The siege of Leningrad – deadliest blockade of WWII
Russia's second-largest city of St. Petersburg, which during the war was known as Leningrad, suffered a devastating blockade by Nazi troops for almost 900 days, but never surrendered.
It is considered the deadliest siege in human history, with hundreds of thousands dying of hunger in two-and-a-half years. Some historians describe it as deliberate genocide.
Almost one third of the population was wiped out in the city, hemmed in by enemy troops – Finnish to the North, Nazis to the South.
“It was victory. They announced we had won!” recalls Nina Andreeva, blockade survivor. “I was dumbfounded, overwhelmed. It was amazing, but what did it mean? No more shooting?”
Victory was something incomprehensible for Nina Andreeva before 1945. She was just 11 when the siege of Leningrad began, and the diary she kept is a testament to the life of famine, fear and horror she had become used to.
“The bombardment and shelling were terrible,” Andreeva remembers. “We were scared to walk in the street. We got really frightened. And yet, we had no idea what was happening, nor of the nightmare still to come.”
The nightmare began in September 1941 and continued for almost 900 days, as the Nazis tried to suffocate Leningrad. They were within touching distance of the city less than three months after invading the Soviet Union. But that was as close as they got.
“Hitler’s plans for Leningrad underwent changes because of the resistance put up by the city’s residents,” says Irina Muravyeva, a historian. “According to the Barbarossa plan, Leningrad was to be taken in no time, and they didn’t expect such resistance.”
Hitler tried to squeeze the life out of Leningrad’s three million civilians by isolating the city with a blockade. Transport links, electricity and heating were cut. Food stores were bombed and the hunger soon set in.
125 grams of bread was what the daily ration was reduced to during the winter of 1941. It is barely more than a few mouthfuls, and one ingredient was even sawdust. It simply wasn’t enough for many to survive on. The dead were piled up as the city was brought to its knees.
The winter of 1941 showed no mercy, with temperatures plummeting to 35 degrees below zero. People scavenged for what they could, eating leather, glue and even their pets. The ice thawed to reveal streets strewn with dismembered corpses as some turned to cannibalism.
“One time my mother bought meat,” Andreeva confesses. “When she began boiling it, red foam rose. “It’s human meat,” my mother screamed. So we threw everything away. There were cases of cannibalism, especially among mentally unstable people. My friend wrote that her neighbor gave birth to a baby and then ate it.”
Amidst this hell, Leningrad’s heart remarkably kept beating thanks to the Road of Life. The Soviets controlled a narrow, but crucial, artery across the frozen Lake Ladoga to the east of the withering city. Supplies were driven in, and women and children were evacuated. But it was a perilous route, with enemy bombers patrolling the skies.
“When our air defense knew German planes were headed for Ladoga, they’d turn on the searchlights over the ice,” states Vera Rogova, a traffic controller on the Road of Life. “We would see the beams roaming about and understand right away what was coming. That’s when you got scared, but you had to keep on controlling the traffic on the ice road while the Germans were bombing you from the air.”
One in four trucks sank, but those that got through were enough to keep Leningrad alive. Nina was one of over 1.5 million people who were transported over the ice and had a narrow escape.
“The Germans were bombing that road all the time and the truck two ahead of us was hit and went under the ice,” she says. “A woman traffic-controller ran up to us and showed us how to get to a bypass road. It was March, and the ice was melting. The water had risen up to the body of the truck. Everybody was crying. We were afraid of drowning. Our truck was practically floating.”
For Nina, the hell was over in March 1942, but for Leningrad it continued for almost two more years. There was temporary relief at the beginning of 1943, as a two-pronged Soviet attack bashed a corridor through the German defenses. Finally, in January 1944, the Nazi stranglehold was unlocked.
The siege had claimed the lives of around 700,000 civilians. Leningrad’s refusal to surrender prevented the Nazi’s from claiming more.