Hunger, Desperation, and Death: Blokada of Leningrad

The Great Patriotic War, or World War II to us, was a time of resilience for the Soviet Union and would end in international power and prestige for the once backward country. The cost that the Soviets paid for victory, however, was outstanding. Our Freeze text estimates that about 8.6 million Soviet troops were killed and 17 million civilians had perished in addition to that. Americans fought the war abroad and while the home front had a distinct wartime character, the Soviet Union’s home front was the war. Nazi Germany completely destroyed the major cities of the Soviet Union in their attempted Operation Barbarossa. The city of  Leningrad, now and previously Saint Petersburg, underwent a terrible Nazi siege that began on September 8, 1941 and went on to last 872 days. The siege, often referred to as the “900 Days”  is credited to be one of the most destructive and deadly of any siege to a modern city.

Soviets observe the ravaged city of Leningrad

Soviets observe the ravaged city of Leningrad

Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in August of 1939. Two years later, in June of 1941, the Germans began plotting their attacks on the Soviets and began to mobilize their army. Despite receiving over eighty warnings of a German attack, Stalin refused to believed the truth and even ordered his army not to shoot at the Germans. In September, the German Army Group North (with help from the Finns) began encircling Leningrad and by November they had severed the last rail line to the city. Then the bombings began. The Germans bombed hospitals, schools, homes, industrial site, and everything in between. The siege of Leningrad is an important episode of the war because it highlights the extreme cost that the civilians paid to win the war. As if the constant bombings were not bad enough, the real problem (as it seems was usually the case for Russia) was hunger. Germany’s plan had been to “terrorize and starve the population to surrender” (Seventeen Moments) and this plan fit perfectly into Hitler’s so called war of extermination. Despite officials reassuring the city’s citizens that food and supplies would be available, they virtually disappeared by the winter.

Pictured here is a ration card. The vast majority of the city struggled with hunger despite the rations. Ration status was given out according to need, but need meant those vital to the city’s survival- not those starving. An average ration card entitled the holder to 125g of bread per day (about 300 calories worth), so the citizens began to get.. resourceful in their methods of procuring food. Lena Mukina was a teenager at the time of the Siege and kept a diary that was recently published and has likened her to be the “Anne Frank of Leningrad“. In one passage, Lena writes, “Today we had delicious soup with meat and macaroni. The cat meat will be enough for two more meals. It would be good to get hold of another cat somewhere. I never thought cat meat would be so good and tender.” It was not uncommon for a family to sacrifice their pet for a meal, and there are many accounts of citizens resorting to cannibalism in order to survive. In addition to the terrible hunger, the citizens were battling the winter weather. The citizens underwent three terrible winters in the city with no heat, and many who had been displaced by the bombings underwent the winters without homes.

The above picture was not an uncommon sight during the Siege. From the many accounts of diaries it was apparent that citizens often lost their entire families to starvation. Eleven year old Tanya Savicheva famously penned in her diary a timeline of her family members’ deaths and ended with, “Everyone died. Only Tanya is left.” (Tanya herself died in 1944 and her diary was later read during the Nuremberg Trials). The only relief came from the route known as the “Road to Life” which was not a road, but rather a frozen lake. Lake Ladoga was covered with ice in the winter months and the Soviets had some luck transferring supplies to Leningrad, but all too often something went wrong on the on the trip. The Road to Life also was used to evacuate over a million citizens from the city.

Despite all of the awful conditions that Leningraders were subjected to for 900 days, the citizens continued to persist. The war industries continued as people kept coming to work, students continued studying, and Dmitrii Shostakovich wrote and performed his famous Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony. The people refused to surrender and that in itself epitomizes the Soviet war effort. Today, people come to Piskarevskoye Cemetery to pay tribute to the approximate 1.5 million soldiers and civilians lost in the siege. Most visitors bring flowers to be placed on the mass graves at the cemetery but others lay loaves a bread in a sad remembrance of what brought those victims to their graves.


Background information from the Freeze text:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

I used Seventeen Moments in Soviet Histoy’s 900 Days:

as well as other sites for more information:

In addition, here are the links to the images used in the order in which they appeared: