Title: The Lions of Leningrad (2022)
Written by: Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem
Art by: Thomas Du Caju
Translated by: Joseph Laredo
Publisher: Dead Reckoning (an imprint of the Naval Institute Press)
Reviewer’s Note: I received a copy of The Lions of Leningrad from the publisher in exchange for an honest review of this compilation book, with no expectations other than a fair assessment of the material.
On March 16, 2022, Dead Reckoning, the Naval Institute Press’ graphic novel imprint, published The Lions of Leningrad, a compilation of Belgian writer Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem’s The Lions of Leningrad – Volume I: I Am Chapayev (2019)and The Lions of Leningrad – Volume II: City of Death (2021). Set in the Soviet Union in two different eras – the frame story is set in January 1962, while the main narrative is set during the Siege of Leningrad (September 8, 1941-January 27, 1944) and immediately after.
Originally written in French as Les souris de Leningrad (I: Je suis Chapayev and II: La ville de morts) and featuring art by Thomas de Caju, The Lions of Leningrad tells the story of four Russian teenagers – Anka, Pyotr, Maxim, and Grigory – who are among the millions of Soviet citizens who are shocked when the armies of Nazi Germany invade the Soviet Union on Sunday, June 22, 1941. It is both a coming-of-age story and a vivid – and sometimes chilling – account of the 872-day blockade of the Soviet Union’s second largest city and the costliest, most gruesome siege in history.
From the Publisher:
On January 27, 1962, a concert at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad is interrupted by a gunshot and an ex-state prisoner is arrested. At the police station, the mysterious gunman recalls the early summer of 1941… When the German army begins its invasion of Soviet Russia, four children are evacuated to the countryside: Maxim, the son of a senior Communist Party official; Pyotr, the son of writers; Anka, the daughter of a concert violinist; and Grigory, the son of a pilot that was executed for insubordination. The farm where they are staying is attacked and the train that is supposed to take them to safety is blown to bits by German planes. The four children must fight through enemy lines to get back to their families in Leningrad. But all that awaits them is the beginning of one of the most prolonged and destructive sieges in history. Two and half desperate years that will push their friendship – and their lives–to the limit. – The Lions of Leningrad, back cover blurb
The Lions of Leningrad is a combination of Young Adult (YA) fiction and history primer about one of the darkest episodes of the Second World War. Originally published in Europe between 2019 and 2021 as a two-volume series, it eschews the conventional approach of telling a war story through the eyes of soldiers, airmen, sailors, or marines and focuses instead on the experiences of those who tend to suffer the most in any war – the civilians, especially children and young adults.
Even though I suspect that Van Rijckeghem’s quartet of friends – the beautiful Anka, the intense Grigory, the quiet but stalwart Maxim, and the extroverted but shady Pyotr – is a fictional creation, the details of the Siege of Leningrad are not. And those details, ranging from the constant bombing raids by the Luftwaffe and artillery bombardment from the Germans’ Army Group North to the venal machinations of NKVD informers, Communist Party officials who trade food rations and other benefits to gain sexual favors from women, and the bands of cannibals who stalk young children to kidnap them, kill them, and eat their flesh.
All four of The Lions of Leningrad’s main characters are the same age – 15 when the book begins, and between 17 and 18 when the central story ends – so many tropes of the YA genre can be found in Van Rijckeghem’s tale. Whether it’s the depiction of Anka, Maxim, Grigory, and Pyotr’s last bit of rambunctious childhood play – when we first meet them as teens on the last day of spring 1941, they are ardent Communist youths playing “Bolsheviks vs. Tsarists” in Farmer Ivan’s potato field.
In the early scenes of The Lions of Leningrad, which introduces the cast that we follow throughout The Lions of Leningrad, we see how Communist indoctrination shapes their worldview – the kids use a lot of Stalin era jargon, such as “He is a capitalist, not a farmer!” and “That’s just American propaganda. Tarzan doesn’t exist.” – and their belief that whatever the Party says must be true.
Take for instance this exchange between Anka and Maxim:
Anka: Hey, did you hear that the Party’s sending us to the countryside?
Maxim: Only if we’re attacked. But the Germans won’t get this far.
But the Germans do attack, and many children from Leningrad are evacuated to the countryside, including Anka and the three boys, who end up in a communal farm outside Lychkovo, where we see them next on July 18, 1941.
Here, Van Rijckeghem’s narrative takes a fateful turn. It begins with a humorous scene in which the foursome, bored and full of adolescent energy and hormones, decides to jump into a nearby river from a railway bridge. There, the boys tease – or compliment – Anka about her budding breasts (“They’ve really grown!” says one when she stands with her arms akimbo, wearing only her underwear) and dive into the river like the kids in Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. There’s even a bit when Maxim pretends to “drown” so he can kiss Anka whilst she gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
But when one of the many trains used by the Soviet government to evacuate civilians or carry troops to the front line – the story is rather vague here – is bombed by German Heinkel 111 bombers, the fun ends and the horrors of war touch the quartet of friends.
Evading the panzer spearheads and using guile, abandoned weapons, and sheer guts, the kids fight their way into Leningrad shortly before the German Army Group North captures the town of Mga and cuts off the city’s land links to the rest of the Soviet Union. Now, the three million inhabitants of the “Cradle of the Russian Revolution” must endure nearly 900 days of siege, with unimaginable horrors that will leave deep scars in the psyche of the Russian people – and forever alter the lives of the story’s main characters.
Considering that this compilation volume was published at a most inopportune time – Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime invaded Ukraine just a few weeks before Dead Reckoning’s March 16 release date – The Lions of Leningrad is still a good graphic novel done in the style of postwar European war comic books. It examines various aspects of life in both the eras of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, including such details as how even an apolitical criticism of Soviet military equipment in the prewar years could get you labeled as an “enemy of the state” and death by firing squad, or how even friends could steal your identity and take your place in Soviet society in a life-or-death situation.
The sequences set in the Siege of Leningrad show average Russian citizens and Party officials both at their best and their worst. When the blockade begins, Anka, Pyotr, Grigory, Maxim, and Grigory’s loyal dog Petrov are inseparable and bravely endure bombing raids and artillery barrages. After the Germans destroy the Badayev Warehouse, where Leningrad’s Party bosses unwisely stored most of the city’s food reserves, the bonds of friendship – and budding sexual attraction – are strained as the kids are forced to become adults – fast – while Leningrad becomes a “city of the dead.”
Although Van Rijckeghem and artist Thomas Du Caju don’t show any nudity, there are quite a few references to sex and other adult themes. Obviously, Anka is at the center of a rivalry between Maxim and Pyotr, the two boys that vie for her attention. But there’s also the sexual exploitation of Grigory’s widowed mother by a local Party Secretary – who also happens to be married to a woman who left for Moscow in the early days of the evacuation. The Party man showers her with affection, food, and other perks, and Grigory’s lonely mother ends up falling for him, but he refuses to leave his wife for her.
There are plenty of shady characters in The Lions of Leningrad; some of them are already corrupt and mean, like the foul Leningrad policeman who is obsessed with arresting Grigory simply because his late father – a Red Air Force pilot who was shot for “insubordination” during Stalin’s purges of the military – was an enemy of the state.
Other antagonists are men and women who are trapped in the besieged city, and with faced with the possibility of death by starvation, are desperately looking for anything – or anyone – to eat. No living beings, not even dogs – or children – are safe in the frozen, bomb-and-shell pocked streets of Leningrad.
Many people in the West do not know much about the war on the Eastern Front; the focus in the Anglophone nations that were belligerents in World War II is on the theaters where American, British, and Commonwealth forces fought: Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. Some of the battles in the Soviet-German War are covered, of course, but usually, most books on this huge theater of operations focus on the drive on Moscow, the Battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, and, of course, the climactic Battle of Berlin.
Sure, there have been several books about the Siege of Leningrad, including 1969’s The 900 Days by Harrison Salisbury. But Cold War tensions and jingoism on the part of most Western readers combined to create a lack of interest about the Soviet involvement in World War II, so to many American readers who are not World War II buffs, the real-life horrors depicted in The Lions of Leningrad will be shocking.
I recommend The Lions of Leningrad, even though it was published at a time when the Soviet Union’s heir, the Russian Federation, is waging a war of aggression against a neighboring state and, by extension, the West at large. It’s an interesting story of friendship, loss, betrayal, and the human will to survive. Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem writes a riveting – if perhaps a bit overwrought at times – coming of age story, and the illustrations by Thomas Du Caju are nicely drawn and colored in a classic comic book style.
 According to the Wikipedia entry on the Siege of Leningrad, total Soviet casualties (dead, wounded, or missing) are estimated to be approximately three million. Including one million civilians who died either within the Leningrad city limits or during the evacuation ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin and other Communist Party leaders.