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Memorial to the Siege of Leningrad

May 7, 2009 at 9:36 am
By Tigan Harrison and Megan Milligan

Our trip to St. Petersburg was a whirlwind of sightseeing.  On the first day alone we spent seven hours visiting all the main sites of the city, both by bus and by foot.  Among these were various churches, museums, palaces and monuments, including the Piskarevskoe Cemetery.  This cemetery is the final resting place of those who died during the Nazi siege of Leningrad lasting almost 900 days.

mass graves 

Lining both sides of a central walkway are 186 mass graves, each containing over 2500 victims.  About 50,000 soldiers who fought at the Leningrad front are buried here, while 420,000 are civilians who lived in Leningrad during the siege.  The siege began during the harshest winter in Russian history, which contributed to the massive death toll, along with food shortages and enemy shelling.  The bitter cold knocked out both power lines and pipelines, depriving the city of heat, light and plumbing.  By the end of the first winter inhabitants of Leningrad were burning anything that came to hand and several families were clustering in one room to conserve heat.  Poorly stocked food warehouses and a failure to introduce strict rationing early on resulted in a half-pound of bread a day for workers, with less allotted to other people.  Even so, supplies quickly disappeared and Leningraders were reduced to eating wallpaper glue, weeds, leather belts and other usually inedible items.  There were even rumors of cannibalism in the city as people desperately fought off starvation.  This was partly due to a lack of preparation by the Soviet government, but during the first two years of the siege the city was completely cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union.  In January 1943 the Soviet army succeeded in opening a small corridor to provide some relief to the city but it wasn’t until 1944 that the siege was lifted completely.   The reduce deaths from enemy shelling, the government posted signs—one of which can still be seen on Nevskii Prospekt today—identifying the side of the street more frequently bombed by the Nazis.  The government also camouflaged major monuments to minimize damage to the historical buildings. 

eternal flame 

The memorial was designed by Alexander Vasiliev and Yevgeniy Levinson and opened on May 9, 1960.  On either side of the entrance are two small buildings exhibiting pictures and other documents from the time of the siege.  A flower patch in the colors of the Russian flag surrounds an eternal flame overlooking the mass graves.  Each grave was marked with the year and a star or hammer and sickle identifying soldiers and civilians respectively.  Standing at the end of the walkway is a bronze sculpture depicting Mother Russia holding a garland of laurel representing victory.  Sculpted by V.V. Isaeva and R.К. Taurit, the sculpture was modeled on a real woman who lived through the siege who only recently died.  Behind the statue is a stone wall with carved depictions of the sequence of war, women seeing off the young soldiers to mourning the dead, and a poem written specifically for the memorial. 

Mother Russia 

Piskarevskoe Cemetery was a sobering reminder of the role that the Soviet Union played in the outcome of World War II.  The background music playing in the otherwise silent cemetery instilled a sense of awe in us even though we have no personal ties to the siege.