Here's What You Need to Know: The great siege and the sacrifice of the people who suffered and died will always be remembered—even as the number of survivors continues to dwindle.
Georgina’s mother sat next to me at her dining room table. She and her husband were veterans of the Great Patriotic War, and back in 1996 we all sat about the table on Victory Day and talked about the siege.
The old woman grasped my arm and talked in Russian while her husband listened. They both wore medals, one of his for “extreme bravery.” It was, of course, May 9, and everyone was in a jovial mood. The day was light and airy, and it reminded me of holiday dinners at home, or Fourth of July barbeques. It reminded me of any occasion where we celebrate, albeit with a certain twist. At home and in Europe we celebrate victories; on this day, citizens of St. Petersburg celebrate survival. There is a difference.
In Europe, of course, Victory Day is May 8, but because of the time difference and the surrender not being signed until nearly midnight in Germany, the defenders of Leningrad did not find out until the next day, May 9.
A Job for Everyone
The small room was crowded. This was, for all intents and purposes, the apartment of two citizens of the Soviet Union, two comrades during the war whose daughter married a Soviet naval captain who manned a ship in the Arctic with the mission of seeking out American submarines. These were the people I was raised to fear and despise. We drank wine and ate a small dish of onions. Soup would be next, and salmon.
Communism had ended a few short years earlier. Georgina’s mother kept hold of my arm and spoke slowly while her husband poured me more to drink. He was a big man with a wide, tender smile. And she might have been my own grandmother, whose eldest son fought in the war.
“My job was in a munitions factory,” she told me. Everyone had a job. Lt. Gen. Markian Popov was the officer in charge of Leningrad during the siege, and at the beginning of the war he made a statement for the citizens of the city: “The moment has come to put your Bolshevik qualities to work, to get ready to defend Leningrad without wasting words. We have to see that nobody is just an onlooker and carry out in the least possible time the same kind of mobilization of the workers that was done in 1918 and 1919. The enemy is at the gate. It is a question of life and death.”
Everyone had a job to do.
The Leningrad “Blokada”
The Soviet involvement in the Great Patriotic War, as they refer to World War II, actually began on June 22, 1941, when the German Army’s three million troops invaded the Soviet Union, almost two years after World War II started for the rest of Europe with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had been a willing accomplice in that invasion with the Red Army invading Poland from the east. Stalin did not believe that Hitler would turn on the Soviet Union.
Following the Nazi invasion, Hitler had unintentional help in the Soviet Union since Stalin never really cared about casualties. Early in the war Stalin ordered the Red Army to remain firm as the Germans captured nearly six million prisoners of war, most of whom died in captivity. In fact, Stalin was so adamant that troops hold their positions that he ordered the execution of frontline commanders who retreated. By 1942, more than 77,000 Soviet citizens had been executed for supposed cowardice and treachery.
Two decrees were issued: Order 270 made it a criminal offense for any soldier to surrender and Order 227 declared that any commander retreating without permission would be tried before a military tribunal. These became known as the “Not a Step Backward” decrees. The military overseers dug trenches behind the armies and filled them with sharpshooters. Later estimates put the total number of Soviet dead in World War II at 20 million, but the most accurate estimate in retrospect is about 32 million Soviet military and civilian deaths, roughly the present population of Canada.
In Leningrad, however, the vast majority of casualties were not soldiers, but women and children. One Victory Day I walked alone through town after the veterans’ parade. I passed 14 Nevsky Prospect, where residents leave flowers beneath a sign in place since the war, which reads, “Citizens! During artillery shelling this side of the street is most dangerous!” At the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, too, tens of thousands of mourners leave flowers on one of the 186 mounds of mass graves or at the monument of the Motherland, a statue of a woman lamenting those who died during what the rest of the world calls the “siege,” but which Russians call “Blokada,” the blockade.
200,000 Deaths from the Cold
The siege of Leningrad is political and military history, yet it is also personal. It is the story of the general making tough decisions, his frame a sliver of what it had been before the war; it is the story of the child living on a few grams of bread, his mother making sure he only takes small bites throughout the day for fear if he eats it all at once he will surely starve to death.
The siege is one of the chapters in books about 20th-century atrocities; yet it is also the conversation over beers in a corner pub, where most veterans still hold back their emotions against the questions of the curious. Some allow others to cross the line into their world, allow them to suffer the starvation through stories and tears because they know it might be the only way these great heroes, the defenders of Leningrad, will be remembered.
One woman at Palace Square spoke to me of her worst memory. She was 15 during the siege when she had to pull a sleigh carrying the body of her sister, who had died of starvation. She made it to the graveyard and left her sister on the pile of bodies. Another there, Alexander, remembered how he would cut up a piece of bread once a day for his brothers. His parents had died of starvation some time earlier.
Nearly three million civilians, including nearly half a million children, refused to surrender despite having to deal with extreme hardships in the encircled city. Food and fuel would last only about two months after the siege began on September 8, 1941, and by winter there was no heating, no water, almost no electricity, and little sustenance. These citizens still had two more years of this to endure. Leningrad is roughly at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. It gets cold.
During that first January and February, 200,000 people died of cold and starvation. Because disease was a problem, the bodies were carried to various locations in the city, most notably what became the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery. Even so, people continued to work in the deplorable conditions to keep the war industries operating. When they were not working or looking for food and water, they were carrying the dead, dragging bodies on children’s sleighs or pulling them through the snow by their wrists to the cemetery.
One man said, “To take someone who has died to the cemetery is an affair of so much labor that it exhausts the last strength in the survivors. The living, having fulfilled their duty to the dead, are themselves brought to the brink of death.”
But the people of Leningrad would not surrender; they always heeded Popov’s decree. Still, after the war, Stalin ordered the general’s arrest for not communicating with Moscow often enough, and he was sent to a gulag.
Doroga Zhinzni: The Road to Life
I met a woman named Sophia in a graveyard on the north side of the city. She had been an adolescent during the reign of Czar Nicholas II and lost her husband and son during the siege. We sat on a bench, and she told me of her life, of her family, as if time had turned it into a hazy event she had heard someone tell about years earlier. Her hands were transparent, and she spoke of Leningrad as being a prisoner of war, with no rations and no electricity and little hope. The city became a concentration camp, its citizens condemned to death by Hitler.
Thousands of people were evacuated across Lake Ladoga via the famous frozen “Doroga Zhinzni,” the “Road of Life.” During warm weather, some were boated across, but in winter they were carried on trucks across the frozen lake under German fire. Heading north was pointless. The Finnish Army, allied with the Germans since the bitter Winter War with the Soviets in 1939-1940, held the line there.
Meanwhile, in Leningrad, workers took all the treasures from the Hermitage Museum and the Palaces of Peterhof and Pushkin and buried them in basements and beneath St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Not everything made it out, including many paintings and the mysterious amber room of the Summer Palace. On Hitler’s orders most of the palaces, such as Gachina, the Summer Palace in Pushkin, and other historic landmarks located outside the city’s defensive perimeter, were looted and then destroyed, with many art collections being transported to Nazi Germany.