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The siege of Leningrad: A life of hunger

Voice of Russia. Jan 19, 2013

The siege of Leningrad lasted for almost 900 days. During that period, according to various sources, 300 thousand to a million and a half people died from bombings, artillery shooting, cold, hunger and exhaustion. And all this does not take into account the soldiers who defended the city. Those who survived the siege say that no figures or words can describe life in the besieged city.

The siege of Leningrad: A life of hunger

Photo: RIA Novosti

The siege of Leningrad started on September 8, 1941. On that day the first bombs hit the city. Very soon the sound of the air raid alert signal became routine. The alert was set by special manual systems installed in residential buildings, and also via the radio. At night when there was no live broadcast, the radio stations would broadcast the sound of a metronome: it sounded slowly in regular time and was set fast during the German attacks. Every third survivor of the siege of Leningrad can say that he was saved from a bomb or a shell by a mere miracle, artist Igor Suvorov, thinks. When the siege began he was 9 years old.

"It was spring and I was asked to help clean the yard. I went out to the yard and saw that the lower level window is open and people were talking about the opening of the second front. I began listening to the radio and while clearing some ice then, tired I looked up into the sky. Something flashed up in the air and then again about 20 centimeters from me. It was a bombshell. It hit the window on the ground floor and there was a huge explosion. Only the wall saved me, otherwise I would have been blown to pieces. But I had some blood on me and I started screaming: ‘Mommy, mommy!’ I screamed very loudly, people gathered and could not stop me from screaming. Only some time later I stopped.”

Very soon the residents of Leningrad got used to the rumble of the bombshells. Many stopped going down to the bomb shelters and basements. Some were afraid of being buried alive underground; some just did not have the strength.

The winter of 1941-1942 was the worst period. Exhausted people fell dead right in the streets, the municipal authorities failed dispose of the thousands of corpses. At night, packs of rats ran around the dark city, eating the dead and attacking the living. Some people would stop in the street to take a breath and gather some strength, but then would lose consciousness and freeze to death, says Larisa Goncharenko. In 1941 she was 10.

“At some point we were walking down Maksim Gorky Street and saw how the corpses of those who froze to death were taken out of the bread store and put into a truck. My mother thought I would go crazy. I was so scared that I started screaming at night, as I kept imagining all that. I was so traumatized.”

That winter, working people received only 250 grams of bread per day, while clerks, old people and children got even less – 125 grams. According to those who survived, the hunger replaced and substituted practically all thoughts. Factory workers worked despite having no strength by roping themselves to the production equipment. Children, who had no strength to walk due to hunger, and not having got up from their beds for months, drew food: whole loafs of bread, opened cans, fresh fruit. Everything one could find was used as food, says Vsevolod Petrov-Maslakov. From the first days of the siege at the age of 11 he was left alone in an empty apartment.

“The windows were boarded shut and it was unclear whether it was day or night. There was a stove in the room connected to the window with a pipe that was several meters long. It would become clogged and the smoke could not escape, so I’d sit there with a gas mask on. Dressed in all the clothing I had and wearing a gas mask, I tried to survive... At some point our family had owned a horse. It had been long dead, but the hide remained. I remember that the hide was long. I had to first burn off the hair and then boil it piece by piece. I cut off pieces from it and ate. There were also two hooves. I also boiled them. At some point my uncle came to visit me. And I was there sitting all by myself boiling that hoof. He sat there in his coat, looked into the saucepan and asked, ‘What have you got there?’ I replied, ‘A hoof’. I was very afraid that he would eat it. He took the hoof out of the boiling water, but it was just an ordinary hoof. He scraped it with his finger, sucked on it, gave up and left. And I was so afraid that he would eat it.”

In spring it was slightly easier, Galina Kornilova recalls. In 1941 she was 15. Having buried all her family she was left alone.

“In May 1942 I was on the verge of starving to death. I had strong stomachaches and I could not eat anything. If I took a small piece of bread in my mouth, I’d have a horrible pain in my stomach. We had some ground pepper and I took it into my mouth – the burning in my mouth took away the pain in the stomach. And finally I could not eat anything at all – one day, then another. I went to a store to sell or exchange the bread I could not eat. And there, a woman was selling sauerkraut. I have no idea where she got it. The sauerkraut was moldy. And that was what saved me – the juice of that sauerkraut.”

The city and all the remaining residents were saved by a break in the siege in January 1943. The Soviet troops managed to get back a small strip of land along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, where in the shortest possible time a road and railroad were set up. By February 1943, people in the city had started to receive a minimum of 400 grams of bread per day and medication was brought into the city.

Lake Ladoga: ‘The lifeline’

The attempts to break the siege of Leningrad commenced almost right after the siege began. The city was cut off from the rest of the country back in August 1941 when all roads were cut off. But it is September 8 that is considered the official day of the beginning of the siege, the day of the first bombing. The city found itself in real captivity until winter and all attempts to evacuate residents, especially children, proved impossible as the Germans constantly bombed the lake.

“The lifeline” (the path over the frozen lake) opened only in November 1941. It was via this path that food was delivered to the city and people were evacuated, despite the regular bombings. For the residents of Leningrad the chance to evacuate became a horrible choice: risk evacuation with a chance of surviving or remain in the city where every day loved ones were dying. Some died prior to reaching the “lifeline”, Vladimir Klyucharev recalls. In 1942, at the age of 11, he left the besieged Leningrad.

“There was a train at the Finland railway station to take us to the Lake Ladoga. On that train they gave each of us a food ration: half a sausage, a handful of vermicelli; it was all hot – I can remember the steam. And the three of us were given something like two loafs of bread. The train took off and many died right there on the train. They gobbled down the food and horrible things started happening to them: they were throwing up, had diarrhea, they lost consciousness and simply died. And when we got off the train at the Borisova Griva village, there was a crowd of people there, the crowds were all sitting down, and everything was covered with ice, ice pools everywhere. There were no trucks that were supposed to take us across Lake Ladoga; there was a shortage of them. I walked around and looked and I saw how under the ice in a puddle, in a hole, in a crater – I don't know what it was – there was a frozen woman with a baby in her hands.”

In winter 1943, a glimmer of hope appeared. There was talk in the city that the new commander of the Leningrad front, Leonid Govorov, was preparing a bold operation to break the siege. The battle started on January 12. In six days the Soviet troops managed to take Shlisselburg. Not everybody in the city found out about that small, but historic victory right away, Vsevolod Petrov-Maslakov says. At the beginning of the siege of Leningrad he was 12 and he spent almost the entire siege alone. His father was mobilized at the beginning of the war and his mother worked in a front-line hospital. The day of the breach of the siege he went to look for her.

“There was such a moment: crushing sounds, bombs falling and shooting. And nobody there – nobody to ask what was going on. I went out into the street and there were no people, not a soul. I saw a glow, it was a child's fantasy, of course, and I immediately thought that it was the Germans who were taking the city and my mom was there. I was crying that the Germans would enter the city and kill my mom. There was a crushing sound everywhere, but no explosions. I went to Zagorodny Prospect and kept on walking; I cannot now remember the route. And then I saw some movement - trucks and people in military uniform. I went into the yard, and there were people everywhere. There were two or three ambulances that came right from the front line. They were surrounded, some wounded were taken into the hospital right away, some were examined right there in the yard, some were already dead. My mother ran out, she was thin, her eyes were sunken in. She brought me a can of food, gave it to me and did not say anything, only, ‘go, go. Our troops broke the siege’. And no more talking, she left immediately, dead tired. And I never saw her again till the end of the summer”.

The piece of land on the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, wrestled back in the course of the breakthrough operation, was used to its full potential by Soviet commanders. In a very short amount of time a number of roads were built to facilitate the task of delivering food to citizens. On February 7 the first train arrived to the city.

Russia honors Siege of Leningrad victims

Russia is honoring the 70th anniversary to the end of the Siege of Leningrad.

Most festivities will take place in the village of Maryino, where the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts broke the encirclement in a full-scale offensive known as Operation Iskra.

Candles will be lit at the Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery in St.Petersburg, where about half a million civilians and city defenders were buried in 186 mass graves.

The Siege of Leningrad, one of the most tragic chapters in the history of the Second World War, lasted for 872 days.

The lifting of the siege marked one of the major Soviet victories in the war, along with the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk.

Voice of Russia, TASS

The Siege of Leningrad. (photos)

Siege of Leningrad: hard times

Anastasiya Pershkina

More than one-third of the population of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) went to the front to fight against the fascists in 1941 during the Second World War.

As a result, all the work in the city was done by women, and then – by children. There were nearly 600,000 women and children in Leningrad before the war. During the war they worked at plants, extinguished fires, helped clear the streets, learned how to fire guns and to provide medical aid, and were ready to defend their city.

The hardest period during the Nazi siege of Leningrad that continued for 900 days was the winter of 1941-42. The daily bread ratio for the city dwellers was 125 grams for old people and children, the minimal bread portion. By the beginning of December 1941 electricity supplies were cut off in the city. Both the sewerage and the water supply systems stopped working. The temperature dropped to record lows of 32 degrees Celsius. People slept, hipped up together. Both their clothes and blankets were stuck to the beds and walls because of frost. Practically, all electricity was used to ensure the work of hospitals and defence enterprises. There was no light in the houses or streets. Igor Suvorov, who was a 9-year-old boy, when the blockade started says:

"People had phosphorus signs that glowed in the dark and helped passers-by avoid collision with each other."

Male residents were practically non-existent in the city, and all the work was done by women and children. Many of them joined fire brigades and helped put out flame bombs, Maria Maslak, a 12-year-old girl at that time, said.

Besides, 12- and 13-year-old children underwent military schooling, Yuri Belov, who at that time was a 12-year-old boy, says, adding that girls were trained as nurses.

Today historians like to compare Leningrad with Paris. They are even trying to prove that the French behaved more correctly because they surrendered Paris to the Germans – in other words, they resigned themselves to the situation that emerged at the moment. The survivors of the siege of Leningrad do not understand this logic. Even in the winter of 1942, queuing for bread, the Leningraders cursed the Germans, saying that they would never surrender their city to the enemy.

(c) 2000