“Mama said that sometimes (especially at night) she thinks that we are the last people on earth and that we will live out our last hour in this empty, frozen city,” 13-year-old Dima Afanas’ev wrote in his diary. His plaintive comment is quoted in Alexis Peri’s important new book, “The War Within: Diaries From the Siege of Leningrad,” in which Peri, a Boston University historian, gets behind the appalling statistics of the World War II siege (872 days, 800,000 people dead — starved or frozen) to the heart of how individuals coped, loved, worried and died during those awful two and a half years.

Peri draws on 125 diaries kept by Leningrad residents of all ages, originally at the request of the Soviet government. But after the siege, Stalin cracked down on the diarists, accusing them of “presenting blockade life in a manner too dark.” Because of this, Peri writes, “most of the journals … were privately hidden away.”

But Peri has found them, or some of them, through years of research. What they depict is achingly personal and human. Romantic desire withered as bodies starved; children took on the role of caregiver as their parents weakened and died; family members turned on one another, desperate for rations.

Bodies changed; starving children grew hair on their faces; teeth fell out. Seventeen-year-old Elena Mukhina looked in the mirror and saw “an old man” looking back at her.

Peri’s book is not a tale; it is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and it does not reprint any diary in full. But oh, these voices from a frozen world of starvation and fear! They will haunt you. It is time they were heard.


Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.

The War Within: Diaries From the Siege of Leningrad
By: Alexis Peri.
Publisher: Harvard University Press, 337 pages, $29.95.