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June 2, 2012 at 2:24 am
By Leaf and Jacob

We’re standing at the foot of one of the golden griffons that hold up the Bank Bridge. Below us, a skeletal man makes his way on the frozen Griboedev canal toward the Neva River. In the distance stands the smoking Kazan Cathedral, snow-capped St. Isaac’s, the golden spire of the Admiralty, a fire exploding on Vasilevsky Island..  As we stare at the destruction, the words of Mandelstam play in our heads: “Leningrad! Leningrad! I’m still not ready to die!”

[click here to listen to Alla Pugachova's rendition:]

 So, we’re not actually in Leningrad—we’re standing in front a panorama display at Moscow’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War, where artist Sergey Nemanov’s seamless blend of three-dimensional objects with a huge panted mural vividly portrays the apocalyptic conditions of the siege of Leningrad.

The 900-day blockade (Sept. 1, 1941-Jan. 27, 1944) of the city now called Petersburg was one of the most cataclysmic moments of World War II, yet before this trip, we knew basically nothing about it. In total, the siege took about 1.5 million lives, most of which were civilian (it’s difficult to know exactly how many, as later Soviet authorities tried somewhat to obscure recording of the magnitude of loss). The Germans, confident that they could overtake the City of Lenin (and its many industrial factories) in a matter of months, unleashed a barrage of heavy artillery fire and bombs. A July, 1941 memo from Hitler’s Chief of Staff said, “It is the Fuhrer’s firm decision to level…Leningrad and make…[it] uninhabitable, so as to relieve us of the necessity of feeding the population during the winter.”

Even before the siege began, conditions in Leningrad were difficult; the city was under strict rationing; the combination of supply shortages and ongoing political purges caused some intellectuals to seriously consider whether life under Hitler wouldn't actually be a relief from life under Stalin. This speculation, however, soon took a backseat to the daily struggle for survival in Leningrad.

The siege began when the Red Army stopped the five-week German advance from the USSR border outside the city limits. Leningraders lived in constant fear of air attacks, walking only on the “safe” side of the street and listening for the distinctive whistle of artillery fire.

Deadlier than the German bombs, however, was the tight ring the Nazis made around the city, blocking all supply routes into Leningrad except the narrow “Road of Life” across the frozen Lake Lagoda northeast of the city. The first winter was the hardest. Daily rations dipped below a pound of bread per grown person, and starvation deaths climbed by the day. Using what little energy they had, family members dragged their dead on children’s sleds to the Piskarovskoe Cemetery at the edge of the city. Only when we visited the Piskarovskoe Cemetery ourselves a few weeks ago did we begin to understand the magnitude of this number. The stone slabs marking the mass graves there stretched in all directions, each one representing about 15,000 dead.

 Starving and frozen, yet unconquered, the people of Leningrad showed true strength and courage in the defense of their city. Residents turned each city block into a fortress, placing fortifications, ditches, tank traps and whatever else they could to disrupt the Germans. Everyone from babushkas to schoolchildren pitched in in the creation of nearly 16,000 miles of open trenches. Leningraders worked equally hard to preserve the culture of the city, fortifying and burying monuments to protect them from bombardments. Workers at the Hermitage worked day and night to move a million and a half works of art out of the city and into secure underground storage.

The city’s cultural heart continued to beat. Leningrad’s radio station never went quiet, broadcasting poems, songs, or even just the sound of a ticking clock to bolster public spirit. Amidst the sounds of artillery fire, Dmitry Shostakovich debuted his Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the spirit of the city:

Meanwhile, “Muse of tears” Anna Akhmatova captured tragic scenes from the blockade in her poems :

Here's her "Requiem":

After two and a half years, the Red Army finally broke the German stranglehold on the city. In the popular imagination, Leningrad became known as a Hero City. Even the most mundane activities demanded extraordinary endurance; the mere act of survival was an act of defiance against the German war plan.

Coming from a country that only lost roughly 450,000 soldiers and 1000 civilians during World War II, it is difficult for us to understand how much the siege has affected the cultural and political landscape of Petersburg and the region. However, visiting places that stand in monument to the city and its defenders, we can begin to grasp what Russians mean when they say when they recite the lines of another great defender of the city, Olga Bergholz: “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.”

[Here's a website with many of her war-time poems:]