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The Leningrad Blockade

The 900-Day Siege of Leningrad
Preparations for defending the city from the Germans were slow in coming. Indeed, city party boss Andrei
Zhdanov remained on holiday in Sochi for a further five days after the German invasion and, in typical
Soviet style, little happened without him.

Once Zhdanov was back on the scene though, a huge general mobilisation began and the city’s citizens began working to fortify and defend the city. St Isaac’s magnificent golden dome was painted grey to avoid being made an obvious target and in a manner as miraculous as the survival of St Paul’s in London during the blitz, it too came through the war unscathed. The Hermitage was progressively emptied of its treasures – two trains containing over a million items left the city that summer carrying priceless artwork to refuge in the Urals. Historical sculptures, including the Bronze Horseman, were buried or covered with sandbags and defensive lines around the city were created in an attempt to slow the advance, even though the advancing troops outnumbered local militias by more than two to one.



By the end of August, the blockade had begun. Zhdanov had been slow to evacuate Leningrad, preferring instead to utilise the city’s residents in the creation of civil defence installations. This meant that by the beginning of the blockade, a mere 600,000 people had been evacuated, leaving some three million people in the city with completely inadequate food supplies and winter looming.

Stalin decided not to abandon Leningrad, mainly because of the propaganda value the capitulation of the city bearing Lenin’s name would bring to Hitler (a similar worry made both sides fight so hard for Stalingrad three years later). More importantly Stalin wanted Hitler to concentrate his forces in surrounding Leningrad, rather than turn his attention south I to Moscow, which was the centre of Soviet power but still woefully
ill-prepared for war.

Food was practically nonexistent in the city and at one point rations were limited to 175g of sawdust-laden bread a day. People ate their dogs and cats; even rats and birds disappeared from the city. A fallen horse would be butchered in minutes and carried home in pieces by starving citizens. The paste behind wallpaper was scraped off and eaten; leather ~ army belts were cooked until chewable. Cannibalism started in the shelters for refugees from the neighbouring towns; without ration cards, they were among the first to die and strange-flavoured meat went on sale at the Haymarket.


People exchanged precious jewels and antiques for a loaf of bread. The exhausted and starved literally fell over dead on the streets.
There were periods when over 30,000 people died of hunger each day.
More than 150,000 shells and bombs dropped on the city, the effects of which are still visible on some buildings (notably on the west wall of St Isaac’s Cathedral and the northwest corner of Anichkov most). Still, life went on. Concerts and plays were performed in candlelit halls, lectures given, poetry written, orphanages opened, brigades formed to clean up the city. Most famous was the 9 August 1942 concert of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony by the Leningrad Philharmonic, nationally broadcast by radio from the besieged city. According to survivors, random acts of kindness outnumbered incidents of robbery and vandalism, and lessons learned about the human spirit would remain unforgotten for a lifetime.

Hitler’s confidence about ‘wiping the city of Leningrad from the face of the earth’ (he even had invitations to victory celebrations at the Astoria Hotel printed up, planning to have the swastika flying over the city by the summer of 1942) was misplaced. Even starving the population into submission did not work: thanks largely to the freezing of Lake Ladoga, to the northeast of Leningrad, a stream of food and supplies (‘The Road of Life’) reached the city and the Germans began a retreat after a 29-month siege. On 27 January 1944, Zhdanov announced that the blockade was finally over.

Leningrad had survived by the skin of its teeth, over a million civilians had been starved to death and the city lay in virtual ruins.

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