On this day (8th September) in 1941, the Germans began their 872-day Siege on the city of Leningrad, as part of their effort to bring down the Eastern Front in World War II.
Leningrad was targeted by the Germans not only because of its military importance (it was the main base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet as well as key producer of arms), but also because of its symbolic importance. Leningrad was the former capital, it was the place where the Revolution took place, and it had been home to a plethora of talented musicians and writers. If Hitler were to destroy Leningrad (indeed, he intended to wipe it off of the map), he would remove a vital part of Russian and Soviet culture.
Did you know? They say that Adolf Hitler was so confident that the Germans would capture Leningrad, that he had invitations printed to the victory celebrations to be held in the city's Hotel Astoria. Hitler thought that they could conquer Western Russia in a few months and that everything would be over by October 1941. But they did not anticipate the horrible winter of 1941 (the coldest winter recorded in the 20th century).
Anti-aircraft guns guarding the skies of Leningrad, pictured outside St. Isaac’s cathedral.
The first German artillery shell fell on Leningrad on September 1st. Many citizens of Leningrad had expected the Germans to attack and occupy the city. However, due to inadequate German military power and also the defiance of the Russian people to not surrender, the Germans resorted to placing a Siege on the city in order to starve its population.
Leningrad during German bombardment.
By September 8th 1941, German tanks were just 10 miles from Leningrad and the city became cut-off from the rest of Russia. Supply lines existed in the air and by river – but both were under constant attack. When the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, the population of Leningrad was about 2.5 million (this number increased when a further 100,000 refugees - who were fleeing German advances - flooded into the city).
On September 12th, those in charge of the city estimated that they had the following supplies:
flour for 35 days
cereals for 30 days
meat for 33 days
fats for 45 days
sugar for 60 days
By mid-September (two weeks into the siege), Leningrad was effectively surrounded and cut-off from the rest of Russia with minimal food and energy supplies for her population. The siege was to last for 872 days. From November 1941 to February 1942 the only food available to the citizen was 125 grams of bread per day, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other materials. Meanwhile, the citizens also had to deal with the harsh conditions of winter (temperatures dropped to -40 degrees in the winter of 1941) and the fact that there was very little power to heat the city.
The official death toll for the whole 872 days is 632,000. However, many believe this number to be higher - as high as 1 million. In December 1941 - a particularly cold month - over 1,600 people died every day. People had to watch as their loved ones starved to death in front of them; outside, bodies lay in the street, waiting to be taken away on sledges. There are even reports of cannibalism and murder: out of desperation, people killed others, either in order to eat them, or to steal their ration cards.
In one siege victim’s account, the desperation to find some food overcomes any sense of grief:
“I watched my father and mother die – I knew perfectly well they were starving. But I wanted their bread more than I wanted them to stay alive. And they knew that about me too. That’s what I remember about the blockade: that feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.”
Therefore, as we remember this tragedy, let us turn to the masterpieces that were created during this period and remember the incredible efforts of the people of Leningrad to remain strong-spirited. Here is Olga Berggolts’s (1910-1975) famous poem Conversation with a Neighbour (the Russian is underneath):
A Conversation with a Neighbour
Dariya Vlasievna, my next-door neighbour,
Let us sit down and talk, just us two,
Let's talk about the days of peace,
The peace that we all so long for.
Nearly six months now we've been fighting,
Six months of battle's roar and whine.
Cruel are the sufferings of our nation,
Your sufferings, Dariya, and mine.
O nights of shrieking and rumblings
And bombs that ever nearer fall,
And tiny scraps of rationed bread
That scarcely seem to weigh anything at all…
To have survived this blockade's fetters,
Death daily hovering above,
What strength we all have needed, neighbour,
What hate we've needed - and what love!
So much so that sometimes moments of doubt
Have shaken even the strongest will:
"Can I endure it? Can I bear it?"
You will bear it. You will last it out. You will.
Dariya Vlasievna, wait a little:
The day will come when, from the sky,
The last alert will howl its warning,
The last all-clear will ring out on high.
And how remote and dimly distant
The war will seem to us on that day
We casually remove the shutters
And put the black-out blinds away.
Let the whole house be bright with lights then,
Be filled with Spring and peacefulness,
Please, weep more quietly, laugh more quietly, more quietly,
We will indulge in all the quietness.
With our hands we will tear fresh rolls,
Made of dark rye-bread, crisp and fine,
And we'll drink in slow sips
Glasses of glowing, crimson wine.
And to you - to you they'll build a statue
And place it on the Bolshoi Square;
In firm imperishable steel,
Your homely form they'll fashion there.
Just as you were - ill-fed, undaunted,
In quickly gathered clothes arrayed;
Just as you were when, under shell fire,
You did your duties, undismayed.
Dariya Vlasievna, by your spirit
The whole world renewed shall be.
The name of that spirit is Russia.
Stand and be bold then, even as She.
Дарья Власьевна, соседка по квартире,
сядем, побеседуем вдвоем.
Знаешь, будем говорить о мире,
о желанном мире, о своем.
Вот мы прожили почти полгода,
полтораста суток длится бой.
Тяжелы страдания народа -
наши, Дарья Власьевна, с тобой.
О ночное воющее небо,
дрожь земли, обвал невдалеке,
бедный ленинградский ломтик хлеба -
он почти не весит на руке...
Для того, чтоб жить в кольце блокады,
ежедневно смертный слышать свист -
сколько силы нам, соседка, надо,
сколько ненависти и любви...
Столько, что минутами в смятенье
ты сама себя не узнаешь:
- Вынесу ли? Хватит ли терпенья?
- Вынесешь. Дотерпишь. Доживешь.
Дарья Власьевна, еще немного,
день придет - над нашей головой
пролетит последняя тревога
и последний прозвучит отбой.
И какой далекой, давней-давней
нам с тобой покажется война
в миг, когда толкнем рукою ставни,
сдернем шторы черные с окна.
Пусть жилище светится и дышит,
полнится покоем и весной...
Плачьте тише, смейтесь тише, тише,
будем наслаждаться тишиной.
Будем свежий хлеб ломать руками,
темно-золотистый и ржаной.
Медленными, крупными глотками
будем пить румяное вино.
А тебе - да ведь тебе ж поставят
памятник на площади большой.
Нержавеющей, бессмертной сталью
облик твой запечатлят простой.
Вот такой же: исхудавшей, смелой,
в наскоро повязанном платке,
вот такой, когда под артобстрелом
ты идешь с кошелкою в руке.
Дарья Власьевна, твоею силой
будет вся земля обновлена.
Этой силе имя есть - Россия.
Стой же и мужайся, как она!
For more information about the Blockade, why not visit the Blockade museum during your time at Derzhavin Institute (St. Petersburg)? More information about the museum can be found here.
Another equally interesting museum is the museum ‘А музы не молчали’ (But the muses were not silent), which is dedicated to the art of the Siege. More information can be found here.
Please note: this is a school museum, and so you need to ring in advance in order to arrange a visit. There are no English descriptions or information, and so only go if you have a good level of Russian.