THOUSANDS of Russians are expected to gather in St Petersburg today to mark the 80th anniversary of the lifting of the wartime Siege of Leningrad – and Vladimir Putin is almost certain to be among them.
For political and personal reasons, the Russian president regularly attends the annual remembrance ceremony in the northern port city on the Baltic known until 1991 as Leningrad.
His one-year-old brother Viktor died of diphtheria during the siege and his soldier father was badly wounded fighting the invading Germans. His mother collapsed from hunger and, thought to be dead, was laid out alongside corpses until someone heard her moaning. Both parents survived and Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952.
Here in the West, the siege, which lasted the best part of two and a half years, is probably one of the lesser-known Soviet episodes of the Second World War. Much more familiar is the Red Army’s bitterly-fought victory over the Germans at Stalingrad in early 1943 – the turn of the tide on the Eastern Front. But Leningrad was a significant battle of a different kind.
Adolf Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa – on June 22, 1941, ripping up the non-aggression pact he had signed in August 1939 with USSR dictator Joseph Stalin.
The siege started on September 8, 1941, when German forces attacking from the south cut the last major road to Leningrad. Germany’s Finnish allies swept down from the north to complete the encirclement. The city, with a pre-war population of more than three million, was trapped in a stranglehold which would last 872 days – condemning its citizens to a nightmare of hunger and death.
Even today, casualty figures are not positively known. But it is thought around 800,000 civilians died during the siege, most from starvation, disease or exposure. The total death toll with military casualties is put as high as 1.5million. Nearly half a million people are believed to be buried in mass graves in Leningrad, among them Putin’s brother.
As the Germans approached the city, its soldiers and civilians rallied to dig anti-tank ditches, trenches, breastworks and air raid shelters. But their plight was aggravated by the lack of preparedness of their local Communist Party leaders.
Terrified of the volatile Stalin, and fearful of being seen as defeatist, they had failed to bring in adequate food stocks or evacuate the vulnerable as soon as war broke out. Defence plans were confused. Then, as the invaders came nearer, thousands of lives were thrown away when a shambolically-organised civilian militia was sent out to face them.
However, instead of attempting an assault and occupation, Hitler decided to use bombardment and starvation to wipe out Leningrad. Founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 as Russia’s new capital and gateway to Europe, the city was originally named St Petersburg. But in 1914 at the start of the Great War, the name was changed to Petrograd because St Petersburg sounded too German. In 1917, Petrograd became the cradle of the Bolshevik revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin. When he died in in 1924, the city was renamed in his honour.
The Wehrmacht forces were ordered to besiege Leningrad, shelling it and bombing it from the air while the population succumbed to hunger and disease. Any attempt by the trapped citizens to surrender was to be rejected.
As the grip of the military blockade tightened, Leningrad’s only lifeline was a narrow land corridor leading east to the vast expanse of Lake Ladoga, where boats and barges were used to ferry in some supplies from Russian-held territory.
When the lake froze that winter, an improvised highway was built across the ice, allowing a trickle of food and essential materials to be brought in by lorry and sled. This hazardous ‘Road of Life’ also enabled the eventual evacuation of a million residents, mainly children, the old and the sick.
But for those left in the city, the horror intensified. Constant shelling by German heavy artillery and aerial attacks with high explosive and incendiary bombs destroyed homes, factories, hospitals and infrastructure. Historic buildings such as the Winter Palace and Hermitage museum were damaged. Early in the siege, the largest food depot was blown up.
With supplies dwindling, rationing was introduced. At its worst, the daily bread allowance for a worker was down to 250 grams (8.8oz) and half that for others. Initially, other foods were available, but gradually became scarcer for most people.
Finally, anything edible was consumed, including horses, cats, dogs, rats and birds. Pine sawdust was used to bake bread, wallpaper paste and cattle feed were boiled and eaten, as well as leather items such as belts and shoes.
Some desperate citizens turned to cannibalism, eating the bodies of the dead. A few took to killing citizens, butchering them and selling the meat. Corruption, black marketeering and theft added to the misery. But while most of the population were reduced to living skeletons, Communist Party chiefs are said to have dined well.
The first winter of the siege was brutally cold, even for Leningrad – in January 1942, temperatures plunged to minus 34C (minus 29F). Weakened by hunger, without electricity or fuel for heating, thousands died. Often their frozen bodies lay where they had collapsed in the snow-covered streets. With the ground iron-hard, mass graves could not be excavated even by powerful diggers, and had to be blasted out with explosives.
Spring brought respite from the cold, but little relief from hunger. Leningrad struggled on throughout 1942, with several unsuccessful and costly attempts by the Red Army to break the siege. Artillery bombardments became worse, with the Germans using railway-mounted guns to fire 1,800lb shells into the city.
Then on January 12, 1943, a full-scale Soviet offensive succeeded in opening a wider land corridor and allowed more supplies to come in via Lake Ladoga. Conditions gradually eased, and even though the German bombardments continued, the spectre of starvation no longer stalked most citizens. But the siege did not officially end until January 27, 1944, after the enemy line south of Leningrad was broken by a massive Red Army attack and the invaders retreated westward.
Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Stalin held a grand victory parade through Red Square in Moscow. But Leningrad’s ordeal was not over. The paranoid Soviet dictator was apparently angered by the public praise being given to the city’s leaders for their part in the siege. He saw it as diminishing his role as the great saviour and also feared the emergence of possible rivals for power.
In 1949 Stalin launched a ruthless purge in Leningrad, bringing trumped-up charges against top communist officials and prominent citizens. After show trials, several were executed and others exiled or sent to the gulags. The city’s museum of the siege was shut down.
Stalin died in 1953 and the story of Leningrad was subsequently woven into the saga of sacrifice and glory that the Soviets built around their achievements in the conflict they called the Great Patriotic War. At a cost of around 27million of their people dead, they saw themselves as having saved the world from fascist domination. Venerating and commemorating the war generation thus became a sacred duty and even today is deeply embedded in the Russian psyche.
Vladimir Putin has long encouraged such quasi-religious remembrance, bolstering his image and popularity among many, especially with his family connection to the defence of Mother Russia.
Few would disagree that the Soviets played a pivotal role in the ultimate defeat of Hitler. Praiseworthy as that is, is it enough on which to base Russia’s guiding philosophy almost 83 years after the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War? Perhaps only Putin can gauge that. But as he pays tribute today to the dead of Leningrad, it is certain that another conflict – in Ukraine – will not be far from his thoughts. It is now 702 days since the Russian invasion, with no sign of hostilities ceasing. Will it surpass the 872 days of the siege?