‘An unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe’: The siege of Leningrad, 80 years on
Leningrad residents dig up water from a broken main in the winter of 1942. © AP archive

The Nazis began their siege of Leningrad on September 8, 1941 – trying to starve the USSR's second-largest city into submission just a few months after launching their invasion of the country in Operation Barbarossa. For 872 days, the inhabitants of this industrial centre (now known by its original name, Saint Petersburg), went through hell as hunger, cold and bombardments killed nearly a million people. FRANCE 24 looks back at the siege, 80 years on.

The simple statements of the extraordinary 11-year-old diarist Tania Savitcheva capture best the helplessness in Leningrad: "Jenia died on December 28 at midnight. Grandma died on January 25 at three in the afternoon. Leka died on March 5 at five in the morning. The Savichevs are dead. Everyone is dead. Tania is all alone."

Evacuated before the end of the siege, Savitcheva died of exhaustion on July 1, 1944. She became a symbol of this 872-day siege – the longest in modern history until that of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 – after her elder sister Nina, who had managed to escape the surrounded city, discovered and published the diary.

A portrait of Tania Savitcheva with notes from her wartime diary.A portrait of Tania Savitcheva with notes from her wartime diary. © Wikimedia creative commons

A symbol of Russia

Leningrad was a major target when Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Peter the Great founded the city as St Petersburg (the original name returned in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR) in 1703 – as a "Window to the West", where the Neva River's swampy bank meets the Gulf of Finland.

As the capital of Tsarist Russia, the site of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and as an incarnation of the Russian nation in the eyes of many, Leningrad carried clear significance for Adolf Hitler as he attempted to destroy the Soviet Union. "The city was first and foremost a symbol," noted French historian Pierre Vallaud, author of L'Étau, le siège de Leningrad ("The Vice: The Siege of Leningrad").

"Besieging Leningrad also cut the USSR off from the Baltic," Vallaud continued. "It was a very important strategic location for Hitler as he tried to conquer the Soviet Union and carve out Lebensraum (living space) for Germany there," he said.

The Wehrmacht surged through Soviet territory after the start of Operation Barbarossa – taking two and a half months to arrive at the gates of Leningrad, with their Finnish allies cutting the city off from the north (Finland backed Nazi Germany against the USSR after successfully repulsing Joseph Stalin's invasion in the 1939-40 Winter War).

German troops pictured during their advance on Leningrad in September 1941.German troops pictured during their advance on Leningrad in September 1941. © AP file photo

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The Nazis besieged Leningrad because capturing it would be more difficult. As the Wehrmacht advanced, the city "had time to set up barricades and prepare itself to resist the occupiers, so Hitler ordered the military to destroy it by either sea or land, without entering it", Vallaud explained.

The siege's slow torture began as the Nazis cut off the last road to Leningrad on September 8. Intense bombardments ravaged the city. Supplies were blocked – except for the "Road of Life", an unreliable transport route across the frozen Lake Ladoga.

'So easy to die'

Leningrad only had a month's food reserves. It was an "unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe", said Sarah Gruszka, who recently completed a PhD thesis on the wartime diaries of Leningrad residents, collecting hundreds of testimonies.

"Rations became as meagre as 125 grams of bread per day for most Leningrad residents during the winter of 1941-42," Gruszka said. "Bread was generally the only food allowed, and it was often made from ersatz substances like cellulose – hardly nutritious fare."

"The rations the Soviet system managed to allocate were barely enough to survive on, so the people of Leningrad had to do everything they could to avoid starvation," Gruszka continued.

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The bodies of dead Leningraders are carried to Volkovo cemetery in October 1942.The bodies of dead Leningraders are carried to Volkovo cemetery in October 1942. © Wikimedia, RIA Novosti archive

Cannibalism was perhaps the siege's most notorious feature. Some 2,000 people were arrested for eating human flesh in the first half of 1942, Vallaud pointed out in his book. Hunger became the all-pervading obession. Pets were eaten, cosmetics were eaten, then wallpaper paste; leather was boiled to make soup. Many people succumbed to starvation. Others just gave up trying to live. Dead bodies were lying on the streets.

"It's so easy to die right now," wrote one diarist, Elena Skriabina. "You start by losing interest in everything, then you just lie down in bed and never get up again."

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"Famine was the main cause of death," Gruszka observed. "It's difficult to establish a precise figure, but historians agree that nearly a million people, mostly civilians, died during the siege – mainly of hunger, in the first winter – in a city that had over 3 million inhabitants on the eve of the Second World War.

Hunger was far from the only form of hardship the citizens of Leningrad faced, Gruszka added: "There was also the isolation, the cold, the German shelling, the Stalinist repression that preceded it all, the lack of running water, the need to go out and get water by tapping ice in the sub-zero Neva, various forms of disease, the miles and miles people had to walk because there were no other means of transport – et cetera."

Resistance through culture

Yet daily life and even cultural life persisted in the face of these unspeakable conditions. Libraries, theatres and concert halls still managed to open intermittently.

Exhibiting remarkable pertinacity, iconic composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his 7th symphony, a tour de force, in besieged Leningrad. Musicians weakened by hunger performed it at the Grand Philharmonia Hall in August 1942. "I wanted to compose a piece about the men of our region, who became heroes in the fight against our enemy," Shostakovich wrote in Pravda.

A Soviet press release of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich composing his 7th Symphony during the siege of Leningrad.A Soviet press release of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich composing his 7th Symphony during the siege of Leningrad. © AFP file photo

The Soviet authorities soon started using Leningrad's musicians and artists as propaganda tools. "The Soviet regime put a lot of emphasis on the cultural dimension of life under the siege of Leningrad," Gruszka said. "The local authorities tried to hide the extent of the crisis, because the USSR didn't want to sow panic among the rest of its population or demotivate them during a fight for national survival – and above all because the Stalinist regime didn't want to call into question its capacity to protect and provide for its own citizens."

The USSR's totalitarian state apparatus maintained its repression in besieged Leningrad. The NKVD, the secret police, carried on in the same way. Its executions of supposed traitors continued.

'No one has been forgotten'

Hope re-emerged for the people of Leningrad as a Soviet counter-offensive in January 1943 allowed the situation to ease somewhat. The tide had turned in the Second World War; the USSR was inching towards its February 1943 triumph in the Battle of Stalingrad amid inhuman conditions – while the British smashed Erwin Rommel's forces at El Alamein in Egypt in November 1942.

The Red Army's progress around Leningrad facilitated the opening of a land corridor to bring in supplies. But it took until January 27, 1944 for the Soviets to push the Nazis back and lift the blockade.

The Soviet regime hailed the heroism of the people of Leningrad – before it soon started to hide it. Stalin did not want to be overshadowed.

"Leningrad was the city of the Bolshevik revolution; Stalin was nevertheless not terribly popular there," Vallaud said. "It was inconvenient for him that a million people died there and that the city owed its resistance in the face of the Nazis' siege to its residents' heroism."

Thus Soviet historiography failed to give them their due until the late 1970s – when testimonies from besieged Leningrad entered the public sphere and illuminated the suffering and courage of its people.

In contemporary Russia's collective memory, there is a contrast between public and private forms of remembrance, Gruszka observed – between the "militaristic tone" of President Vladimir Putin's "revival of the Great Patriotic War cult", on the one hand, and a "more nuanced" understanding of the siege amongst many Russians, "often focused on its traumatic qualities".

A 2016 memorial ceremony at St. Petersburg's Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, where most victims of the siege were buried during the war.A 2016 memorial ceremony at St. Petersburg's Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, where most victims of the siege were buried during the war. © Dmitry Lovetsky, AP

Private commemorations of the victims and heroes of the Leningrad siege often take place in the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, where 470,000 civilians and 50,000 combatants who died in the blockade lie buried, watched over by the cold grandeur of Saint Petersburg's Avenue of the Unvanquished.

Behind the cemetery's statue of Mother Russia, the words of the poet Olga Bergoltts – who survived the siege – are inscribed in granite:

Here lie Leningraders

Here are the city's people – men, women, and children

And next to them, Red Army soldiers.

They defended you, Leningrad,

The cradle of the Revolution

With all their lives.

We cannot list their noble names here,

There are so many of them under the granite's eternal protection.

But everyone who comes to look at these stones – you should know this:

No one has been forgotten, nothing has been forgotten.

This article was translated from the original in French.