We the Living by Ayn Rand; Dr. Zhivago by Boris Leonidovich Pasternak; The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank; My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan