“I should like to call you all by name / but they have lost the lists.”
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem 1935-40
The nine hundred day Siege of Leningrad (блокада Ленинграда) by Nazi forces is a horrific chapter in the history of St. Petersburg, and even in all of Russia. It is considered one of the longest and most destructive sieges in world history, and is by far the most costly in terms of casualties. Some historians speak of the siege operations in terms of genocide, as a “racially motivated starvation policy” that became an integral part of the unprecedented German war of extermination against populations of the Soviet Union.
While you may see the blockade commemorated throughout the city (usually in the form of plaques/statues with “1941-1944” included somewhere), it is still too dark and uncomfortable a subject for many Russians to discuss. It isn’t long ago enough to be a completely distant memory—one graduate student here had a professor whose mother starved to death. Records state that residents of the city who could not or would not evacuate suffered one of the coldest winters in its history. They did so with no electricity and dwindling supplies of food and firewood—all the while being shelled by the Germans.
Once while waiting for a friend to meet me at Dom Knigi, I came across a book about the Siege and thought it would be helpful to look through it before visiting the cemetery and memorial with our class. The images were haunting—people reached such states of emaciation that they could not expend the energy to bury victims of the periodic bombardments, who froze on the streets. Those who were buried, numbering about half a million, were generally sent to the mass grave (now the memorial cemetery).
Perhaps the most well-done part of the siege memorial is the slideshow that superimposes images of Siege-era Leningrad on modern-day St. Petersburg. It was deeply unnerving to recognize many of the places, and know that just a few days ago I had casually walked down the street where frozen bombardment victims were once heaped. It was also disturbing to see preserved samples of daily rations at the time: 125 grams of bread, 50% of which was made up of sawdust or other inedible matter. In the depths of siege winters, reports surfaced that some turned to cannibalism to stay alive. In January and February 1942, it is estimated that between 700 and 1000 civilians died each day, mostly from hunger.
These are the massive civilian casualties from which America has been insulated for nearly two hundred years. It made me feel very fortunate, but it also made me wonder about how that protection has affected our views regarding WWI and WWII. Many Americans on the WWII homefront remember those years as difficult, but not grim or desperate. Today, Americans often think of the period nostalgically, as our great era of cooperation and patriotism. As the 9th of May (Russian V-day) approaches, I wonder how WWII will be perceived by citizens of St. Petersburg.
The worst part was that throughout the tour, we all kept complaining about how cold and hungry we were.