The Leningrad Blockade at Manchester Central Library marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the blockade during World War II with an exhibition of images showing the reality of life under siege. However, the subject is far closer to home than many might realise and the anniversary also marks the first civic-level contact between Manchester and Leningrad that ultimately led to the signing of a Friendship Agreement in 1962, at the height of the Cold War. Dr Catherine Danks, curator of the exhibition and Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, reveals the incredible story of solidarity and controversy that frames this fascinating exhibition.
Manchester has a long history of trade unionism and radical politics stretching back to Marx and Engels, did this play a role in Edwards’ decision to reach out to Leningrad at the start of the blockade?
There were strong links between Manchester and the USSR before World War II. For socialists and some trade unionists the Bolshevik revolution and the new Soviet state offered the possibility of a new, better world. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, “Hands off Russia” committees were set up by European socialists and trade unionists to oppose the intervention by western governments in the civil war on the side of the anti-Bolshevik White forces. Manchester and Salford had their own “Hands off Russia” committee, the national “Hands off Russia” committee was organised at a conference in Manchester in 1919 and the national HQ was in Manchester. The British Soviet Friendship Society was founded in 1927 and the Manchester branches were active in promoting the USSR. In May 1933 James Beaumont a member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) who worked at the Metropolitan-Vickers plant in Manchester, was a member of a British workers’ delegation to the USSR. On his return he provided a generally positive account of what he saw.
Manchester as a manufacturing and port city already had experience of trading with Imperial Russia. For example, before World War I the Manchester-based Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS) had developed considerable trade links with Russian cooperatives and in the 1920s the Cooperative Bank Ltd. advanced money to fund the export of oil, butter, soya beans, wheat and furs from the USSR. The Anglo-Russian Trade Agreement in 1921 provided the legal basis for trade. British Westinghouse had offices in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution; in the 1920s the company, now called Metropolitan-Vickers started trading with the USSR. In January 1933 several Metropolitan-Vickers engineers in the USSR were arrested and accused of spying, although they were eventually released. Despite this, trade soon resumed and production from the Metropolitan-Vickers plant in Trafford was shipped on the Arctic Convoys to the USSR during the war.
On 22nd June 1941, following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a veteran anti-Bolshevik, gave a radio broadcast, in which he declared:
“Any man or State who fights against Nazism, will have our aid. Any man or State who marches with Hitler is our foe. . . . It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people. We shall appeal to all our friends and Allies in every part of the world to take the same course and to pursue it as we shall, faithfully and steadfastly to the end.”
We were now allies and with our fates intertwined, it was patriotic for British people to offer help to the USSR. The alliance was formalised on 12th July 1941 when Britain’s ambassador Stafford Cripps and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed an Anglo-Soviet Agreement in Moscow.
By the beginning of September 1941 the Nazis were poised to attack Leningrad, the USSR’s second city. The threat to Leningrad was discussed in the British Parliament and reported on the front pages of national newspapers. British institutions responded by sending expressions of solidarity and support to their Leningrad counterparts. These included Oxford University to Leningrad State University, the British Museum to the Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public Library and the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division in north-east England to the defenders of Leningrad. On behalf of all the city’s political parties the Lord Mayor of Manchester sent a cable of support to the Leningrad City Soviet (council) on 6th September 1941.
Were there any displays of support/solidarity from Mancunians?
There were no direct lines of communication between Leningrad and Manchester during WWII. Leningrad was under siege and had very limited communications with the rest of the USSR. In response to the new British-Soviet alliance, British-Soviet Unity Committees were set up by civic leaders (mayors and provosts) across Great Britain. Such committees, which were sometimes called Anglo-Russian Unity or Friendship Committees, were not party-political; their members included people from across the political spectrum, business people, trade unionists, church leaders, ex-servicemen, members of educational bodies and unaffiliated members of the public. The local committees set up a National Council for British-Soviet Unity (NCBSU) in February 1942, to promote enduring friendship between the British and Soviet people, friendship based on knowledge, mutual aid, and complete understanding.
The Manchester Anglo-Russian Friendship Committee under the leadership of the lord mayor was especially active: it organised events such as an Anglo-Russian Friendship Week to raise funds for the Mrs Churchill Fund for Russia and the Russian Red Cross Society; and promoted Anglo-Russian understanding and friendship. Metro Vicks workers contributed their penny-a-week charitable donation to the Mrs Churchill Fund for Russia. The lord mayor also hosted Ivan Maisky the Soviet Ambassador to Britain (1932-43) in Manchester. These activities were in support of the USSR in general rather than specifically Leningrad. The NCBSU promoted fraternal relations between British and Soviet towns and gave advise on how to go about this. With the NCBSU’s support, Manchester tried 1944-45 to establish civic ties first with Kiev and then Kharkov in Ukraine, although the cities exchanged fraternal greetings they did not develop into a formal link.
In February 1949, the Lancashire and Cheshire District Council of the Society for Anglo-Soviet Friendship and the Trade Union Federation of Lancashire and Cheshire held a conference in Manchester. The conference called for peace and the consolidation of friendship with the Soviet Union and was reported in Pravda the CPSU’s newspaper. The Leningrad Trades Council sent a long telegram in reply and its text was circulated to the delegates of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council. This 1949 exchange fraternal messages between trade unionists was an important step in the development of post war fraternal ties between Manchester and Leningrad. In 1955, Manchester received an invitation from the Leningrad City Soviet to send a delegation to Leningrad. The lord mayor, Tom Regan who had visited the USSR in 1927 as a member of a workers’ delegation, led a mixed delegation of Labour, Conservative and Liberal councillors to Leningrad in February-March 1956. A Leningrad delegation visited Manchester in July 1956 and this link developed in the signing of a Friendship Agreement in 1962.
Were Manchester’s links to the USSR ever a source of controversy or tension?
In 1955-6 opposition to the exchange of civic delegations was led by Alderman J. E. Pheasey, he resigned from both the Conservative Party and the Manchester Council as part of his campaign. The cost of the Leningrad visit was £1,500 and Manchester also incurred costs in hosting a return delegation from Leningrad. Alderman Pheasey organised a poorly-attended meeting of Manchester businessmen in protest at what he saw as a waste of public money, but this was very much a minority position and there was cross-party agreement of Manchester councillors in favour of the visits.
During the 1970s, period of détente in east-west relations one of the areas of tension was the treatment of Soviet Jews and the refusal of applications to leave the USSR. Soviet Jews who applied to leave the USSR and were refused were called refuseniks, they typically lost their professions and had to take manual jobs to survive. In the 1970s, the visits of Leningrad cultural performers and civic delegations to Manchester were the target of protests by Jewish emigration rights groups and their supporters.
For example, the ballet dancers Valery and Galina Panov had been sacked by the Leningrad Kirov company when they applied to immigrate to Israel in 1972. A campaign in support of the Panovs was organised by the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry (known as the 35s), and leading figures of the stage and screen in Britain, the USA and Europe. In 1973, Kirov Ballet and a civic delegation were invited to Manchester by the Lord Mayor Edward Grant and the City Council. Edward Grant rejected the suggestion that the Manchester visit should be cancelled in response to the treatment of the Panovs. On 23rd May 1973, he hosted a meeting in his office of the Leningrad Deputy Mayor Yevgeny Gogolev with representatives of the local Jewish community, but it was not possible to find common ground. The Manchester performance of the Kirov Ballet was disrupted by protestors; about 70 members of the 35s in the balcony unfurled a banner which protested the treatment of Jews imprisoned after the Leningrad highjack trials and the Panovs. There were also demonstrations in Albert Square outside Manchester Town Hall.
The 1962 friendship agreement between Manchester and Leningrad came at a significant time – the Berlin Wall went up the year before, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was a year away – what was the background to it?
The post-war steps towards the Manchester-Leningrad Friendship Agreement started when the Lancashire and Cheshire District Council of the Society for Anglo-Soviet Friendship and the Trade Union Federation of Lancashire and Cheshire held a conference in Manchester in February 1949. The conference called for peace and the consolidation of friendship with the Soviet Union and was reported in Pravda the CPSU’s newspaper. The Leningrad Trades Council sent a long telegram in reply and its text was circulated to the delegates of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council. In 1955, Manchester received an invitation from the Leningrad City Soviet to send a delegation to Leningrad. The Lord Mayor, Tom Regan who had visited the USSR in 1927 as a member of a workers’ delegation, led a delegation of Conservative and Labour councillors to Leningrad in February-March 1956. A Leningrad delegation visited Manchester in July 1956 and this link developed in the signing of a Friendship Agreement in 1962.
Despite tensions in the 1950s and early 1960s the overall trajectory of British-Soviet relations was generally positive. In February–March 1959 British Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a series of meetings in Moscow during which both sides expressed an interest in expanding Anglo-Soviet trade and cultural exchanges. They also discussed more contentious issues such as stopping nuclear testing and arms reduction, and were unable to come to an agreement on a demilitarised free city in Berlin or on unifying Germany.
Although the visit was not without its tensions it did mark a thaw in intergovernmental Anglo-Soviet relations, both leaders expressed their concern to avoid war and agreed a programme of Anglo-Soviet exchanges for 1959–60 between the Soviet Relations Committee of the British Council and the Soviet State Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (SSOD). On 28th March 1959 the first Anglo-Soviet Programme of Cultural, Educational, Scientific and Technical Exchanges, which gave government support for regular cultural exchanges, was agreed in Moscow. This and subsequent agreements provided official support from both countries for exchanges of researchers, teachers, students; orchestras, ballet and theatre companies. In 1959, the British Government created the Great Britain–USSR Society to encourage cultural exchanges between the two countries, promote knowledge and understanding of Britain in the USSR and to encourage the objective study of the USSR in Britain. These developments are important in understanding that there was British government support for developing civic level links with the USSR.
What’s the background to the images in the exhibition?
The images in Leningrad Blockade exhibition at Manchester Central Library are from the archives of the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg and the Piskarevskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg. The posters were designed and produced in Leningrad during the Blockade by artists of the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS). Throughout the Blockade TASS artists in Leningrad produced posters and information bulletins that were displayed in prominent windows throughout the city. Newsprint and ink were in short supply, so these propaganda windows were an effective way of reaching Leningraders. Such windows had been used by the Bolsheviks after the revolution. The main TASS window was on the city’s main street called October 25th Street (better known as Nevsky Prospekt). The black and white photographs are by of mostly anonymous photographers many of whom worked for TASS.
What do they reveal about day-to-day life in the besieged city that visitors might find surprising?
The sheer scale of the destruction and the number of dead can be difficult to absorb. The photographs show the human level of the Blockade: starvation, illness and death certainly but also the way Leningraders lived their everyday life: civil defence, trying to keep warm, getting food, children playing and at school, growing food, creating food supplements. There are also photographs of the unexpected such as Beauty the hippopotamus who survived the Blockade thanks to the devotion of her keeper. Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is well-known, but photographs show that it was performed in Leningrad during the Blockade in August 1942, there are also photographs of a football match between Dinamo and Nevsky Zavod also in 1942. The posters are important sources propaganda, they show the way for example that the German forces in Summer-Autumn 1941 are depicted almost as half-wits and not to be feared, but this quickly evolves into them as evil devils. The Leningrad Blockade posters also stress that the USSR has allies, that it’s not on its own.
The Siege of Stanlingrad was such a totemic part of Soviet mythology, how does the portrayal of Leningrad in propaganda and other media differ?
The commemoration of the Leningrad Blockade has been tied to broader political developments in the USSR. For example, apportioning responsibility (guilt) for the city’s lack of preparedness in 1941 was deeply embroiled in the rivalries within the USSR’s political elites. As the Blockade ended a Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad was established and included a Nazi tank and aeroplane as well as artefacts donated by ordinary people. The museum’s fate became embroiled in Stalin’s re-assertion of control over Leningrad.
In 1948-50, the Leningrad Communist party was purged, the museum’s exhibits were disbursed or destroyed and the director was shot. Post-Stalin era saw the beginnings of attempts to commemorate the Blockade in a Green belt of gardens around the city, and on 9th May 1975 a Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad was erected in Victory Square. As part of the political reforms of the mid-late 1980s, the Communist party leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a policy of openness, which encouraged the examination of the USSR’s past. The Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad was re-opened. During the Blockade the dead were buried in rapidly growing cemeteries, the best known of which is the Piskayovskoye Memorial Cemetery. After the Blockade the Piskarovskoye became place of remembrance for Leningraders, a place where schoolchildren are taught about the Blockade and where foreign dignitaries are introduced to the scale of soviet sacrifices.
The Leningrad Blockade at Manchester Central Library runs until 29 September 2016 and admission is free. For more on the troubled politics of the 20th Century, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.