The German Wehrmacht besieged Leningrad for over two years during WWII, during that time the isolated city suffered an estimated one million civilian deaths.
In the second year of WWII, Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941. The German army advanced rapidly, and by September 1941, the Germans had surrounded the Soviet Union’s second city, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Roads and railways were cut off, depriving the city of food, fresh water, and electricity. The city was subjected to near constant air raids and shelling. The siege of Leningrad lasted for almost two and a half years, and over one million civilians would die, mainly of starvation.
Background To The Siege Of Leningrad: WWII And The German Invasion Of The USSR
The German army invaded the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941. Across an 1,800-kilometre front, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, over three million men of the Wehrmacht (The German Army) were split into three Groups: the Army Group North, the Army Group Center, and the Army Group South.
Stalin had dismissed numerous warnings of invasion from Soviet intelligence, from the British, and even from the anti-Nazi German Ambassador, von der Schulenburg, and as such had done little to prepare the country. German forces were able to slice through the Soviet front line defences with relative ease. As the historian Antony Beevor writes “Border guards were shot down still in their underwear, and their families were killed in their barracks by artillery fire… Soviet aviation was caught on the ground, its aircraft lined up in rows, presenting easy targets for the Luftwaffe’s [German Air Force] pre-emptive strikes.”
Army Group North, under the command of General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb advanced rapidly through the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, occupying them by the 9th of July. The army group then moved on towards their next objective, Leningrad.
Leningrad was a city of two and a half million people, the second city of the Soviet Union after Moscow. It held a hallowed place in Soviet mythology as the birthplace of the 1917 October Revolution which had established Bolshevik rule in Russia. In German eyes, Leningrad, which bore the name of Vladimir Lenin, was perhaps the ultimate symbol of “Jewish Bolshevism.” During this great invasion, driven by racial politics and ideology, the city served as a focal point for Hitler’s hatred of all things Communist, Jewish, and Russian.
The Red Army set up their defensive line on the River Luga, about 120 kilometers from the city, and offered fierce resistance. Along with the soldiers, 135,000 ordinary Leningraders volunteered (willingly or otherwise) as part of the People’s Levy or narodne opolchenie, an armed force of civilians who were thrown into battle against the German tanks. Without training, and with around half of the force lacking even rifles, over 70,000 were to die.
Army Group North broke through the Luga defensive line, and on the 8th of August, Hitler gave von Leeb the order to encircle Leningrad. Hitler’s Finnish allies had already advanced to within 20 kilometers of the city from the North. To the South of the city, German forces cut the main railway line to Moscow on the 1st of September. Their heavy artillery was now in range of the city and began its bombardment. A motorized division rushed to Shlisselburg, to the east of Leningrad, capturing the town on the 7th of September and completing the encirclement.
The original plan had been for German forces to capture and occupy Leningrad. Hitler had apparently planned a victory banquet in the city’s Hotel Astoria. However, on the 21st of August, German High Command had decided that they did not want to occupy the city, as they would then be responsible for feeding the population. Instead, it was decided that the army would lay siege to the city and wipe out its population through starvation and bombardment. Once the population had been liquidated, the Germans planned to herd any survivors into slavery, demolish the city itself, and give the land to the Finns. The siege of Leningrad had begun.
From the start, the situation in Leningrad was dire. The most critical issue was the supply of food. On the 8th of September a Luftwaffe air raid destroyed six months’ worth of food. Rationing was implemented immediately. Skilled labourers received between 500 and 700 grams of bread per day. Other workers and children received between 125 and 300 grams per day. Food was not distributed evenly either; party officials and soldiers ensured that their families were fed first. The authorities prioritized the food supply for industrial workers and soldiers, women and children had to make do with lesser rations.
V.M. Sudakov’s painting Restless Nights, completed in 1960, captures the atmosphere in the city. Tanks push through the snow that covers the streets, presumably moving to defensive positions at the perimeter of the city. The city was regularly bombed and shelled by the Germans. An air raid on the 19th of September killed 1,000 people. Searchlights scan the night sky, hunting for bombers. In the background, ringed by the columns of light, is St Isaac’s Cathedral. The cathedral had been turned into a museum by the Soviet government in 1931, and during the war, it served as a vantage point for spotting the positions of the German artillery.
As the winter became icier, the Soviets were able to bring supplies into Leningrad across the frozen Lake Ladoga. The Road of Life, as this ice road became known, was the sole link between Leningrad and the outside world. The Road of Life was perilous, in the first four weeks of the road’s operation, when the ice was not yet hard enough to reliably support their weight, more than forty trucks plunged through the surface and sank to the bottom of the lake.
During the Winter of 1941 – 1942, the road was operational for 152 days, until the end of April. 514,000 people would be carried away from Leningrad to the “mainland” across the road, and 360,000 tons of supplies were brought in — mainly food, but also fuel and ammunition. The road was in constant danger of German attack. The Luftwaffe frequently attacked from the air, and artillery shells would rain down around the trucks. To counter the threat of attack, anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the ice, and machine gun positions built up to deter German ski troops.
Despite the efforts of those on the Road of Life, the winter of 1941 – 1942 was exceptionally brutal for the inhabitants of Leningrad. Temperatures at times fell below minus 40 degrees Celsius in January. With the Road of Life only having the capacity to bring in a fraction of the necessary food supplies, hunger was rampant. The majority of those who died succumbed to a combination of hypothermia, starvation, and stress. It is estimated that 3,000 people starved to death daily by the end of December.
Diaries kept at the time recount the hardships that the population went through. A teenager, Berta Zlotnikova wrote “I am becoming an animal. There is no worse feeling than when all your thoughts are on food.”In desperation, families turned to dogs, cats, and birds, anything they could get hold of to keep themselves alive. Soups were made of boiled leather. Eventually, people were forced to resort to cannibalism. The NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) arrested 2,000 people for “the use of human meat as food” over the two and a half years of the siege.
Elena Martilla was eighteen years old when the siege began. She was already an accomplished artist, having exhibited her work at the age of eleven. Like much of the civilian population, she helped in the construction of the city’s defences. She enrolled at Leningrad Art School, which continued functioning during the war. During the harsh winter, at the instruction of her professor, she began sketching everyday images of the city under siege.
Her portraits and drawings of the citizens of Leningrad show vividly the hunger and exhaustion that afflicted the population. Her figures are skeletal with drawn faces and bodies wrapped up and hooded against the cold. The window panes are taped up in anticipation of bombing, and without electricity families relied on candlelight.
With the transport system out of operation, and with many horses dead, Leningraders relied on sledges. The water supply was out of action and Leningraders were reliant on water they could draw from the River Neva or from street pumps. This would then be carried home on the sledges. The elderly and the sick were pulled through the streets on sledges to hospitals. Finally, they would also serve to move the bodies of those who had died.
Years later, Elena spoke of the siege of Leningrad “God forbid for any human to experience what the inhabitants of the besieged city had to face during the war years. It was a long medieval torture applied to a large group of civilians in the middle of the twentieth century.”
Despite the cold and hunger, civilians continued to work desperately to ensure the city’s survival. Workers continued to report to their factories, even as they and their families succumbed to starvation or disease. Antony Beevor writes,“With their last strength, many people reported to their workplace to warn that they would not be coming back and begged their boss to take care of their family.”
As well as working in whatever industry remained, civilians also provided assistance to the military. They were employed in a variety of roles such as spotting enemy aircraft, clearing rubble, and dealing with unexploded bombs. 15,000 citizens were to be decorated for courage by the end of the war.
Despite the daily hardship that the city faced, great effort was made to maintain at least some semblance of normality. In this way, Leningraders were able to psychologically resist their situation and the German invaders. Many students had died, but universities such as Leningrad State University and the Leningrad Institute of Precise Mechanics and Optics continued to function. One student complained that one of her lectures had lasted five hours — she had been stuck in an air raid shelter with her professor, who had talked continuously. In the first winter, 2,500 students graduated from university.
Nearly half a million people died during the first winter of the Siege of Leningrad. However, the coming of spring lifted the spirits of those who had survived. The city embarked on a great campaign of cleaning in order to lift spirits and prevent outbreaks of disease.
Elena Martilla recalls that on Women’s Day, the 8th of March 1942, she joined the clean-up and began to feel somewhat more hopeful about the future. Leningraders spent the summer preparing the city for the next winter. Vast fields of vegetables were planted, including on the Field of Mars in the center of the city and outside St Isaac’s. A fuel pipeline was laid across the bed of Lake Ladoga to alleviate the shortage. Civilian evacuations by boat resumed across the Lake with half a million people leaving the city, and military reinforcements arriving in their place.
The most famous event designed to lift morale was the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, known as the Leningrad Symphony. Shostakovich was one of the Soviet Union’s foremost composers. He had been in and out of favour with the Party hierarchy — his work had been denounced in Pravda for its ideological shortcomings — but by 1939 he had regained his position as a leader among Soviet artists.
Based in Leningrad at the outbreak of war, Shostakovich attempted to join the military but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. He began working on his 7th Symphony in July 1941 and continued working after the siege was put in place. Refusing offers of evacuation, he enlisted as a volunteer firefighter. Shostakovich was eventually ordered to leave on the 1st of October. He continued working on the symphony in his new home of Moscow and subsequently in Kuibyshev. The symphony was completed in December 1941 and had its first performance in Kuibyshev in March 1942. He dedicated the composition to Leningrad. This, combined with his service as a firefighter, led to him becoming an international symbol of the city’s endurance.
In that summer of 1942, plans were put in place for a performance in Leningrad. The conductor Karl Eliasberg of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra received instructions to prepare for a performance. This was no easy task, just fifteen members of the original orchestra turned up —others having died or being too weak to take part. The order was put out for any musicians from the city, and from the military, to come for rehearsals. Galina Lelyukhina, a clarinet player, recalled “They said on the radio that all living musicians were invited. It was hard to walk. I was sick with scurvy, and my legs were very painful… Eliasberg was brought on a sledge, because hunger had made him so weak.”
Despite these conditions, the orchestra was able to complete their rehearsals, and the premiere was scheduled for the 9th of August. Two hours were required for the performance, so the Red Army conducted a massive artillery barrage to quiet the German guns beforehand. Loudspeakers were set up to ensure that the entire city could hear. Olga Kvade was in the audience and remembers the feeling of pride, “Everyone was starving, but they were all dressed up in bow ties. We were surrounded by Germans. They were shelling us, but there was this feeling of superiority.” The performance was also relayed to the front lines, for the men of the Wehrmacht to hear, in a demonstration of the city’s defiance and resilience.
A land corridor to Leningrad would finally be opened a year later in January 1943, when the Soviets launched Operation Iskra on the 12th of January. Operation Iskra was led by General Georgy Zhukov, who would gain legendary status for his service throughout WWII. The objective was to push the Germans out of the area around the town of Shlisselburg. This would reconnect Leningrad with the Volkhov Front to the east of the city, allowing supplies to be brought into the city.
Characteristic of Soviet offensives, the operation opened with a massive, two and a half hour long barrage from the Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. The offensive was a three-pronged attack, smashing into the German lines from all sides. From the west, troops from Leningrad crossed the frozen Neva river and forced their way through the German lines. Ski troops raced in from the north across Lake Ladoga’s frozen surface. From the east, soldiers of the Volkhov Front came crashing through to meet their compatriots in the middle.
By the 18th of January, Soviet forces had forced the Germans out. Soldiers on the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts embraced. For the first time since summer 1941, Leningrad was re-connected to the “mainland.” The offensive had again been costly, with 34,000 casualties taken. Supplies could now reach Leningrad, with a railway set up across the recaptured strip of land. For his efforts, Zhukov was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union, the highest military appointment in the USSR.
The Siege of Leningrad would not be fully lifted for another year, until the launching of the Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive of January 1944. The German army by this point had lost a great deal of its strength. The tide of war had changed decisively. The Wehrmacht was losing the equivalent of a regiment per day, and many of its best, most experienced officers and soldiers had been killed. The forces of Army Group North reflected this. It could muster only 741,000 troops and had been weakened by the withdrawal of most of the Blue Division belonging to its Spanish Allies in October 1943.
Facing Army Group North, at the Volkhov front, the Soviets built up a force of 1.2 million men, with 21,000 artillery pieces. The offensive began on the 14th of January with a massive bombardment of artillery and rockets — 220,000 fired in one hundred minutes. This barrage was so heavy that homes in Leningrad, which were 20 kilometers away, were shaken.
Despite skilled resistance on the part of the German forces, the Soviets broke through Army Group North’s defensive lines and advanced through the towns and villages south of Leningrad. The Red Army soldiers were ready for vengeance, crushing Germans under their tanks and shooting those who had collaborated with them. This charge would continue for another 200 kilometers over the next month.
On the 27th of January, with the Red Army back in control of the main railway linking Moscow and Leningrad, Stalin declared Leningrad liberated. The lifting of the Siege of Leningrad was celebrated with a huge gun salute in the city. The celebrations were of course bittersweet. Over one million civilians had died during the siege, as well as half a million troops on the Leningrad Front. Many of those who had endured the siege felt an intense survivors’ guilt.
Legacy Of The Siege Of Leningrad
The Siege of Leningrad had a complex legacy in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the city was lauded for its heroism and resilience. A museum was established in the city, The Museum of Leningrad Defence, which housed and exhibited artefacts collected during WWII. The city was awarded the status of Hero City of the Soviet Union in 1965, the first city to receive such a distinction.
However, the popularity of the leadership in Leningrad, who had been feted during and after the siege, caused concern for Stalin. He became convinced that they were creating an alternative powerbase to challenge his authority and that of Moscow. As such, between 1949 and 1950, about 2,000 public figures were imprisoned or exiled. Six were executed, including the mayor of the city Pytor Popkov.
Those who had been condemned by Stalin were rehabilitated during the Khrushchev Thaw, and Leningrad was once again unequivocally celebrated. Every year, on the 27th of January troops take part in commemoration ceremonies in the renamed city of St. Petersburg.
Read about my visits to Leningrad and Stalingrad in my book “the Bridge.” Available on Amazon.