The Siege of Leningrad

The Siege of Leningrad

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World War II’s most infamous siege began a little over two months after the launch of “Operation Barbarossa,” Adolf Hitler’s surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, in defiance of a nonaggression pact signed two years earlier, some 3 million German soldiers streamed across the Soviet frontier and commenced a three-pronged attack. While the center and southern elements struck at Moscow and Ukraine, the Wehrmacht’s Army Group North sped through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and moved on Leningrad, a city of over 3 million situated on the Neva River near the Baltic Sea. Hitler had long considered Leningrad a key objective in the invasion. It served as the home base of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, and its more than 600 factories made it second only to Moscow in industrial output.

While Leningrad’s civilians made a frantic attempt to construct trenches and antitank fortifications in the late summer of 1941, the Soviets’ unprepared Red Army and volunteer forces were defeated in one engagement after another. On August 31, the Germans seized the town of Mga, severing Leningrad’s last rail connection. A week later, they captured the town of Shlisselburg and cut off the last open roadway. By September 8, a water route via nearby Lake Ladoga stood as Leningrad’s only reliable connection to the outside world. The rest of the city had been almost completely encircled by the Germans and their Finnish allies to the north.

The German advance continued until late September, when Soviet forces finally halted Army Group North in the suburbs of Leningrad. With his army now bottled up in trench warfare, Hitler changed strategy and ordered them to settle in for a siege. “The Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth,” he wrote in a memo. “It is intended to encircle the city and level it to the ground by means of artillery bombardment using every caliber of shell, and continual bombing from the air.” The memo stressed that requests for surrender negotiations were to be ignored, since the Nazis didn’t have the desire to feed the city’s large population. Hitler had chosen a chilling alternative to advancing on Leningrad directly: he would simply wait for it to starve to death.

By the time of Hitler’s directive, the Germans had already set up artillery and launched a campaign to shell Leningrad into submission. The Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, also conducted regular bombing runs over the city. An incendiary attack on September 8 caused raging fires that destroyed vital supplies of oil and food. An even bigger raid followed on September 19, when the Luftwaffe unleashed 2,500 high explosive and incendiary bombs. All told, an estimated 75,000 bombs were dropped on the city over the course of the blockade.

While enemy fire would eventually kill or wound some 50,000 civilians during the siege, Leningrad’s most serious problem was lack of food. 600,000 people had been evacuated before the Germans tightened their grip on the city, but some 2.5 million civilians still remained. Officials had been dangerously negligent in stockpiling food, so the Soviets had to bring in fresh supplies across Lake Ladoga, which offered the only open route into the city. Food and fuel arrived in barges during the autumn and later in trucks and sleds after the lake froze in the winter. The Ladoga route became known as the “Road of Life,” but Leningrad still remained woefully undersupplied. By November, food shortages had seen civilian rations cut to just 250 grams of bread a day for workers. Children, the elderly and the unemployed got a scant 125 grams—the equivalent of three small slices.

During the bitterly cold winter of 1941-1942, Leningrad was rocked by a starvation epidemic that claimed as many as 100,000 lives per month. “Is this my body or did it get swapped for somebody else’s without me noticing?” one man wondered. “My legs and wrists are like a growing child’s, my stomach has caved in, my ribs stick out from top to bottom.” In their desperation, people ate everything from petroleum jelly and wallpaper glue to rats, pigeons and household pets. For warmth, they burned furniture, wardrobes and even the books from their personal libraries. Theft and murder for ration cards became a constant threat, and the authorities eventually arrested over 2,000 people for cannibalism. As the famine intensified, one 12-year-old Leningrader named Tanya Savicheva recorded the dates of the deaths of all her family members in a journal. “The Savichevs are dead,” she wrote after the passing of her mother. “Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.”

Thousands of similar tragedies played out in Leningrad during what became known as the “Hungry Winter,” and yet the city still held out against the Nazi siege. In early 1942, the Soviets evacuated some 500,000 civilians across the “Road of Life” on Lake Ladoga, reducing the starvation-ravaged population to a more manageable 1,000,000. Following the springtime thaw, meanwhile, Leningrad’s survivors conducted a thorough cleanup campaign to remove bombed-out rubble and bury the dead lining their streets. Gardens were also planted across the city in courtyards and parks. Food remained in short supply, but the city had pulled itself back from the brink of collapse. In August 1942, Leningrad even played host to a performance of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, which had been written during the early days of the siege. In defiance of the Germans, the concert was broadcast over loudspeakers pointed toward the enemy lines.

The tide would finally begin to turn early the next year. The Soviets had already made several failed attempts to break through the blockade—usually with little progress and crippling casualties—but in January 1943, the Red Army succeeded in prizing a small land bridge from the Nazis. Engineers built a special railway link on the corridor, and by the end of the year, nearly 5 million tons of food and supplies had been shuttled into Leningrad. Despite an increase in shelling and bombing from the Germans, the once-starving city sprang back to life. Its factory workers—now nearly 80 percent women—were soon producing huge amounts of machinery and ammunition.

The long-awaited breakthrough followed in early 1944, when the Red Army mobilized some 1.25 million men and 1,600 tanks in an offensive that overran the German lines. Like the rest of Hitler’s forces in Russia, Army Group North was soon pushed into a general retreat. On January 27, 1944, after nearly 900 days under blockade, Leningrad was freed. The victory was heralded with a 24-salvo salute from the city’s guns, and civilians broke into spontaneous celebrations in the streets. “People brought out vodka,” Leningrader Olga Grechina wrote. “We sang, cried, laughed; but it was sad all the same—the losses were just too large.”

In total, the siege of Leningrad had killed an estimated 800,000 civilians—nearly as many as all the World War II deaths of the United States and the United Kingdom combined. Soviet-era censorship ensured that the more grisly details of the blockade were suppressed until the end of the 20th century, yet even while World War II was still underway, the city was hailed as a symbol of Russian determination and sacrifice. “There is hardly a parallel in history for the endurance of so many people over so long a time,” the New York Times wrote in January 1944. “Leningrad stood alone against the might of Germany since the beginning of the invasion. It is a city saved by its own will, and its stand will live in the annals as a kind of heroic myth.”

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Rugged Resilience

Yevgeniya remembers going to the market with her mother to trade their possessions for food. As desperation and panic swept the streets, she heard whispered conversations about cannibalism. More common was the act of murder as a way to obtain food ration cards.

Most dangerous of all was the wave of children being kidnapped and eaten. One day at the market, Yevgeniya&rsquos older sister Maya noticed that Yevgeniya was distracted, looking at an airplane in the sky. A woman approached Yevgeniya and offered candy, then took her hand and began to walk away. &ldquoMaya began screaming frantically and I was saved,&rdquo Yevgeniya recalls.

Another heartbreaking memory was witnessing a man walking along, then dropping dead in the frozen street. "My mother told me not to be afraid of dead people,&rdquo she says, recalling chilled-to-the-bone death and destruction.

Hitler&rsquos ruthless regime demanded total submission, but the rugged, resilient and tenacious citizens of Leningrad fought back with everything they had. Today the imperial capital of Peter the Great is known as "the city that would not die."

On 1 May 1703, Peter the Great took both the Swedish fortress of Nyenschantz and the city of Nyen, on the Neva river. Tsar Peter the Great founded the city on 27 May 1703 (in the Gregorian calendar, 16 May in the Julian calendar) after he reconquered the Ingrian land from Sweden, in the Great Northern War. He named the city after his patron saint, the apostle Saint Peter. The original spelling in three words Sankt-Piter-burkh ( Санкт-Питер-Бурх ) uses Latin: Sankt, as in Sankt Goar and some other European cities (is a common misconception about the "Dutch cultural origin" for local versions, there are "Sant" [2] or Sint in modern Dutch. Besides Netherlands, Peter the Great also spent three months in Great Britain so it is preferable to speak about the general European experience which influenced the tsar.) [3]

"St. Petersburg" is actually used as an English equivalent to three variant forms of the name: originally Санкт-Питер-Бурх (Sankt Piter-Burkh), later Санкт-Петерсбурх (Sankt Petersburkh), and then Санкт-Петербург (Sankt Peterburg). The full name is often substituted by the abbreviation SPb (СПб). "Sankt" was usually confined to writing people usually called it Петербург (Peterburg) or the common nickname Питер (Piter). Petrograd (Петроград), the name given in 1914 on the outbreak of World War I to avoid the German sound of Petersburg, was a Slavic translation of the previous name. The name was changed to Leningrad (Ленинград) in 1924.

The city was built under adverse weather and geographical conditions. The high mortality rate required a constant supply of workers. Peter ordered a yearly conscription of 40,000 serfs, one conscript for every nine to sixteen households. Conscripts had to provide their own tools and food for the journey of hundreds of kilometres, on foot, in gangs, often escorted by military guards and shackled to prevent desertion, but many escaped others died from disease and exposure under the harsh conditions. [4]

The new city's first building was the Peter and Paul Fortress, which originally also bore the name of Sankt Pieterburg. It was laid down on Zayachy (Hare's) Island, just off the right bank of the Neva, three miles inland from the Gulf. The marshland was drained and the city spread outward from the fortress under the supervision of German and Dutch engineers whom Peter had invited to Russia. Peter restricted the construction of stone buildings in all of Russia outside St Petersburg so that all stonemasons would come to help build the new city. [5]

At the same time Peter hired a large number of engineers, architects, shipbuilders, scientists and businessmen from all countries of Europe. Substantial immigration of educated professionals eventually turned St. Petersburg into a much more cosmopolitan city than Moscow and the rest of Russia. Peter's efforts to push for modernisation in Moscow and the rest of Russia were completely misunderstood by the old-fashioned Russian nobility and eventually failed, causing him much trouble with opposition, including several attempts on his life and the treason involving his own son. [6]

Peter moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in 1712, nine years before the Treaty of Nystad. Called the "window to Europe", it was a seaport and also a base for Peter's navy, protected by the fortress of Kronstadt. The first person to build a home in Saint Petersburg was Cornelis Cruys, commander of the Baltic Fleet. Inspired by Venice and Amsterdam, Peter the Great proposed boats and coracles as means of transport in his city of canals. Initially there were only 12 permanent bridges over smaller waterways, while the Great Neva was crossed by boats in the summertime and by foot or horse carriages during winter. A pontoon bridge over Neva was built every summer.

Peter was impressed by the Versailles and other palaces in Europe. His official palace of a comparable importance in Peterhof was the first suburban palace permanently used by the Tsar as the primary official residence and the place for official receptions and state balls. The waterfront palace, Monplaisir, and the Great Peterhof Palace were built between 1714 and 1725. [7] In 1716, Prussia's King presented a gift to Tsar Peter: the Amber Room. [8]

Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, Peter's best friend, was the first Governor General of Saint Petersburg Governorate in 1703–1727. In 1724 St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was established in the city. After the death of Peter the Great, Menshikov was arrested and exiled to Siberia. In 1728 Peter II of Russia moved the capital back to Moscow, but 4 years later, in 1732, St. Petersburg again became the capital of Russia and remained the seat of the government for about two centuries.

Several revolutions, uprisings, assassinations of Tsars, and power takeovers in St. Peterburg had shaped the course of history in Russia and influenced the world. In 1801, after the assassination of the Emperor Paul I, his son became the Emperor Alexander I. Alexander I ruled Russia during the Napoleonic Wars and expanded his Empire by acquisitions of Finland and part of Poland. His mysterious death in 1825 was marked by the Decembrist revolt, which was suppressed by the Emperor Nicholas I, who ordered execution of leaders and exiled hundreds of their followers to Siberia. Nicholas I then pushed for Russian nationalism by suppressing non-Russian nationalities and religions. [9]

Cultural revolution that followed after the Napoleonic wars, had further opened St. Petersburg up, in spite of repressions. The city's wealth and rapid growth had always attracted prominent intellectuals, scientists, writers and artists. St. Petersburg eventually gained international recognition as a gateway for trade and business, as well as a cosmopolitan cultural hub. The works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and numerous others brought Russian literature to the world. Music, theatre and ballet became firmly established and gained international stature.

The son of Emperor Nicholas I, Emperor Alexander II implemented the most challenging reforms [10] undertaken in Russia since the reign of Peter the Great. The emancipation of the serfs (1861) caused the influx of large numbers of poor into the capital. Tenements were erected on the outskirts, and nascent industry sprang up, surpassing Moscow in population and industrial growth. By 1900, St. Petersburg had grown into one of the largest industrial hubs in Europe, an important international center of power, business and politics, and the 4th largest city in Europe.

With the growth of industry, radical movements were also astir. Socialist organizations were responsible for the assassinations of many public figures, government officials, members of the royal family, and the Tsar himself. Tsar Alexander II was killed by a suicide bomber Ignacy Hryniewiecki in 1881, in a plot with connections to the family of Lenin and other revolutionaries. The Revolution of 1905 initiated here and spread rapidly into the provinces. During World War I, the name Sankt Peterburg was seen to be too German, so the city was renamed Petrograd. [11]

1917 saw next stages of the Russian Revolution, [12] and re-emergence of the Communist party led by Lenin, who declared "Guns give us the power" and "All power to the Soviets!" [13] After the February Revolution, the Tsar Nicholas II was arrested and the Tsar's government was replaced by two opposing centers of political power: the "pro-democracy" Provisional government and the "pro-communist" Petrograd Soviet. [14] Then the Provisional government was overthrown by the communists in the October Revolution, [15] causing the Russian Civil War.

The city's proximity to anti-Soviet armies forced communist leader Vladimir Lenin to move his government to Moscow on 5 March 1918. The move was disguised as temporary, but Moscow has remained the capital ever since. On 24 January 1924, three days after Lenin's death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. The Communist party's reason for renaming the city again was that Lenin had led the revolution. After the Civil War, and murder of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, as well as millions of anti-Soviet people, the renaming to Leningrad was designed to destroy last hopes among the resistance, and show strong dictatorship of Lenin's communist party and the Soviet regime. [16] [17]

St. Petersburg was devastated by Lenin's Red Terror [18] then by Stalin's Great Purge [19] in addition to crime and vandalism in the series of revolutions and wars. Between 1917 and 1930s, about two million people fled the city, including hundreds of thousands of educated intellectuals and aristocracy, who emigrated to Europe and America. At the same time many political, social and paramilitary groups had followed the communist government in their move to Moscow, as the benefits of capital status had left the city. In 1931 Leningrad administratively separated from Leningrad Oblast.

In 1934 the popular governor of Leningrad, Kirov, was assassinated, because Stalin apparently became increasingly paranoid about Kirov's the growth of his popularity. [20] The death of Kirov was used to ignite the Great Purge [21] where supporters of Trotsky and other suspected "enemies of the Soviet state" were arrested. Then a series of "criminal" cases, known as the Leningrad Centre and Leningrad Affair, [22] were fabricated and resulted in death sentences for many top leaders of Leningrad, and severe repressions of thousands of top officials and intellectuals.

During World War II, Leningrad was surrounded and besieged by the German Wehrmacht from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944, a total of 29 months. By Hitler's order the Wehrmacht constantly shelled and bombed the city and systematically isolated it from any supplies, causing death of more than 1 million civilians in 3 years 650,000 died in 1942 alone [23] The secret instruction from 23 September 1941 said: "the Führer is determined to eliminate the city of Petersburg from the face of earth. There is no reason whatsoever for subsequent existence of this large-scale city after the neutralization of the Soviet Russia." Starting in early 1942, Ingria was included into the Generalplan Ost annexation plans as the "German settlement area". This implied the genocide of 3 million Leningrad residents, who had no place in Hitler's "New East European Order".

Hitler ordered preparations for victory celebrations at the Tsar's Palaces. The Germans looted art from museums and palaces, as well as from private homes. All looted treasures, such as the Amber Room, gold statues of the Peterhof Palace, paintings and other valuable art were taken to Germany. Hitler also prepared a party to celebrate his victory at the hotel Astoria. A printed invitation to Hitler's reception ball at the Hotel Astoria is now on display at the City Museum of St. Petersburg.

During the siege of 1941–1944, the only ways to supply the city and suburbs, inhabited by several millions, were by aircraft or by cars crossing the frozen Lake Ladoga. The German military systematically shelled this route, called the Road of Life, so thousands of cars with people and food supplies had sank in the lake. The situation in the city was especially horrible in the winter of 1941 – 1942. The German bombing raids destroyed most of the food reserves. Daily food ration was cut in October to 400 grams of bread for a worker and 200 grams for a woman or child. On 20 November 1941, the rations were reduced to 250 and 125 grams respectively. Those grams of bread were the bulk of a daily meal for a person in the city. The water supply was destroyed. The situation further worsened in winter due to lack of heating fuel. In December 1941 alone some 53,000 people in Leningrad died of starvation, many corpses were scattered in the streets all over the city.

"Savichevs died. Everyone died. Only Tanya is left," wrote 11-year-old Leningrad girl Tanya Savicheva in her diary. It became one of the symbols of the blockade tragedy and was shown as one of many documents at the Nuremberg trials.

The city suffered severe destruction – the Wehrmacht fired about 150,000 shells at Leningrad and the Luftwaffe dropped about 100,000 air bombs. Many houses, schools, hospitals and other buildings were leveled, and those in the occupied territory were plundered by German troops.

As a result of the siege, about 1.2 million of 3 million Leningrad civilians lost their lives because of bombardment, starvation, infections and stress. Hundreds of thousands of unregistered civilians, who lived in Leningrad prior to WWII, had perished in the siege without any record at all. About 1 million civilians escaped with evacuation, mainly by foot. After two years of the siege, Leningrad became an empty "ghost-city" with thousands of ruined and abandoned homes.

For the heroic resistance of the city and tenacity of the survivors of the siege, Leningrad became the first to receive the Hero City title, as awarded in 1945.

One of the Longest Sieges of WWII: The Destruction of Leningrad

The Siege of Leningrad was one of the most destructive and longest sieges in the Second World War. The siege was a planned collaboration between Germany and the Finnish Army who hoped to reclaim areas they had lost during the Winter War.

The execution of the plan deviated significantly from the original plan, while theories continue to speculate that Hitler hoped to rename the city Adolfsburg after victory.

Antiaircraft guns guarding the sky of Leningrad, in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

The siege began on September 8, 1941 when Germany’s Army Group North managed to take the final road to the city. The Germans hoped to take the city by encircling it, a common military tactic used by the Germans during the war.

Air raids on Leningrad near St. Isaac’s Cathedral, 1941

Taking Leningrad was one of the main objectives of Operation Barbarossa and the main target of Army Group North. Leningrad was an important strategic city due to its industrial strength and historical significance for the Russian Revolution, but the Nazi’s real objective was to completely annihilate the city and its residents.

The Soviets started mobilizing their civilians almost immediately after the Germans and Finns planned their attacks. Army Group North was tasked with approaching and encircling the city from the south, while the Finnish Army would move north to recapture lands lost during the Winter War.

As of June 27, 1941, over a million Soviet civilians had been mobilized to build defensive lines and barricades that stretched for hundreds and thousands of miles to the north and south of the city. The Soviets expected the battle to be difficult and recognized the risk of starvation, so they did everything possible to protect the city.

Map showing the Axis encirclement of Leningrad

Hitler’s orders were clear: Encircle and capture Leningrad, then capture the Donetsk Basin before moving on to Moscow.

The Finns were tasked with gathering intelligence about the Soviet defensive strategies before the attack began. Meanwhile, the final rail connection to the city was destroyed by the Germans on August 30, 1941 when they reached the Neva River. Then, on September 8, 1941, the final road to the city was severed once the Germans reached Shlisselburg on the shores of Lake Ladoga.

The Siege of Leningrad and the joint German-Finnish operations lasted for three years between 1941 to 1944.

Sea defenses of Leningrad

The Finns were tasked with severing the railroads to the north of the city and in Lapland. Only a single corridor remained between Leningrad and Lake Ladoga.

The Finns advanced north and retook the lands they lost during the Winter War. But upon reaching the old border, the Finns objected to the destruction of Leningrad and instead focused on securing their recaptured territory.

Russian Anti-Aircraft Gun

The Soviets defended the city as best they could and managed to evacuate 414,148 children and over half million civilians between the June 29, 1941 and March 31, 1943. A single frozen road over Lake Lagoda was used was used to transport vital supplies to the army and civilians remaining in the city. The road over Lake Lagoda was termed the “Ice Road,” while the whole route came to be known as the “Road of Life.”

Russian soldiers in trenches in Leningrad

The bombardment of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941 after the Germans had already encircled the city and cut off its main supply routes.

The subsequent siege continued for 872 days.

Leningradians on Nevsky avenue during the siege.

The heaviest air attack on the city came on September 19, 1941 when 276 German bombers participated in six air raids. In the bombing, 1,000 civilians were killed while five hospitals were hit, among other targets.

The effect of the siege was devastating, and Leningrad suffered higher casualties than any other modern city. Within two and a half years, the German army had killed more than a million Soviet soldiers and over 600,000 civilians in the city. Meanwhile, a further 400,000 civilians died after being evacuated from the city, in part due to starvation.

The Siege of Leningrad was the most lethal siege in history, while the lack of food and water even drove some to cannibalism.

70 Years After The Siege Of Leningrad, Russia Looks Back With Horror

Non-Russians may not appreciate the significance of the Siege of Leningrad, which ended 70 years ago today, but Michael McFaul, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, hopes to change that.

"As an ambassador and as a university professor, I would like more Americans to learn about this tragic, but heroic chapter in the history of your city," McFaul wrote in an article in Nevskoye Vremya published today, "I want to do all I can to help Americans learn more and I am proud of the fact that I have visited your wonderful history museums with my two sons."

The city, now known as St. Petersburg, was of major strategic importance to Nazi Germany. It was not only the former Russian capital and the birthplace of Russian Communism but also the the home of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, a major industrial city, and — just 130 miles away from Finland by road and a major port — was Russia's "window to Europe."

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler reportedly planned to have a big party at Leningrad's Hotel Astoria and to rename the city "Adolfsburg," although he was also considering burning it to the ground.

Caught between German and Finnish troops, the Soviet army in Leningrad was besieged. Over a million citizens in the city were mobilized in June 1941 to help build fortifications. On Sept. 7 all land connections to the city were severed by the Axis front.

Artillery bombing of the city began in September 1941 and continued for 872 days (just short of 2 1/2 years). The destruction wrought on the city has been called the largest loss of life in any modern city. It is thought that 750,000 civilians and the same number of soldiers died during the siege. Books were burned for heat and zoo animals were eaten for meat — some even resorted to cannibalism.

The siege was finally broken on Jan. 27, 1944, but its legacy went on.

Before the siege, the city contained around 3 million people. It did not reach those levels of population again until the 1960s. Russia President Vladimir Putin, born in 1952, was one of the people who grew up in the shell of the city that had been there before, and his elder brother had died of diphtheria during the siege itself.

"Once [during the Siege], my mother lost consciousness and people around thought that she died," Putin revealed in his book Ot Pervogo Litsa. "She was even put together with dead bodies. It was fortunate that the mother came to her senses in time and moaned. In general, she stayed alive by a miracle."

"Not only the people of Russia, but also the people of the whole world owe a lot to those who stopped and drove away the Nazis," Ambassador McFaul wrote today. "Without your victory in Leningrad and other battles of WWII, world history could have taken a totally different path. Thank you."

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Love history? Know your stuff with History in an Hour.

The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest sieges in history and it inflicted some of the worst civilian casualties of World War Two. When Hitler declared his intention to obliterate the key city of Leningrad on 22 September 1941, he could not have foreseen the grim determination of its citizens. Over the course of 900 days, the city resisted the Germans pounding at its gates. Its survival contributed to the defeat of Nazism. But the price was heavy – over 1 million died in Leningrad from German bombs and artillery, or from disease, the cold or starvation.

In its suffering Leningrad became a source of symbolic national pride, of good conquering evil. The story of the siege is one of heroic resistance and stoical survival but it also one of unimaginable suffering and extreme deprivation. THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD: HISTORY IN AN HOUR is essential reading for all history lovers.

When Told of These Details, Stalin Simply Shrugged and Said, “This is War. People are Dying Everywhere.”

Since the end of November, the city had been supplied by auto road across the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga. The volume of delivered supplies was not even close to providing enough food for the fighting armies of the Leningrad Front and the remaining civilian population, which was still more than two million. People had begun dying from famine by the end of October. By the beginning of November, there were no dogs or cats left in the city. In December, the famine was exacerbated by the unusually low temperatures, pushing the death toll to 55,000. In January this climbed to 95,000. No less deadly, February was ready to follow.

Stalin was informed about the conditions in the city. It is difficult to surmise what his real feelings were when he learned details about life in the frozen and dying city, about massive death from starvation, frozen corpses on the streets, cases of cannibalism. Allegedly for the safety of this city, he had started the war with Finland only two years earlier. When told of these details, he simply shrugged and said, “This is war. People are dying everywhere.”

The strategic goals of the planned operation were very ambitious. The 4th Army of the Volkhov Front and the 54th Army of the Leningrad Front were ordered to break through the German defenses along the Volkhov River and advance in the direction of Tosno, a town on the Leningrad-Moscow railroad, capture it, and link with the advancing 55th Army of the Leningrad Front. This would isolate and eventually destroy the German forces in the Mga-Shlisselburg corridor.

The 59th Army and the 2nd Shock Army, representing the main striking force of the coming operation, received the mission to attack northwest toward the Siverskiy station on the Luga-Leningrad railroad, conducting a deep envelopment of Leningrad from the south. A combined effort with the 4th Army would cut off the German XXVIII Corps in the Chudovo-Luban area. The 52nd Army was ordered to strike south, capture Novgorod, and link up with the forces of the Northwestern Front.

The Soviet High Command expected that the result of this operation would be not only the end of the siege of Leningrad, but also the destruction of German Army Group North and the liberation of the Baltic republics. At the end of 1941, the Red Army was about to bite off more than it could chew.

Lieutenant General Mikhail Khozin was appointed to command the Leningrad Front. Commanding the newly created Volkhov Front was Army General Kirill Meretskov, former chief of the general staff of the Red Army. He had only recently been the object of torture and humiliation in the cellars of the notorious Lubianka Prison in Moscow. The new Front received four armies, the recently formed 52nd and 4th, already blooded in the stubborn battle for Tikhvin, and two fresh armies from the Reserves of Stavka, 2nd Shock and 59th Regular.

Red Army General Kirill Meretskov decorates a young Soviet sodlier for heroism on the battlefield.

The influx of men and equipment gave the Volkhov Front and the left flank of the Leningrad Front numerical and technical superiority over their opponents in men, artillery, and aircraft. In the sector of the 2nd Shock Army, this advantage was an overwhelming five to one in men and three to one in tanks. However, a catastrophic shortage of ammunition, especially for artillery, seriously diminished these advantages.

The terrain where the attack was planned was extremely unsuitable for military operations. It was a thickly wooded, roadless area with impassable marshes and numerous though relatively small rivers and streams, with the sole exception of the 450-yard-wide Volkhov River. This forbidding terrain prohibited the use of armor even infantry would be hard pressed to advance and keep its lines of supply and communications functioning.

What were the Soviet High Command considerations for embarking on a strategic offensive on such difficult terrain? First, in the middle of a severe winter most marshes and all rivers were frozen solid and could provide enough support for armor and supply columns to move. It imposed, of course, rigid time restrictions on the operational schedule. The goals had to be successfully achieved before the spring thaw set in.

The Soviet High Command, encouraged by recent success in fighting under winter conditions, believed that snow, cold temperatures, and difficult terrain would be allies of the Red Army. They based this assessment first on the fighting around Moscow, where the Germans proved to be completely unprepared for winter warfare. Second, the recapture of Tikhvin and a successful Moscow offensive reminded the political leadership of the old adage, “The summer was yours but the winter will be ours.” Stalin, euphoric with high expectations, could not see what field commanders and the leadership of the general staff already realized—that the Moscow offensive was quickly running out of steam.

The Luban offensive was scheduled to start at the end of December, but harsh winter weather impeded the concentration of troops and supplies. Stavka was forced to postpone the operation until January 6. Even this extra week could not remedy the numerous problems, but this time Stalin was adamant and refused any further delays. He ordered four armies to start their attack on January 6, without waiting for the 2nd Shock Army to get ready.

Uniformed against the cold, Soviet soldiers with fixed bayonets advance on the run toward entrenched German positions during bitter fighting in the winter of 1941-1942.

Despite its numerical superiority, the Volkhov Front was clearly unable to mount a successful offensive. It was short of ammunition, fuel, and food. Its attacking troops were not properly concentrated. Its rear and reserve units were not in position to efficiently support advancing front-line troops. To add to the list of problems, the Germans were fully aware of the coming attack and were well prepared to meet it.

After four days of continuous bloody attacks, the Soviet troops gained no ground and suffered heavy losses. The attack was called off on January 10. The troops received a few days of respite to prepare for a new assault. The simultaneous attack, this time by all five Soviet armies, was resumed on January 13.

After a few days of heavy fighting, the 2nd Shock Army under its new commander, Lt. Gen. Nikolay Klykov, finally succeeded on January 17 in crossing the Volkhov under enemy fire and penetrating the German defensive line, pushing aside the enemy’s 215th and 126th Infantry Divisions. After two more days of bitter fighting, the 2nd Shock Army broke through and captured the station and settlement of Miasnoy Bor on the Novgorod-Chudovo railroad. This promising news was immediately reported to Moscow. The response was not long in coming: “When the 2nd Shock Army consolidates this success, commit to the battle the 13th Cavalry Corps of General Gusev. I rely on you, comrade Meretskov. Stalin.” A cavalry corps consisting of three divisions, supported by the 111th Infantry Division, was thrown into the breach early in the morning of January 24. In five days, while brushing aside light covering detachments of the enemy, this force managed to advance 30 miles to the northwest. Its task was to reach the Moscow-Leningrad railroad between the Luban and Chudovo stations, thus cutting off the main supply line of the German XXVIII Corps.

In the beginning of the offensive, the 2nd Shock Army concentrated its forces and delivered a blow on a relatively narrow 15-mile front. Unsupported by either the 52nd or 59th Army on its flanks, the 2nd Shock Army was eventually forced to widen the front of its advance. Originally ordered to head west-northwest with the goal of cutting off the Luga-Leningrad railroad and blocking the retreat of the German 18th Army, the 2nd Shock Army was forced to advance northeast toward Luban and meet the 54th Army of the Leningrad Front, thus encircling the XXVIII Corps in the Luban-Chudovo area. Moreover, the army’s failure to widen and secure the six-mile gap between the villages of Spasskaya Polist’ and Lubtsy, the umbilical cord through which all supplies and communications of the army were flowing, was to haunt the advancing army and eventually seal its fate.

The attempt of the Leningrad Front’s 55th Army to break the German encirclement from inside was repulsed. Though starved and exhausted, the army managed to tie down the German forces, thus preventing them from reinforcing the troops facing the attack of the 2nd Shock Army in the south.

St. Petersburg (Leningrad) during the Great Patriotic War and the Siege (1941-1945)

In the early hours of 22 June 1941, Hitler's Germany attacked Stalin's Soviet Union. World War II had come to Russia. For Leningrad, the war meant blockade. Less than three months after the invasion, German Army Group North reached the outskirts of the city, in which some 3,000,000 people remained. Ultimate plans for the former imperial capital and cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution were to "wipe Leningrad from the face of the earth through demolitions." But first, the city had to surrender.

On 8 September, the Germans severed the last main road into the city and the most lethal siege in the history of the world began. For 872 days the blockade stretched on, during which the Germans sat entrenched, encircling the city only miles from the historic centre. They tossed bombs in its direction, prevented supplies from reaching the starving civilian population, and waited for capitulation. Hitler had optimistically predicted the city would "drop like a leaf," and menus were printed for the gala victory celebration that was planned at Leningrad's plush Astoria Hotel. Instead, civilians dropped like flies in an enclosed microcosm with virtually no food, no heat, no supplies, and no escape route. People keeled over dead in the streets by the thousands, malnourished, exhausted, and frozen. The Blockade of Leningrad resulted in the worst famine ever in a developed nation - over a million people died. But Leningrad never surrendered.

Perhaps most astounding was that amidst the hunger and the horror, with daily rations amounting to two thin slices of poor quality bread, great works of art were created. Dmitry Shostakovich spent the initial months of the siege trapped in the city of his birth, where he composed the first three movements of his searingly intense Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, which he privately remarked was a protest not just against German fascism but also about Russia and all tyranny and totalitarianism. The symphony's most memorable performance occurred on 9 August 1942 in besieged Leningrad. As bombs fell nearby, a depleted, weakened, starving orchestra played to a packed concert hall of weakened, starving people. The performance was aired across the city via loudspeakers, some of which were directed toward German lines as an act of cultural resistance to atrocity.

Olga Bergholz became the voice of the Siege of Leningrad. By the time Olga found herself trapped within the besieged city, she had accumulated a typical Soviet biography: her former husband had been arrested on false charges and was subsequently executed during the Great Purge. Olga herself was imprisoned when pregnant in 1938 the child was "kicked out of her belly" by NKVD interrogators, but Olga survived and was released in July 1939. Now some two years later, amid shelling and starvation, she worked throughout the blockade at the only radio station still in operation. In her calm, reassuring voice she read her poems and those of other poets, and provided updates on bombings, fires, and news from the front. Most importantly, she gave her fellow Leningraders something to hold on to, something resembling hope:

To have survived this blockade's fetters,
Death daily hovering above,
What strength we have needed, neighbour,
What hate we've needed - and what love!
So much so that moods of doubt
Have shaken the strongest will:
"Can I endure it? Can I bear it?"
You'll bear it. You'll last out. You will.

The Siege of Leningrad, Nazis and the Untold History of World War II in Russia and Estonia

What beckons us to the road, far from home, removed from our culture and comfort zone? For me it is story, newness, connection, surprise: The beautiful, the stunning, the devastating, the far-flung narrative and its power to astound, even to transform. It’s the daylong rise out of the dripping 100-degree Amazon, into a snowstorm along the spine of its Andes. It’s the impoverished rickshaw driver in New Delhi, Raja Ram, the Lord King, with his haunting soliloquy on the meaning of life and death. Or the young taxi driver, late at night on a darkened South American road, making eye contact in the mirror, asking plaintively, Why don’t you have children?

It’s the sound of a violin in a Palestinian refugee camp. Mysterious lights flickering across a plain in West Texas. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, played at full volume as your car ascends the Wyoming Rockies, hitting its crescendo just as you top a mountain pass.

Such random surprise can happen every time, if you allow it.

This summer, traveling to Russia and Estonia for the first time, what astounded me was less the gleaming, bulbous domes of the Orthodox churches, or the Medieval towers of a 14th-century town, but history itself: how it’s told and retold its multiple layers, one built on top of another. And how cut off and isolated I had been, as an American child of the Cold War, about another people’s devastating sacrifice.

I’d come to Russia at the invitation of my wife, the novelist Andrea Portes (sure, darling, twist my arm), whose upcoming thriller is based partly in Moscow. It didn’t take us long to encounter the alternate universe of history. Walking toward Red Square and the Kremlin, the guide Andrea had hired for historical and cultural perspective kept invoking the “Great Patriotic War.” To some this historical rephrasing of World War II might sound amusing, until you realize that an estimated 23 million Soviet citizens, or one in every eight, died in the war—three times-plus the number that perished in the Holocaust, and some 60 times more than U.S. casualties. These numbers are not quite a historical secret in the West, but how many of us were ever taught this? And how did I get to be 60 years old without learning of perhaps the most sustained vicious onslaught in the history of warfare—the Siege of Leningrad? My mother and her friends recall the siege, because they lived through those times and read the contemporary accounts of unspeakable suffering—but soon that history would be obscured by the Iron Curtain.

History is written by the winners, of course. If you need a reminder of that, just visit the Park of Fallen Heroes, where monuments of the disgraced visionaries of communism have been relocated, to a sculpture park of curiosity in a sunny glade in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Families dozed on the grass amidst the towering bronze statues of Lenin, Marx, Brezhnev, infamous KGB chief Felix Dzherzhinski, and a vandalized Stalin, whose nose is mostly hacked off.

Red Square in Moscow. (Sandy Tolan)

Disgraced or not, it was the Soviets, and the terribly outmatched citizens of Leningrad, who held the line against Hitler’s nearly 900-day siege. This we witnessed on the other end of a three-hour bullet train ride from Moscow, in a relatively obscure St. Petersburg museum along the Neva River. Here, we appeared to be the only non-Russians. The clerks of the State Museum of St. Petersburg’s History viewed us skeptically, as if we had wandered off mistakenly from the nearby Fabergé Museum, where the ornate, bejeweled eggs designed by Carl Fabergé embody the out-of-touch excesses of the Tsars. At the Fabergé, where you can understand why the Tsarist regime was toppled by the Bolsheviks, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans and Western Europeans pack the well-lit exhibits every day. But at the dusty old museum on the English Embankment, we made it clear to the ticket taker that we weren’t lost we had come to learn about St. Petersburg during the Great Patriotic War. They brightened, and we re-entered Russia’s dark days.

Diorama depicting the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, at the State Museum of St. Petersburg’s History. (Sandy Tolan)

Beginning in 1941, Hitler’s 700,000 troops ringed Leningrad, cutting off food and fuel. The Führer, according to the exhibition, was determined to “raze Leningrad to the ground, in order that no people would remain who would have to be fed in winter.” The people’s largely volunteer army, outnumbered by more than 2:1, dug trenches, built air raid shelters, and planted cabbage in the public gardens to stave off starvation. Four-ounce, barely edible “blockade bread” became a daily staple. Still, “entire families were carried off by starvation.” With no fuel (they had already burned their trees, their furniture, their kitchens shelves and their books), people huddled in their apartments in winter temperatures that reached 30 below zero Fahrenheit. A diorama showed an apartment house ripped in half by a shelling, the guts of daily life exposed. Children’s drawings depicted tanks firing on the city, and buildings on fire.

Children’s drawings at the State Museum of St. Petersburg’s History. (Sandy Tolan)

A lone photograph showed a couple pulling a sled, upon which lay a tiny body shrouded in black. In all, a million people died in the Siege of Leningrad.

One of the dead in the Siege of Leningrad. (Sandy Tolan)

Yet, in one of history’s greatest testaments to solidarity, the people of Leningrad held the line against the Nazis. Many families took refuge in their Orthodox faith, believing they were being tested by God. Another family, nearly dead from hunger, took a different path: they learned Pushkin by heart. At the height of the siege, in August 1942, Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, or the Leningrad Symphony, premiered in the besieged city. By this time, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra was down to 14 surviving musicians. To fill its ranks, the conductor recruited volunteers, including musicians from the Soviet Army. Shostakovich’s composition, written and performed in Leningrad when the outcome of the siege was still very much in doubt, concludes in a spirit of unambiguous triumph. And there, beside the museum’s display cases, we sat in contemplation, listening to the Shostakovich.

Before we left, we read the memorial scroll sent in May 1944 by President Franklin Roosevelt to the people of Leningrad, who, “despite constant bombardments and untold sufferings from cold, hunger and sickness, successfully defended their beloved city…”

Memorial scroll from President Franklin Roosevelt sent to the people of Leningrad in May 1944. (Sandy Tolan)

For us, the newness, the connection, the surprise of a new place lay in an old museum, behind smudged glass cases.

We stepped back into the street, like new people. Astounded. The sweeping view of domes, spires, the glint of sunlight on water—all of it looked different now. We felt transformed, really, with a profound new respect for our Russian hosts, and fascinated by the stories nations tell themselves. Important things were missing from the exhibition, as we found out later. Stalin and his apparatchiks failed to evacuate Leningrad or to stockpile food, with horrifying consequences. Families ate house cats, sawdust, wallpaper paste, and finally, faced the terrible choice of whether to eat human meat or starve. Regardless of the museum’s missing pieces, though, the suffering and heroism of the people of Leningrad was undeniable.

900 Days! 6 Astonishing Facts about the Axis Blockade of Leningrad with Dozens of Photos

The siege and defense of Leningrad are one of the most tragic pages of the history of World War II in the USSR, which called it the Great Patriotic War. For several years, Leningrad was in the ring of a Nazi blockade and military formations from other countries. The inhabitants of Leningrad were left without food, running water, heat and electricity, but they did not give up. Below are 6 facts about besieged Leningrad.

The blockade lasted 872 days

Since September 8, 1941, Leningrad was under a military blockade. When the blockade began, there were already insufficient supplies of food and fuel in the city. The only way to the outside world was Ladoga Lake, through which the “highway of life” passed. Some cargoes with food were delivered via the lake, but not enough. On January 27, 1944, 872 days after the siege, Leningrad was liberated from the Nazis.

Air Defense Battery in St. Isaac’s Square.

The Harshest Winter

The first winter was the most difficult time for the whole blockade. The air temperature remained extremely low for a long time, practically until May 1942, and repeatedly decreased to -32°C (-25 F). A large amount of snow created problems for the residents of the city. Such weather was considered anomalous because even by April 1942 the average depth of the snow was nearly 20 inches.

People gathering water from shell-holes on Nevsky Prospect, between Gostiny Dvor and Ostrovsky Square. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Main Enemy: Hunger

The biggest problem of besieged Leningrad was famine. Children and dependents received a serving of 125 grams (about 1/4 lb) of bread a day between November 20 and December 25. Factory workers were supposed to have 250 grams (just over 1/2 lb) of bread, and the personnel of the militarized guards and firefighters were supposed to have 300 grams (2/3 lb) of bread a day.

During the blockade, bread was made from a mixture of oatmeal and rye flour, cake and unfiltered malt. It was black and bitter. According to official figures, 632,253 people died of starvation.

An old woman sledging a starving young man in besieged Leningrad. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

1.5 Million People Evacuated

The evacuation of Leningrad’s residents took place in three stages, during which about 1.5 million people, almost half of the city’s population, were evacuated. Evacuation began a week after the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, but many people did not want to leave their homes. Many had to be persuaded to go.

The second and third stages of the evacuation passed across the “road of life” through Lake Ladoga. In October 1942, the evacuation of residents was completed.

Leningradians leaving their houses destroyed by Nazi bombings. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Heartbeat of Leningrad

To alert residents about enemy attacks, 1,500 loudspeakers were installed around the city. They constantly played the sound of a metronome: its slow rhythm meant safety, and its fast rhythm served as the alarm that warned people about the beginning of an air attack.

Combat Training in Leningrad 1942

In addition, reports of enemy attacks were broadcast through the city’s radio network, and residents were forbidden to turn off radio receivers in their homes. The sound of the metronome was periodically interrupted by the voice of the announcer with updates about the situation in the city. The beat of the metronome was called the heartbeat of Leningrad.

“Air Raid”. People of Leningrad running through the streets in the early days of the war. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Cat Heroes

In addition, it is worth noting the role of “cat-saviors” during the siege. In January 1943, some cats were brought to Leningrad to control the rodent population. The cats quickly rose to the occasion, saving the city’s food reserves from pests. Their contribution was so important that in 2000, monuments to the cats Elisei and Vasilisa were installed in St. Petersburg.

Girls on duty on the roof in besieged Leningrad. Air defense. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Soviet machine-gunners firing at the enemy near the old train station Detskoe Selo in Pushkin near Leningrad. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Antiaircraft-gunners firing at the enemy in besieged Leningrad. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Defenders of Leningrad : Great Patriotic War soldiers in attack. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

A street after a German artillery raid during the Leningrad blockade. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

soldiers manning an anti aircraft gun looking for enemy aircraft. By Deror_avi CC BY-SA 3.0

Soldiers carrying a wounded soldier. The Leningrad Front. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

St. Isaac’s Cathedral and St. Isaac’s Square in Leningrad in 1942 during the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Mobilization in Leningrad in the summer of 1941

The fire of anti-aircraft guns deployed in the neighborhood of St. Isaac’s cathedral during the defense of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, its pre-Soviet name) in 1941.

Two Soviet soldiers, one armed with a DP machine gun, in the trenches of the Leningrad Front on 1 September 1941. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Supplies being unloaded from a barge on Lake Ladoga to a narrow-gauge train in 1942. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Destroyed German bomber in Leningrad.

The sign on the wall says: Citizens! This side of the street is the most dangerous during the artillery barrage.

Bronze Horseman camouflaged from the German aircraft during the Siege of Leningrad

Children crippled by Nazi shells in hospital. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Soldiers pulling camouflaged artillery on muddy roads. The Leningrad Front. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Tanks going to the front from Palace Square in besieged Leningrad. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Workers of the Kirov plant and young sailors on the bridge. Defenders of Leningrad during the siege. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Soviet soldiers fighting in Pushkin. The breakthrough of Leningrad’s siege.By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Leningradians on Nevsky avenue during the siege. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Women casting metal in besieged Leningrad. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Leningradians cleaning the street after the first winter in the besieged city. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Cutters carrying foodstuffs to besieged Leningrad on Ladoga Lake. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

The anti-aircraft gun crew of Sergeant Fyodor Konoplyov shooting at enemy planes in Leningrad. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Air defense balloons on St. Isaac’s Square

Red Army soldiers. Leningrad defenders. Leningrad, October 1942. By RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0

Watch the video: Siege of Leningrad Part 110 (February 2023).

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