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During the famed 900-day siege of Leningrad, the German High Command deliberately planned to eradicate the city’s population through starvation. Viewing the Slavs as sub-human, Hitler embarked on a vicious program of ethnic cleansing. By the time the siege ended in January 1944, almost a million people had died. Those who survived would be marked permanently by what they endured as the city descended into chaos.
In Leningrad, military historian Michael Jones chronicles the human story of this epic siege. Drawing on newly available eyewitness accounts and diaries, he reveals the true horrors of the ordeal — including stories long-suppressed by the Soviets of looting, criminal gangs, and cannibalism. But he also shows the immense psychological resources on which the citizens of Leningrad drew to survive against desperate odds. At the height of the siege, for instance, an extraordinary live performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony profoundly strengthened the city’s will to resist.
A riveting account of one of the most harrowing sieges of world history, Leningrad also portrays the astonishing power of the human will in the face of even the direst catastrophe.
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List of Illustrations
1. A self-portrait of Elena Martilla - from the first winter of the Leningrad blockade
2. First casualties of the siege
3. Marshal Kliment Voroshilov
4. A Leningrad apartment during the siege
5. ‘Big piece of bread!’ was all Alik could say
6. ‘The alert will soon be over’
7. ‘What are you doing to us?’
8. A Leningrader sits amid the wreckage of her home
9. The agony of the siege: a mother buries her child
10. ‘If we die, we die together’
11. ‘On duty’
12. The Leningrad Madonna
13. A devastated landscape
14. A Leningrad siege diary and its teenage author
15. Gathering water under the ice of the Neva
16. ‘In the Public Library’
17. Scene from a Leningrad starvation hospital
18. One February night Elena Martilla summoned all her remaining strength and painted this self-portrait
19. ‘I cannot count the riches of my soul’ - the poetry of Olga Berggolts
20. Motorised sledges - manned by Red Army soldiers - fan out to protect the Road of Life
21-22. Lorries carrying precious food and supplies for Leningrad roll forward across frozen Lake Ladoga
23. A driver takes a lorry - load of refugees across the Road of Life
24. Andrei Zhdanov looks distinctly overweight as he visits front-line troops
25. An emaciated actor from the Musical Comedy Theatre still transmits extraordinary energy to his audience
26-27. On 27 March 1942 an army of Leningrad women moves into action and the great city clean-up begins
28. Lieutenant-General Govorov - the real hero of the siege - inspects an artillery position
29. Tanya Savicheva sways in a terrible trance, cradling a dying house plant which holds the memory of her lost family
30. Karl Eliasberg conducts the Radio Committee Orchestra at the Philharmonic - probably for Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony on 9 August 1942
31. Enthralled by the music - the audience pack Leningrad’s Philharmonic Hall for the performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh
32. ‘We defended Lenin’s city!’
33-34. 27 January 1944 - the 872-day siege is finally over
35. An eternal flame burns in the Piskaryov Memorial Cemetery
Acknowledgements: I am profoundly grateful to Elena Martilla, who allowed me unlimited use of her siege drawings (1, 4-7, 10-13, 16, 18- 19, 23, 29) and to the Director of the Museum of the Blockade, St Petersburg, for permission to reproduce the photographs (2-3, 8-9, 14-15, 17, 20-22, 24-28, 30-34). The curator of the museum’s archive kindly found the photographs of the performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh. The photo of the Piskaryov Cemetery (35) was taken by me.
In early September 1941 Hitler’s armies cut the last roads leading into besieged Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and, in the words of the poet Olga Berggolts, ‘the noose of the blockade tightened around the city’s throat’. There followed the most horrific siege in history.
This book grew out of my work as a battlefield guide on the Second World War’s Eastern Front. I am grateful to Midas and Holts Battlefield Tours, who helped set up the Siege of Leningrad tour, and to Oleg Alexandrov, of our associated Russian travel company, who first facilitated meetings with Red Army veterans of the fighting. I want to take my readers on a journey, allowing them to experience the exceptional power of this story - its sheer horror, but also its capacity to inspire and move us.
My understanding of the siege is informed not by official Soviet records of the people’s valour but by actual accounts of those trapped in the city. I am deeply grateful to three veterans who have been a constant source of encouragement and support: Svetlana Magaeva, who generously gave me access to her psychological profiles of siege survivors; artist Elena Martilla, who allowed me to use her remarkable collection of sketches - drawn during the blockade - and Irina Skripachyova, head of the St Petersburg Siege Veterans’ Association, who arranged countless meetings for me. All have enormously enhanced this work.
I use an interview process that I employed with Red Army veterans in my previous book on the battle of Stalingrad, building up a rapport and then working together to establish the psychological contours of the story. I am deeply grateful to the siege survivors who have shared their experiences with me and who have pointed me towards diaries - published and unpublished - that are honest about the horror descending on the city. Their many contributions are acknowledged in the endnotes. A particularly moving meeting was with survivors of the Lychkovo train massacre on their first ever reunion, in March 2007.
Others have perished, and can speak to us only through their personal papers. I owe another debt of thanks to the director of the Blockade Museum for allowing me access to its many siege diaries and letters. Olga Prut, who oversees the Museum ‘The Muses Were Not Silent’, dedicated to cultural life during the siege, and especially the performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh, and musicologist Professor Andrei Krukov, have kindly given me additional material.
I also draw on accounts already published. The siege diaries of Vera Inber, Elena Kochina and Elena Skrjabina exist in translation, as does the groundbreaking compilation by Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin, A Book of the Blockade. Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina have also brought out an important collection of siege experiences. More is available in Russian, and fresh material is emerging all the time - the most recent, from the Centre for Oral History at the European University of St Petersburg, came out in 2006. And I have greatly benefited from the major research on the siege undertaken by Richard Bidlack and Nikita Lomagin.
Lena Yakovleva undertook translation and interpretation work in Moscow, and Anna Artiushina did the same in St Petersburg, as well as locating many valuable references for me. Caroline Walton made a number of additional translations and kindly provided me with extracts from Alexander Boldyrev’s diary. David M. Glantz and Albert Axell have also helped me with a number of specific points. In general I have followed sources’ transliterations from Cyrillic script, although on occasions I have standardised spellings of forenames and word endings.
I am grateful to David Glantz for background material on the city map of Leningrad, and to Svetlana Magaeva and Albert Pleysier for help with the maps of the siege lines and the ‘Road of Life’. The German advance is drawn from information in Leon Goure’s The Siege of Leningrad; the dispositions in Operation Spark are from Robert F. Baumann’s ‘Operation Spark: breaking through the siege of Leningrad’, in Combined Arms in Battle since 1939, ed. Roger J. Spillar (Fort Leavenworth, 1992).
I owe a particular debt of gratitude to my agent, Charlie Viney, and to Roland Philipps and Rowan Yapp at John Murray, for their encouragement and support as this work developed. The first three chapters of the book are thematic, and look at the period leading up to the siege of Leningrad from the point of view of the advancing Germans, the Soviet authorities defending the city and finally the ordinary civilians. The subsequent chapters follow a roughly chronological sequence. Their focal point is the three-month period from mid-December 1941 to mid-March 1942 when conditions within Leningrad were at their worst.
In 1969 Harrison Salisbury brought out a book on the siege. Much new material has emerged since, and a complete retelling has now become possible. I am a military historian with a strong interest in battle psychology and the vital role of morale: what motivates people to fight on in the most desperate of circumstances. I look at German strategy and Russian tactics, but concentrate more on the inner battlefield of the psyche. The suffering of Leningrad’s civilian population and the resilience of many of the survivors move me deeply. Leningraders withstood the siege at extraordinary cost. I want to give readers a fresh understanding of what they endured, and how they emerged victorious.
The siege of Leningrad - popularly known as the 900 days - lasted 872 days, from 8 September 1941, when the Germans first blockaded the city, to 27 January 1944, when their armies were finally repulsed from Leningrad. Here are some of the key dates.
22 June 1941: Germany invades the Soviet Union.
26 June: Manstein’s LVI Panzer Corps seizes the Dvina bridges.
8 July: Hoepner’s Fourth Panzer Group breaches the Stalin Line at Pskov.
11 July: Marshal Kliment Voroshilov is appointed commander of the North-Western Front and takes over Leningrad’s defence.
14 July: Reinhardt’s Panzers establish a bridgehead on the far side of the Luga river, ‘opening the gates to Leningrad’.
15-16 August: Manstein turns the Soviet position at Lake Ilmen, allowing a German advance on Leningrad from the south-east.
18 August: The Lychkovo train massacre: the Luftwaffe bombs a trainload of Leningrad children being evacuated from the city.
8 September: The Germans capture Shlisselburg, blockading Leningrad, and commencing an 872-day siege. The Badaev food warehouses are destroyed by incendiary bombs.
11 September: Voroshilov is dismissed by Stalin, and replaced by General Georgi Zhukov.
20 September: Zhukov sends Soviet forces across Neva river to establish the Nevsky bridgehead.
22 September: Hitler states: ‘All offers of surrender from Leningrad must be rejected, as the problem of housing and feeding the people cannot and should not be solved by us. In this struggle for survival, we have no interest in keeping even a proportion of the city’s population alive.’
5 October: Zhukov ordered back to Moscow. Andrei Zhdanov is left in overall charge of Leningrad’s defence.
8 November: The Germans capture Tikhvin, severing the last rail route bringing supplies to the city, via Lake Ladoga. Hitler announces triumphantly: ‘Leningrad is doomed to die of famine.’
22 November: First convoy of lorries brings in supplies across Lake Ladoga’s ‘Road of Life’.
10 December: The Red Army recaptures Tikhvin.
1 January 1942: Leningrad now has only a two-day supply of food in its reserve, and no supplementary fats or protein.
8 January: First hospital opens for the treatment of starvation.
25 January: Last working hydroelectric power station closes, leaving Leningrad without running water, heat or electricity.
27 January: Food supply and distribution breaks down within the city.
31 January: Leningrad’s registry office records 96,694 deaths this month; many more go unreported.
18 February: First reports of a dysentery outbreak in Leningrad.
28 February: 192,766 deaths reported for January and February. The unofficial figure is believed to exceed 20,000 a day.
27 March: All able-bodied citizens clean the city’s streets and courtyards.
1 April: Lieutenant-General Leonid Govorov takes command of Leningrad Front.
5 April: On 700th Anniversary of Alexander Nevsky’s victory over the Teutonic Knights, the Germans launch an air attack on the Baltic Fleet.
15 April: Tram services resume along three routes into the city.
27 April: The last Soviet defenders on the Nevsky bridgehead are overrun by the Germans.
18 June: A fuel pipeline is laid across Lake Ladoga, bringing petrol into Leningrad.
9 August: Performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at Leningrad’s Philharmonic Hall.
4 September: Manstein has to divert forces intended for a fresh assault on the city and fight a battle of attrition south of Lake Ladoga.
18 January 1943: Operation Spark breaks German blockade.
6 February: First trainload of provisions reaches Leningrad along the overland route.
21 September: Army Group North prepares a fall-back position - the Panther Line - 150 miles west of Leningrad.
15 January 1944: Soviet assault against remaining German siege positions. The soldiers form up under their colours and make the oath: ‘We swear vengeance for the agony of Leningrad!’
27 January: Govorov’s offensive secures the complete liberation of Leningrad - ending the 872-day siege.
The rationing system used by the city authorities during the siege of Leningrad was divided into three categories: the first was for blue-collar workers, who received the largest amount of food, the second was for white-collar workers, the third for their dependants, who received the smallest. This system reflected the priorities of the Soviet state - it was designed to maximise industrial output, and it provided minimal protection for the most vulnerable within the city. Many homeless refugees who arrived in Leningrad from the Baltic States or the surrounding countryside were unable to secure any ration cards at all. As the siege worsened, and supplies of flour diminished, the bread was increasingly adulterated with other substances, including sawdust and wood shavings.
These statistics tell a grim story - but it is not the full one. Towards the end of January 1942, several days after an increase in the bread ration was announced, there was a complete collapse in the food-distribution system and ordinary people were unable to obtain any food at all for about a week. Temperatures had dropped to below —30 degrees Celsius, and there was no longer any electricity, heating, light or water in the city. This catastrophe - which dramatically accelerated the death rate, and led to parts of Leningrad falling under the control of gangsters and cannibals - was subsequently suppressed in Soviet histories of the siege.
The lowest allowance - 125 grams - is the equivalent of three slices from a medium-sized loaf. Such a portion would ideally provide about 250 calories, but bread in besieged Leningrad - increasingly adulterated - contained far less. A man needs approximately 2,500 calories of food a day to sustain body weight and health, a woman 2,000, and a child 1,000 plus 100 for each year of life.
Leningrad bread rations - in grams:
Figures reproduced courtesy of the Museum of the Blockade, St Petersburg.
WALKING THROUGH THE streets of St Petersburg one is over-whelmed by colour. This city of islands - the Venice of the North - is radiant with every hue. My eyes feast on the jewel-coloured buildings, the burnished golden domes, the rich amber stonework. Anyone experiencing St Petersburg feels profoundly in touch with the glories of its past. It is almost impossible to imagine a grey life being lived here. This is where Pushkin created his greatest poems, where Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov and where Andrei Voronikhin - once a serf - built the cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. All the richness of Russian artistic life finds expression in this place.
This was the birthplace of the Bolshevik Revolution - an ideology which replaced inherited power and privilege with a belief in the supremacy of the people - and its tsarist nomenclature mutated to Leningrad. I am intrigued that Bolshevism was born in the place where the creative soul of the Russian people most fully expressed itself. The battleship Aurora, which signalled the storming of the Winter Palace, is still maintained here as a memorial to that epoch-defining moment.
The city was always far more than just a community of artists. From its very inception, on 16 May 1703, when Peter the Great is said to have snatched a halberd from one of his soldiers, cut two strips of turf, and declared, ‘Here there shall be a town,’ it has had to struggle for its existence. Conditions were dire as a workforce recruited from prisoners of war and volunteers from the far reaches of the Russian Empire struggled against starvation, cold, disease and exhaustion to erect the wooden fortress in the marshes that was to evolve into a great city. But at no point in its turbulent history has it come closer to utter destruction than under the onslaught of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
I am walking along the Liteyniy Prospect in central St Petersburg, one of the oldest streets in the city, running due north to the River Neva, and now a bustling shopping district. I turn off into Solyanoy Pereulok, a quieter residential area, looking for the distinctive shape of the twin anti-aircraft cannon which flank the entrance to a remarkable museum, devoted to the ‘blockade’, the three-year siege of Bolshevik Leningrad during the Second World War. Visiting the Blockade Museum is a profoundly moving experience. I go first to its centrepiece - a reconstruction of how a typical Leningrad apartment looked during the siege. The windows are boarded up and the walls blackened with smoke. There are few pieces of furniture - most have been burned as fuel on the tiny stove. This was an absolute struggle for survival. The trams stopped running, the power had given out, food was dwindling away. Day after dreadful day, people retreated into themselves and, through three abysmally cold Russian winters, tried to stay alive.
The museum has more than 35,000 exhibits, including personal belongings of the defenders of the city, army newspapers, diaries, soldiers’ letters from the front, photographs, weapons and decorations. But there is one item I return to, again and again. It is a drawing by a nine-year-old boy, made in January 1942. He had sketched a loaf of bread and written underneath it: ‘Starvation - how hungry I am!’ Within months he was dead, along with countless thousands of others, victims of the most terrible siege in history.
This suffering was no accident. The German armies besieging Leningrad were deliberately starving the city’s inhabitants. Much denial of this stark fact still remains, and it came to a head in 2004 with the opening of a cemetery on the sixtieth anniversary of the lifting of the blockade, for Wehrmacht soldiers who had died during the siege. Photographer Michael Stephan, who spoke with many of the German veterans returning to the site, stated bluntly: ‘I have a problem with this big cemetery and some of those who come here to remember their fallen comrades, with their banners and medals, claiming that they were unaware of civilian deaths. Many still speak of themselves as victims. I ask them, “Victims of what - Hitler? You were soldiers. You cannot be unaware of the fact that you were encircling a really big city. You must have seen it. You can’t be blind.” ’
At the Nuremberg tribunal in 1946 a German prisoner of war testified that the besieging army punctiliously shelled Leningrad in the morning from 8.00 to 9.00, then from 11.00 to 12.00, in the afternoon from 5.00 to 6.00, and in the evening from 8.00 to 10.00. ‘This way’, he said, ‘the shelling would kill as many people as possible, destroy factories and vital buildings, and most importantly, attempt to destroy the morale of the Leningraders.’ Alongside this onslaught, famine was a weapon of conscious choice.
This vibrant, cultured city of more than two and a half million people was facing a calculated assault. Its very right to exist was at stake. Siege survivor Lidiya Lifanova has not thrown away a piece of food for over sixty years, stating simply that ‘For me, bread is priceless. ’ By the winter of 1941 many Leningraders’ daily ration of bread was a mere 125 grams. This was adulterated with cottonseed, flax cake and mouldy grain. The Blockade Museum demonstrates these pitifully small rations, together with the scales used to measure them.
Vladimir Moroz remembers the pain of climbing up stairs in a state of emaciation: ‘It was like a bad dream - where you can’t move despite repeated, desperate attempts.’ In the struggle against famine people were to face horrors we would now find unimaginable. Starvation tore apart families, tore apart the very fabric of life. One account in the Blockade Museum by a siege survivor is chilling: ‘I watched my mother and father 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. That’s what I remember about the blockade: the feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.’
The Blockade Museum exhibits some of the diaries of those who survived the siege. Many more are kept in its archives. I am drawn to the story of Vera Lyudyno. Lyudyno was seventeen when the siege began. She had been born with slightly deformed joints and was in a cast due to surgery performed on her legs, so was unable to retreat to the air-raid shelter when the warnings sounded, and had to stay above ground. Her father remained to comfort and reassure her. They would play chess, and when she became too frightened he would gently remind her, ‘Your move.’
Vera Lyudyno could do nothing but stare out of the window of her apartment and describe what she subsequently recorded in her diary: ‘I wrote honestly about the frightful hunger, constant bombardments, the frozen bodies of dead people.’ Her account reflects not just the city’s heroic struggle, but a darker story also - the story of the inability of the Soviet state to protect its citizens and the cruelty the siege sometimes brought out in its victims. ‘It was a time that revealed the worst and the best qualities of people, most of whom already lived by one instinct - to eat.’ One of her neighbours, an opera singer, devoured his entire monthly ration of seven ounces of meat all at once so that no one would steal it. Another neighbour wore a bag on her chest where she kept her bread portion, fearing her daughter or grandchildren might tear it from her. ‘That woman died later with the bag still on her chest.’
There was widespread looting and cannibalism. Children in her building disappeared, only for their clothes and bones to be found later in the apartment of a violinist neighbour. The violinist’s five-year-old son also disappeared. Lyudyno’s family resorted to cooking gelatine from leather belts, or glue flavoured with bay leaves: ‘When you ate it your stomach felt like it was on fire and you got very thirsty. But the trick was not to drink anything, to preserve the feeling of satiety.’
Lyudyno’s mother lost her ration card when she left the city to help build the defences. Party officials confiscated it. ‘My mama told me that many people were dying there from hunger, because they had almost no food. But someone in authority really wanted to hide that fact, so the bodies of these people were put in carts, propped up as if they were sitting, and then driven off somewhere.’ These were unwelcome truths to the Soviet authorities, and within a month of the 900-day siege being lifted, on 27 January 1944, Lyudyno had been arrested and her diary confiscated as anti-state propaganda. Within a few years, the original Museum of the Defence of Leningrad suffered a similar fate. It had put on its first exhibition in 1944 and the building was officially opened in 1946. But the starkness of what it contained was deemed too painful and it was closed within three years, its contents dispersed, its director imprisoned. It was not until 1989 that the Blockade Museum was eventually founded.
State censorship was rigorous and arbitrary. Official policy never allowed the release of any photograph of war-torn Leningrad that showed more than three dead people. When Harrison Salisbury’s book on the siege was published in 1969, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its ending, Pravda brought out a full-page attack, charging Salisbury with besmirching the heroism of Leningrad and demeaning the Communist Party’s role in the city’s defence.
What Salisbury fought to establish is now openly acknowledged. But what Leningrad endured was far more horrifying than he described. In 2002 secret police records were released. They reveal that during the siege at least 300 people were executed for cannibalism and over 1,400 imprisoned for it. In the early days of the blockade, morale was often desperately low. New research shows that in the winter of 1941 law and order began to break down and parts of the city fell under the control of gangsters and cannibals. Leningrad was teetering on the very edge of the abyss, but, remarkably, that collapse did not happen. It was not merely the Red Army that saved Leningrad from utter ruin. This book will tell the story of this city’s survival, and what made that possible - how the people of Leningrad found the resources within themselves to endure and to survive.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Basic Books