Though dietary habits are not a usual focus on this blog, we felt it an appropriate topic as we celebrate the publication of the wonderful Matt Whyman’s new book, THE SAVAGES . It follows the lives of the Savage family, their strange family tradition and, shall we say, interesting taste in people. For more about the novel, check out Matt’s intro video below and explore more content on the web site.
For me, the question was what started this bizarre family tradition? I found the answer in the novel, and a particularly horrific and devastating time in history…
The siege of Leningrad began in June 1941, when Stalin and the Soviet Union were attacked by their supposed ally, Nazi Germany. By the end of August the German forces has reached Leningrad (St Petersburg). By 8th September 1941, every road and rail line was cut with devastating air raids starting the next day and continuing for 17 months. The citizens of Leningrad were totally isolated – no one could enter or leave, let alone bring in basic supplies like food.
At the start of the siege it was estimated that the city had enough flour for 35 days, cereals for 30 days, meat for 22 days and sugar for 60 days. The siege however, lasted until 27th January 1944 – that’s 827 days.
Ration cards were distributed, but these were dependent on status with the lowest category of dependent receiving only 125g of bread a day (3 thin slices); bread that contained a high proportion of nutritionless fillers like cottonseed. Queues lined the streets, while the weather dropped to -30 degrees, and people who managed to get their rations lived off 300 calories a day.
Desperately in need of food, the citizens of Leningrad did what they could. At first animals from the city zoo were eaten, followed by household pets (with reports that families swapped their pets with neighbours so they didn’t have to eat their own), and then wild rats and birds. Wallpaper paste was made from potatoes and so people scraped it off their walls. Grass and weeds were cooked, leather was boiled to produce a kind of edible jelly, and sheep’s intestines were boiled down with oil of clove to be used instead of milk. There are reports of men drinking oil from oil cans, eating grease from machines and joiner’s glue in their desperation.
One diarist noted ‘Hunger has changed almost everyone’, and perhaps it is unsurprising that these desperate, isolated citizens resorted to cannibalism. Police records from the time show that 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism, while 586 of them were executed for murdering their victims, although the actual number could in fact be much higher. The Leningrad police formed a special division to combat cannibalism as these cases became more regular. Sadly, the majority of people arrested were women, as mothers resorted to desperate measures to feed their children.
When the siege finally ended it was estimated that over 750,00 people had died from starvation – between a quarter and a third of the original population.
I can remember a surprisingly substantial amount of the World War II history we learned for GCSE, but the siege of Leningrad was just another date stuffed in amongst the Beer Hall Putsch and Home Front propaganda posters – and I think that’s wrong. The dark, horrific history of the siege, and perhaps in particular the lengths people went to to get food, reveal so much about human nature and human need. Not only how far we will go when we’re desperate, but also what we will do to provide for and protect those we love.
There are some parts of history that are so dark and so terrible, it’s hard to comprehend how society could have permitted such terrifying human behavior. And oftentimes, the only way we can truly explore the reality of the people who experienced these terrible things is through fiction. Fiction allows us to ask questions and experience empathy in a way that non-fiction sometimes does not permit.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea, THE SAVAGES is not a dark exploration of World War II Russia. Instead, Matt delicately uses this horrible historical event as an anchor for the family’s behavior. It makes the family real. They don’t just have some strange desire for blood. They are a regular family with an unusual family tradition. A tradition that has been passed onto them, so they can appreciate all they have around them and never forget the past.