Leningrad (which was and is known St. Petersburg) was the seat of culture in Soviet Russia to the same extent that Moscow was the center of administration. In the late 1930s it was also a city, and in fact Russia was a country, in pain. Brutal purges had swept through the Soviet power structure, particularly in the military circles, and left people reeling. Families lost fathers and mothers and the cream of up-and-coming Soviet leadership was exiled, if they were lucky, or executed, if they were not.
It was also a city literally on the brink of war. There wasn’t a great deal of territory between Leningrad and the Soviet border with Nazi Germany. Although the Winter War with Poland had bought Russia some breathing room, the Russian soldiers along the frontier weren’t at readiness, even though the Wehrmacht was quietly gathering troops there. Most people weren’t concerned, since the Kremlin assured them that any war would be fought on German soil, not Russian.
Hitler had other plans.
On June 22nd, 1941 Operation Barbarossa sent nearly one hundred and thirty divisions of Wehrmacht troops across the border and into Russia. The offensive would grind to a stop just outside Moscow and the people of Russia would be fighting for their lives for years until they could finally begin to push the Germans out. The story of the war on the Eastern Front is a trial that equals and exceeds just about anything that happened in Western Europe, but it remains mostly unknown in the West.
Some part of this is undoubtedly due to the distance between us and the Cold War, which quickly transformed Russia from ally into enemy. Part of it may be a natural tendency to focus on what we’ve done, rather than what others have. Regardless, if pressed to name one major event on the Eastern Front, the vast majority of Americans will mention the battle of Stalingrad. If pressed they probably won’t be able to think of another.
However, until Stalingrad the symbol of Russia under attack was Leningrad. Depending on when you date the beginning and end of the siege, one can say it lasted for anywhere from about 875 to 900 days. Not the longest siege in history, but certainly one of the most destructive.
From the moment the noose drew closed, Leningrad was in peril. The Soviet propaganda insisted that Comrade Stalin and his military chiefs wouldn’t allow the Nazis to last long on Russian ground. In keeping with that line, whether people believed it or not, not many people (especially children) were sent out of the city nor were sufficient supplies for the city brought in. The city couldn’t be made ready for siege without someone being accused of being unpatriotic.
The Nazis didn’t even plan to keep the city once it was captured. It was valuable as a symbol of Russia, and once it was proven Germany was able to take possession of it in spite of the best resistance the Soviets could muster, and once all the propaganda value in Hitler driving down Nevsky Prospekt was gathered, the city was to be demolished and the population dispersed into the countryside, sparing the Third Reich the expense of provisioning the city and ruining the legacy of Peter the Great for good.
Reality turned out a bit different. Operation Barbarossa didn’t quite manage to sweep up Leningrad, but it did manage to surround it. Instead of a brutal occupation followed by swift destruction the city instead wound up facing the more-brutal specter of starvation. Worse, the greatest weapon in the Russian arsenal was a two edged sword – General Winter would not distinguish between friend and foe. With no way to easily transport in fuel for the power plants, winter in Leningrad would be fatally cold.
The last months of 1941 and 1942 would take an unbelievable toll on Leningrad’s people, showing off every facet of human nature.
Bureaucratic brilliance would keep the rations, such as they were, moving to the men and women in the street, while at the same time the same bureaucrats would interfere with the projects Leningraders would rely on to keep them motivated and alive from day to day. Ingenuity would help the people find things to eat long after the official stores of meat and vegetables were all but exhausted, but sometimes that boiled down to trading everything one had on the black market. And that came after all the birds and vermin had been hunted down. Even now, there is debate about what extent cannibalism was practiced. Certainly, many were executed for it.
There were amazing feats done throughout the siege. In the first winter the primary means of supplying the city was a long truck route that wound across the frozen water of Lake Ladoga. The opposite shore was still in Soviet hands and a small town there became a supply depot. Hundreds of trucks wound their way back and forth across the ice round the clock, sometimes under air attack, to deliver the supplies that would keep Leningrad alive. It was hazardous and not just because of the attacks, for with little in the way of landmarks it was easy to get lost. Stories tell of one driver who reached the far shore hours late due to loosing his way, to find a note on the assignment board addressed to him. “Because of you,” it scolded, “five hundred Leningraders will have no bread ration!”
The bizarre and gruesome also reared it’s head. One man would walk to work through the killing cold, unwilling to stay home lest the will to live simply leave him through inactivity. On the way he would stop in a frozen streetcar, where there was always another man sitting. At first, the man thought his companion was simply going to work, just like he was. It took nearly a week for him to realize there was only one living man in the vehicle. In fact, people dead of cold or starvation were everywhere in the city, popping out of snow banks in the spring or just dropping over dead as they passed through the halls of their apartments.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 was dedicated to the city. Though Shostakovich did not care for the Soviet government he felt a need to stand with his country, Russia, greater than man’s mismanagement and in need of the spirit to endure another bitter conflict. With great effort an orchestra was assembled in the city and the piece was performed. Not only performed, but broadcast over loudspeakers and radio, so that the enemy could hear. To accompany it, the General overseeing operations ordered a massive artillery bombardment. In it’s own way, an act of defiance.
When the city finally found itself free of attackers in late January of 1944, what was left was a city transformed. It had entered the world a city of sorrows, struck by many small griefs by it’s own government. It left a city united by sorrow.
The most conservative estimates place the death toll well over half a million civilians dead in Leningrad as a direct result of the fighting or an indirect result of cold and starvation brought about by the siege. Others estimate between 1.1 and 1.5 million. The numbers are inexact in part due to the undocumented flood of refugees into the city from the surrounding area before the Germans encircled it and in part because of the difficulty of keeping any kind of records during the siege.
There was pride in survival, even as the Soviet authorities did everything they could to take what glory there was for themselves and hide the disastrous mistakes they made and their costs. The siege of Leningrad is a testament to human endurance, made all the more amazing because many of the people who lived through it continued and, in a few rare cases today, continue to live in the same city. Their lives are a testament to the spirit of their city and their people.
The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, by Harrison E. Salisbury – The first comprehensive English language history of the siege. While Salisbury was hindered by the fact that he wrote while the Soviets were still in power and many kept silent out of fear of them, and while many records were still secret, the bones of the siege are there and it serves as a foundation for further reading.
Leningrad: State of Siege, by Michael Jones – A more recent history, taking advantage of new accounts and private diaries left to children and now made available to researchers, focusing primarily on eyewitness testimony.
Leningrad, The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944, by Anna Reid – Another recent history, this draws on old archives and extensive translations of Russian works, as well as personal, individual interviews by and previously unavailable materials.