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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

900 days under siege: The heroic struggle of Leningrad

The guns were especially active in the morning hours, when people were going to work, and the toll of victims - men, women and children - was likely to be heaviest. But the bleeding city refused to surrender. It worked and it suffered, laughed when it could, fought on for every breath of life.

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the day the Red Army first broke through the encirclement of Leningrad and established a land corridor into the besieged city.

Leningrad was, of course, under siege by Nazi forces for a staggering 872 days. It heroically resisted despite constant encirclement, bombardment and mass starvation in the first winter. It is believed that over a million citizens of the city lost their lives. It is regarded as the deadliest siege in history.

In honour of this we republish an article in USSR magazine that appeared in January, 1964. Written by Leningrad City Soviet Deputy (and artist) Alexander Sokolov who was in the city for the siege, it looks at the horrific conditions and the incredible fortitude of the city's people.


It was more than 20 years ago, and yet that calm Sunday morning in summer is still vivid in my memory. I could see Moscow Prospect, quiet and still asleep, from the fifth floor of the house where I lived.

Leningrad was asleep, unconscious of the terrible heroic trial that awaited. Nobody knew then that fascist tanks had crossed the borders and that somewhere the skies were shattering with the thunder of falling bombs.

That was long ago. But talk of the war to anyone born and bred in Leningrad, and you will see the pain in his eyes. Among the more than 600,000 people who died within the walls of our besieged city were almost certainly some of his relatives or friends.

I, too, cannot help remembering it. When people ask me which day of the war was the worst, I always say: "The first.” None of us will ever forget those first minutes near the loudspeaker, with people turned into stone by the terrible news, or the impassioned meeting in the factory, our hearts almost bursting with anger and anxiety.

We were ready to leave for the front with gun in hand that very minute. All of us . My wife was expecting a child, but I did not hesitate for a second. That is how it was everywhere. Leningrad newspapers reported that whole families were joining the people's volunteer forces.

Alexander Rybakov of the Kirov plant, a veteran of the Revolution, and his sons and nephews left for the front together, just like the Stepanov and Ruchkin brothers, and like Baranov and his wife from the Lenin Works. I, too, went to fight.

The enemy was advancing toward our city, a force of 300,000 troops, more than a thousand tanks and as many planes. Leningrad was formed into a frontier town. I remember the posters: "Everyone Must Learn to Use a Rifle and a Hand Grenade!” , “We Will Not Allow the Fascist Boot to Tread the Streets of Our Sacred City !”, “We Will Triumph !”

The youngsters worked in the munitions plants while their fathers fought to defend the city. Could there be a more terrible commentary on war than these children making tools of death?

The people helped the soldiers dig a defense belt at the approaches to the city, often in the rain and at times in water up to their knees. My eldest sister was there; she returned to her little daughter, but how many others remained there forever!

But in spite of all that we encircled the city with a 400-mile defense belt of antitank ditches, barbed wire and pillboxes. Barricades were thrown up on the outskirts.

By military reckoning the front was eight miles away from the city; in life and death figures the whole city was the front. Soldiers ate no better than civilians, all were fighting this total war.

In some places the enemy almost broke through. In the southwest battles were fought no more than two miles from the gates of the Kirov Works. The Nazis had already appointed a commandant for Leningrad, had planned a military parade in Palace Square for the beginning of September, and had printed invitations for an officers' banquet at the Hotel Astoria.

"For a whole week the city will be at the disposal of us soldiers," wrote Corporal Wilhelm Fitschin, his mouth watering, to his relatives in Germany.

The Nazis had taken everything into account - except the hearts of the city's defenders. They could not storm Leningrad. Then began a siege that lasted nearly three years.

Subsequently we learned of secret instructions issued by the enemy command: " blockade the city tightly and to raze it to the ground by an artillery barrage of all caliber guns and steady air bombing.”

Shells and bombs dropped day and night. I was recalled from the army and returned to my shipyard, where skilled workers were urgently needed. Each day the Germans dropped 50 quarter- to half- ton bombs and more than 6,000 incendiaries.

But Leningrad did not give up.

The city had no lights, no fuel and no water, and, as luck would have it, it was an unusually cold winter, with the mercury dropping to nearly 40 degrees below zero.

Like most of my workmates, I lived right at the factory. It was in a room with plywood nailed across the windows; the glass had been broken during the bombing. A tiny iron stove helped warm us a little. We used to thaw snow on it so that we could wash and have something to drink.

Every day people walked slowly past our plant on their way to the Neva River with kettles and pots to scoop up the bitterish water through holes in the ice.

Food was a terrible problem. Most of the women, children and old people had been evacuated in the first months of war, but many refused to leave . Nearly two and a half million people were left who had to be fed.

Some of the food warehouses had been burned down during the bombings, and it had been a long time since the last train or ship had arrived . Planes were sent out, but many of them could not get through.

The children's stomachs swelled from malnutri tion . Heroic attempts were made to evacuate them. Planes loaded with children took off from Leningrad through antiaircraft fire every night.

When winter set in, a road linking us with the " mainland " - that's what we called the rest of the Soviet Union we were cut off from - was laid across the ice of Lake Ladoga. Not only food but ammunition, fuel and medical supplies had to be brought in over that road.

Frozen Lake Ladoga was the only thread that linked Leningrad with the rest of the country. Trucks with food and medicine made the hazardous trip. One out of every four never reached the city.

It was shelled and bombed by the enemy. The drivers rode with their cab doors open so that they could jump out faster — but frequently both men and trucks with their precious loads would disappear under the ice. The city needed at least 1,000 tons of food a day. What there was - never enough - was rationed.

We ate all sorts of things: grain from sunken barges dredged up from the bottom of the river; cotton cake, which used to be burned before; wood pulp, the raw material of paper mills, processed in a special way; and such things.

 Life in the blockaded city was grim. The power supply was cut off at times. There was no running water during the siege. People lived on a daily ration of 125 grams of bread. But Leningrad held out.

Pages from the diary of schoolgirl Tanya Savicheva, on display at the History of Leningrad Museum, told a typical story:

"Jenny died on December 28."

"Grandma died on January 25."

"Leka died March 17."

"Uncle Vasya died April 13."

"Uncle Lyosha died May 10."

"Mother died May 13."

And the final inscription: "I am left all alone." The little girl died, too.

I didn't know her, but I know how many of my workmates died of starvation right before my eyes . And I, too, weak and swollen, was on the verge of death.

There was no lumber left in the blockaded city to make coffins. This is the way the dead were carried to the cemetery. The passers-by are not indifferent, the sight was a tragic commonplace.

I remember the day I went to the District Committee of the Communist Party to get my membership card. Many of us joined the Communist Party in those grueling days. I took my card, carefully hid it in my pocket and ate the tiny bit of bread I had saved so that I would have the strength to walk back to the factory.

I had to walk about a mile, but I didn't have the strength to do it. I walked along a dead street, keeping close to the walls of the building. "Don't fall; don't fall” - the thought kept hammering away in my mind.

But I did fall. I couldn't get up again and so I crept on all fours to the factory. You don't forget a thing like that.

Relatives were so weak from hunger, they had no strength to bury their dead . The bodies were brought to the city outskirts and people were given extra rations so they would be able to dig the graves.

Neither can I forget how we worked in the semi demolished shops. Hungry all the time, we didn't stop for a minute in that ice- cold shop with the wind whistling through it . Our hands stuck to the metal as we patched up boats and made shells.

Other factories were also working. Scientists of the Astronomical Institute drew up charts for artillery fire and fulfilled other assignments for the front.

Staff members of the Botanical Institute studied food and medicinal plants that might tide us over.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, and it was performed by musicians who could barely hold the bows in their weak hands.

Concert and play announcements are hung next to posters warning "The Enemy Is at the Gates." Poets wrote verse for the papers and Shostakovich composed his Seventh Symphony between bombings.

We listened to Olga Berggoltz over the radio read her poems dedicated to the people of Leningrad. Only later did we learn that her husband had died that same day, and, barely able to walk herself, she had come to Radio House to give us strength to hold out with her poet's fervent words.

Meanwhile the soldiers were taking care of their end of the job. They repulsed more than 150 air attacks and shot down about 1,000 planes.

The city held out until those happy days when, gathering enough strength, the troops of the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts went over to the offensive, breached the enemy's powerful defenses and forced him to retreat.

The blockade was over. What a day that was! We laughed and cried with happiness, strangers in the street hugged each other. That evening fireworks lit the sky, and a mighty artillery salvo thundered out. For the first time in more than two years that thunder did not bring our people fear and death.

But the city was badly smashed. The buildings that had escaped destruction looked like ghosts with their gaping black, paneless windows. More than 10,000 houses had been burned down, completely destroyed or badly damaged. Hundreds of factories, the power station, and miles of water mains and sewers were out of order.

While the war was still going on, the government allocated large sums to rebuild Leningrad.

The city was raised from its ruins not only by construction workers but by all of us. I remember how we used to go out to clear a ruined building after a day's work at the shop. Every undamaged brick was put aside so it could be used again.

I spent many hours on a stretch of ground opposite my house that had been plowed up by the war. Here many of us worked together, filling up the holes and planting trees. Now it is beautiful Victory Park. Another park was built the same way on the shores of the Gulf of Finland.

Once again the Bronze Horseman gallops at full speed on the banks of the Neva. This majestic monument to the founder of the city was carefully covered with sandbags during the war.

The Hermitage museum was restored completely, with its columns, stucco moldings and the statues on its roof. And the wrecked houses have been replaced by many more new ones.

The fascists deliberately shelled the Hermitage Museum. In spite of incessant bombardment and siege, museum workers labored to save the priceless treasures of art for future generations.

Once again, Leningrad is a giant construction site. The old city is ringed by a new one. Every 13 to 14 minutes a new apartment is finished.

Ships sail out of Leningrad port as they did before the war. Industry turns out turbines and generators, machine tools, textile and shoemaking machinery, precision instruments, TV sets, textiles and confectionery. The city throbs with life, the city is working..

But the breath of the heroic past is still in the air. Teachers take their classes to the History of Leningrad Museum, show them the photographs and documents of the war days, the tiny crust of bread substitute that was a whole day's ration for a Leningrader.

They read Tanya Savicheva's diary and the decree conferring the country's highest award - the Order of Lenin - on the city.

We of the older generation remember those days. We remember them well. They were terrible, inconceivable days.

We stood our ground and we triumphed. But they must never happen again!



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