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27 Jan, 2009 06:21

Leningrad blockade: 900 days of horror

Russia's northern capital St. Petersburg is marking 65 years since the breaking of the Nazi blockade. Formerly known as Leningrad, the city lived through 900 days of starvation and horror.

The Second World War was devastating for the USSR. It became known as the Great Patriotic War, due to the suffering of the Soviet people, and the blockade was one of the toughest times. However, the breaking of the blockade was one of the key victories.

Rostislav Mokhov is 89 years old. He was about twenty when the war started. He survived the blockade and fought all the way to Berlin. He served as a mechanic in the Red Army and got to witness the fall of Hitler’s regime with his own eyes:

“It was impossible to survive on these rations: 500 grammes of bread in the theatre of operations and 300 grams behind the line. But actually it wasn't bread, there were lots of other things in it,” Rostiskav recalls the blockade.

Hitler’s army managed to surround an area of around 5,000 square kilometres, cutting almost all the road links to the city. The last one was a road on the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga. It was only available in the winter and was called the ‘road of life’.

As the siege continued it wasn't unusual to see people drop down dead from starvation in the middle of the street. At one point during the blockade, the death toll was estimated at 4,000 people a day.

Hitler ordered Leningrad to be razed to the ground. It was constantly bombed from the air or shelled by artillery. Reminders of these times can still be seen today, such as a sign on a building warning that particular side will be the most vulnerable during artillery fire.

Several hundred thousand soldiers died defending the city. Their remains are still being uncovered in the outskirts.

“We dig up dead bodies here almost all year round, even now despite the winter. The search group finds two bodies a day,” says Yevgeny Ilyin, historian from St. Petersburg State University.

There were several attempts to break the siege. In 1943 the Red Army managed to open a corridor for supplies to reach the city, but it took another year before the siege was completely lifted.

A museum is now situated on the spot where it happened and continues to collect discarded and broken tanks from the bottom of the nearby Neva River.

“Finally we have managed to create big search teams which can help us to find these tanks which tried to break through the blockade in 1941 and 1942. All the country fought here and their bodies are still here,” explains museum director Vera Pozdnyakova.

The total death toll is still unclear. Numbers vary from 400,000 to more than one million. Most were civilians.