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Audio: After the Siege by Cory Doctorow

My grandmother, Valentina Rachman (now Valerie Goldman), was a little girl when Hitler laid siege to Leningrad, 12 years old. All my life, she told me that she’d experienced horrors during the war that I’d never comprehend, but I’m afraid that in my callow youth, I discounted this. My grandmother wasn’t in a concentration camp, and as far as I knew, all that had happened is that she’d met my grandfather—a Red Army conscript—in Siberia, they’d deserted and gone to Azerbaijan, and my father had been born in a refugee camp near Baku. That’s dramatic, but hardly a major trauma.

Then I went to St Petersburg with my family in the summer of 2005, and my grandmother walked us through the streets of her girlhood, and for the first time, she opened up about the war to me. She pointed out the corners where she’d seen frozen, starved corpses, their asses sliced away by black-market butchers; the windows from which she’d heaved the bodies of her starved neighbors when she grew too weak to carry them.

The stories came one after another, washing over the sun-bleached summertime streets of Petersburg, conjuring up a darker place, frozen over, years into a siege that killed millions. Harrison E. Salisbury’s “900 Days” is probably the best account of those years, and the more I read of it, the more this story fleshed itself out in my head. I wrote almost all of it on airplanes between London, Singapore and San Francisco, in great, 5000- and 6000-word gouts.

My grandmother’s stories found an easy marriage with the contemporary narrative of developing nations being strong-armed into taking on rich-country copyright and patent laws, even where this means letting their citizens die by the millions for lack of AIDS drugs, destroying their education system, or punishing local artists to preserve imported, expensive culture.

The USA was a pirate nation for the first 100 years of its existence, ripping off the patents and trademarks of the imperial European powers it had liberated itself from with blood. By keeping their GDP at home, the US revolutionaries were able to bootstrap their nation into an industrial powerhouse. Now, it seems, their descendants are bent on ensuring that no other country can pull the same trick off.

—Cory Doctorow

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