(Sept. 10, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the 900-day Siege of Leningrad was entering its second week. It was not actually 900 days, but more like 873, or maybe 880. To those who endured it — and survived — undoubtedly it seemed like an eternity. So many people died, especially during the first winter of the siege, that an accurate count of the deaths is impossible. The city’s population had been swelled by 500,000 refugees fleeing before the onrushing Wehrmacht, complicating the count. Most estimates place the number at 1.5 million.
Because of the bombing and shelling by the enemy, there was no power and very little potable water in the city. Therefore, there was very little heat. The only fuel was wood— as long as it lasted — in a city, which is only 10 degrees below the Arctic Circle, and enduring one of the coldest winters in 150 years. With no water, fires burned out of control.
By the depths of that winter, the daily food ration per person was 125 grams (4.41 oz) of bread, which was 60 percent sawdust. During the siege, 16,000 tons of this “delicacy” were consumed. But for many people, even that was unavailable, since one had to go to the distribution center, and walking was the only means of transportation, and many were too weak to walk.
People tore the wallpaper off walls and ate the paste. Later, they ate the paper. Some ate the plaster. People collapsed and died in the streets and in the factories. “If this happened, there was an immediate scramble for the dead one’s ration card.” If the death occurred in the street, the body was usually left there because no one had the strength to remove it. One positive effect of the brutal cold is that it prevented the spread of disease, because the bodies quickly froze. One man remembered that no one smiled that winter, or talked about food. By the end of that winter there were no pets, no birds, no mice, no rats, no insects.
Under these conditions, death came in numerous ways — starvation, freezing, disease.
Today there is no city bearing the name Leningrad. It has reverted to its original name of St. Petersburg, which was founded by Czar Peter the Great to be Russia’s “Window on the West.”
During its construction in a marshy area, on land conquered from the Swedes by Czar Peter, 100,000 died. The Russian capital was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg, where it remained until the Russian Revolution, after which it was returned to Moscow on March 12, 1918. During WWI, the name was changed to Petrograd, because St. Petersburg sounded too Germanic. With Lenin’s death in 1924 the name was changed to Leningrad in his honor.
The city is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland, a few miles south of Lake Ladoga, on the Isthmus formed by the lake and the gulf. At the beginning of the war, the city had a population of 2.5 million.
When Operation Barbarossa was launched, Leningrad was the target, 535 miles distant, of Armeegruppe North, commanded by Field Marshal Baron Wilhelm von Leeb. Hitler predicted that the city would, “...fall like a leaf.” The German Victory Parade, to be held in Leningrad’s Palace Square, was scheduled for July 21.
The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, and its second city, Kaunas, were captured on June 24. Two days later, Latvia’s second city, Daugavpils, was taken, Leningrad bombed, and Finland declared war on the USSR.
Party boss Andrei A. Zhdanov cut short his vacation in Sochi, and returned to the city on June 27. He immediately set about preparing the city for the coming trials. Shelters were prepared, sandbags were placed, and 75,000 citizens were dispatched to construct defenses along the Luga River, 75 miles southwest of the city.
The treasures of the Hermitage were prepared for shipment. On July 1 a great train, stretching almost 500 yards, pulled by two locomotives and consisting of an armored car for the most valuable pieces, two flatcars with antiaircraft batteries, four sleeping cars for special treasures, two passenger cars and 22 freight cars, carrying a half million priceless treasures, departed the city, bound for Ekaterinburg, on the east side of the Ural Mountains. It was only the first.
That same day, the Latvian capital, Riga, was captured. The 1,000-year-old city of Pskov was captured on July 8. In the north, Finland’s Army of Karelia began assaulting Soviet positions along the Finnish border, two days later.
Field Marshal von Leeb’s Armeegruppe North had already covered 300 miles and destroyed 28 Soviet divisions. As a result, volunteers were requested. Within a week, 160,000 had responded, and on July 10, the 1st Division of Volunteers assembled at the train station for the trip to the front. With not enough rifles, some departed with picks, shovels, axes or hunting knives. The 2nd Volunteer Division arrived four days later. Untrained, they detrained straight into battle at Luga.
The next day, Stalin appointed his crony, Marshal Kliment I. Voroshilov, to command the Soviet forces defending Leningrad. German forces were 75 miles from Leningrad. On Aug. 8, they were 60 miles from the city. On Aug. 26, the Estonian capital, Tallinn, was captured. However, the German Panzers were not given free rein. If they had, Leningrad would probably have been captured by this time.
Viipuri, to the northwest of Leningrad, was recaptured by the Finns, on Aug. 29, 1941, as they advanced to within 30 miles of the Soviet city. On the northern side of Lake Ladoga, the Finns occupied the isthmus between Lakes Ladoga and Onega. But the Finns would go no further. They only occupied that which had been taken from them in the Winter War. If they had launched a concerted effort, the city probably would have fallen. In recognition of this fact, at the war’s conclusion, Stalin allowed the country to remain independent.
Mga, 30 miles to the southeast of Leningrad, was captured on Aug. 30. This cut the city’s last rail link. German gunners found the range on Sept. 4. Schluesselburg, 22 miles east of the city, was captured four days later, completing the encirclement, on land, of the Soviet Union’s second city.
The only access, now, was by air, and by sea across Lake Ladoga. German infantry occupied suburbs where the city’s trams normally stopped — 9 miles from the city center. They could see the city’s golden cupolas and ships moored on the Neva River. Also, that day, the Luftwaffe dropped 6,000 tons of incendiary bombs on the city, destroying more than 5,000 tons of precious foodstuffs.
Stalin replaced the incompetent Marshal Voroshilov with Gen. Georgi K. Zhukov on Sept. 11. Zhukov gave one order: “Attack!” And he ordered that the unit commanders lead the attacks, and that any man who left his position without written permission was to be shot, immediately. He refused all excuses. Six days later, Hitler began shifting troops from Field Marshal von Leeb’s Armeegruppe North to Armeegruppe Center, for the drive to Moscow, and the German assault on Leningrad stalled. On Sept. 16, composer Dmitri Shostakovich addressed his fellow citizens, by radio, saying, “We shall stand together and defend our city.”
On Sept. 25, Hitler ordered Field Marshal von Leeb to cease attempts to take the city. The dictator explained that he had, “... decided to have St. Petersburg wiped off the face of the earth. The further existence of this large city is of no interest once Soviet Russia is overthrown. The intention is to close in on the city and raze it to the ground by artillery and by continuous air attack. Requests that the city be taken over will be turned down for the problem of the survival of the population and of supplying it with food is one which cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for existence, we have no interest in keeping even part of this great city’s population.” (Emphasis in original.)
The “great city” was to be razed to the ground and conveyed to the Finns.
Shostakovich, his wife and children were flown out on Oct. 1, 1941, leaving his mother, sister, nephew and in-laws. By that time, the Red Army and the Baltic Fleet had lost 214,078 dead, and suffered 130, 848 sick or wounded in the defense of the city.
The first snow fell on Oct. 14.
Tikhvin, located 125 miles east of St. Petersburg, on the Tikhvinka River, was captured on Nov. 8. Today, it is a city of about 60,000, and is the birthplace of composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
By capturing the city, the Germans were able to cut the rail line to the edge of Lake Ladoga. The next closest depot was 220 miles away — with no connecting roads. Nine days after the fall of Tikhvin, in fighting along the Neva River, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin was seriously wounded in the left foot by a grenade while on a reconnaissance patrol.
After several months in the hospital, he was declared unfit for military service and was assigned to a tank repair shop. He was the father of the current president of the Russian Federation.
On Nov. 20, 1941, the first few horse-drawn sleighs crossed barely frozen Lake Ladoga. At 125 miles long and almost 80 miles wide, the lake is the largest freshwater lake in Europe. Two nights later, the first 60 trucks made the crossing. In the coming months many more would make the dangerous trek, braving attacks by the Luftwaffe, German artillery, the freezing cold and weak spots in the ice. The route came to be known as the “Road of Life” — Doroga Zhizni. For many of the truckers it was the “Road of Death.”
Many froze in temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit. More than 1000 trucks would be lost. But it was not nearly enough. In the last week of November, the trucks delivered 800 tons of flour — but the city was consuming 510 tons per day. At its height, the Doroga Zhizni operation involved 30,000 people and 4,000 vehicles.
Having been just recently released from Stalin’s prison, Kirill Meretskov was given command of the recently reformed Fourth Army, with which Tikhvin was recaptured on Dec. 9. The Germans suffered 45,000 casualties in the battles for Tikhvin, which some consider the turning point in the siege.
A citizen, Nikolai Markovich, wrote in his diary on Jan. 24, 1942, that, “The city is dead. There is no electricity, no trams. Warm rooms are rare. No Water. Almost the only form of transport is sleds carrying corpses and plain coffins, covered with rags or half-clothed dead. Daily, six to eight thousand die. The city is dying as it has lived for the last half year — clenching its teeth.”
But Comrade Markovich wrote at the lowest point. Things slowly began to improve. With the deaths, and some evacuations, there were fewer mouths to feed. And Doroga Zhizni was becoming more productive. Slowly, the balance was shifting to the positive. Bread rations were increased — slightly — in February.
In March, the City Council ordered the citizens to participate in cleaning the city. By April 15, 12,000 courtyards had been cleaned, 3 million square yards of city streets cleared and 1 million tons of filth removed. Hundreds of thousands of bodies were buried in Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. And the streetcars resumed operation.
On May 16, 15,000 children were decorated for their courage. By the end of May, large scale shipments of food and material were being received at the newly expanded port facilities on the lake. On Aug. 9, the citizens, decked in their finest — and looking like scarecrows —attended a concert at the Philharmonic Hall to hear the premiere of the Seventh Symphony composed, during the siege, by fellow citizen, Dmitri Shostakovich, which was broadcast, by radio to the world. But the city was still under siege.
The birth rate was one-eighth the rate prior to the siege. In 1943, 700 children were born alive. In the year before the war, 175,000 had been born.
Finally, at 9:30 a.m., Jan. 12, 1943, 4,500 Soviet guns roared and the Red Army attacked at Schluesselburg from two directions. Gen. Zhukov was sent to oversee the operation — Operation Sparkle. After a week of intense fighting, the two Red Armies linked and opened a narrow corridor to the city along the southern coast of Lake Ladoga, at a cost of 12,000 German and 34,000 Soviet soldiers. That day Zhukov became a Marshal of the Soviet Union.
Immediately, construction began on a rail line to the beleaguered city. Within 20 days, it was completed and trains were delivering goods to Leningrad. With German guns only 500 yards away, only 76 trains arrived in the city in February and the line was destroyed 1,200 times in 11 months. Even so, 4.5 million tons of freight made it to the city in 1943. And the incessant shelling of the city continued.
After two weeks of an offensive by more than 1.2 million Soviet soldiers, Stalin, on Jan. 27, 1944, declared that the siege was lifted. At 8 p.m., the city celebrated with a red, white and blue salute from 324 Katyushas and artillery pieces.
According to the Soviets, 107,158 bombs were dropped, and 148,478 shells were fired on the city. The siege was the costliest, in terms of casualties, in all of history.
Even though, on May 1, 1945, Stalin recognized Leningrad, Odessa, Stalingrad and Sevastopol as “Hero Cities,” he never again visited the city.
In Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery 500,000 people are buried — more dead than the United States lost in the entire war. On the wall behind the statue of Mother Russia is a poem which reads,
“Here lie Leningraders. Here are townsfolk: men, women, children. By their sides are Red Army Soldiers. With their lives they defended you, Leningrad, The cradle of the Revolution. We cannot enumerate their noble names here; so many are under the eternal protection of granite. But know this, those who regard these: no one is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten.”
The citizens of the city are rightfully proud of their city’s endurance. Simply, they say, “Troy fell. Rome fell. Leningrad didn’t fall.”
Next week: Battle of the Atlantic
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.