The Siege of Leningrad
‘I have voluntarily joined the people’s militia. Before that I was engaged in peaceful work only. But now I am prepared to take up arms. I know that Nazism is tantamount to the end of culture, the end of civilisation. Historically the triumph of Nazism is senseless and impossible, but I realise that it is only through fighting that humanity can avoid death…’ Dmitri Shostakovich
Leningrad… No city in the world is better suited to epitomise the great feat of redemption in the eyes of history in the years of World War Two.
The peaceful life of Leningrad was interrupted by the German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Germans had failed to capture the city in the first months of the war, therefore they imposed a siege on Leningrad. ‘Wipe the city of Petersburg off the face of the Earth,’ was the directive of Hitler. ‘The defeat of the Soviet Union leaves no room for the continued existence of that large urban area. Finland, too, sees no point in the continued existence of that city so close to its new border... A tight siege should be imposed on the city and fire from all calibres of guns and incessant bombing raids should reduce the city to ashes...’
All the human and material potential of Leningrad was put to work in the effort to rebuff the enemy. Newly formed home guard units reinforced the army. A good number of women and children, plant machinery and works of art were evacuated before the siege closed on Leningrad. The remaining plants switched over to making and repairing army hardware. With a majority of able-bodied workers at the front, old people, women and adolescents manned the plants.
In spite of the heroic efforts to defend Leningrad, things in the city went from bad to worse. The magnificent city was ruined by bombs. Its beautiful parks and embankments were pockmarked with bomb craters. It ran short of food, there was no heating fuel, its power plants and waterworks had stopped functioning. The winter of 1941-1942 happened to be exceptionally cold, and Leningraders were freezing in their destroyed houses. Daily bread rations were reduced to 125 to 350 grams. Fats, meat, sugar were practically unavailable. The absence of food, the freezing temperatures and the incessant bombing raids sent the civilian death rate up. People started dying on a mass scale in January 1942. Often they would fall right in the street to never get up again. In the evening, the dead bodies were sledge-driven to city cemeteries. But because it was impossible to dig a grave in the frozen soil, the corpses were simply left to lie in the snow. Bodies of the people whose relatives lacked the strength to carry them to a cemetery were left to lie near their homes.
The bread rations reduced to the minimum, the military council resolved to supply the city with food and fuel via the Ladoga Lake and on September 12th, 1941 two barges with grain and flour cast anchor at Cape Osinovets from the eastern side of the lake. That was the only communication route during the 900-day siege and the Leningraders called it the Road of Life. With the arrival of the freezing-over period transportation by water stopped and the construction of a winter route across the ice of the Ladoga Lake began. This winter road was known as military motorway 101.
The construction progressed in the conditions of severe frosts and gale force winds that obliterated the road. The ice would give way. Car drivers were working non-stop for days on end. The road came under unremitting bombardment and artillery fire, so the columns moved at night mostly, under the flickering light from flashlights. The Germans lashed out at the passing motorcades with gunfire, and the cars, loaded with cargo, caught into craters and holes.
Communication via Ladoga made it possible to increase the daily bread rations by December 1941. Workers now got 350 grams, office workers, dependants and children – 200 grams.
A famous personality on the Road of Life was driver Maxim Tverdokhleb. On the eve of the year 1942 his truck was on a regular mission taking on the cargo at the eastern coast of the Ladoga Lake, the reception point for food suppliers for the blockaders. Fairly soon he noticed that his truck was being loaded with plywood boxes with the inscription ‘For Children of Heroic Leningrad!’ instead of the usual bags with flour. Seeing the driver’s bewilderment the commander responsible for the food supplies explained that the boxes contained tangerines from Georgia as New Year presents to the children of Leningrad. ‘Be sure to deliver the cargo on time!’ – shouted the commander after the truck. Coming onto the ice the truck hit the beaten route and raced in the direction of Leningrad. Dusk fell fast on the lake and the moon was shining, which was no good at all, since the Nazis bombed the road not only at daytime now but during the night too. And that night proved no exception.
‘Two Messerschmitts attacked me at 20 kilometres,’ Maxim Tverdokhleb recalled. ‘Screaming overhead they soared up, turned backward and attacked again targeting at the back of the truck and the cabin. I accelerated, slowed down, steered right, steered left, and all around me the snow burst out with myriads of snow flakes disturbed by bullets. I drove frantically… My cabin was riddled with bullets. The windscreen came out in smithereens. And the next minute I felt something hit my arm and scald it. I lifted it to prevent loss of blood and not to lose consciousness. Steam was coming out in clouds from the knocked out radiator and I could see nothing in front of me. I could have jumped out and escaped in the roadside but what would have become of the tangerines for the children? So I thought, no, I will make it there!’
The fearless driver did manage to make it to the shore. Later on they discovered 49 holes in the truck. And the children of Leningrad got tangerines from the sunny republic of Georgia for New Year.
The Road of Life delivered food supplies to besieged Leningrad throughout the entire winter of 1941-42. The role it played is impossible to overestimate, for it saved many and many lives and kept the city in communication with the mainland.
During all the 900 days of the siege Leningrad was subjected to unheard-of suffering. But neither horrible privations nor human losses could break the spirit of Leningraders. The people kept fighting, working at defence plants, tending to the sick and meeting scientific research programmes. In the summertime, they laid out vegetable beds in parks and on boulevards. ‘No ordeal will break our spirit,’- they would say, - ‘this city shall not surrender to the enemy. The Neva will start flowing upstream sooner than this city surrenders to the Nazis.’
Braving the terrible odds of the Nazi siege, Leningrad was holding its own and stubbornly refused to surrender. Marshal Georgi Zhukov later wrote in his memoirs that ‘war history had never before seen such battlefield valiance and home front heroism, as was displayed by the unbending defenders of Leningrad.’
Besides their daily toil of defending the city, keeping its plants and factories rolling and tending to the wounded, the Leningraders were also writing poems and music. It was then and there that the renowned Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his famous Seventh Symphony that immediately became a stirring anthem to the unvanquished city on the Neva.
Refusing to leave the city with the rest of the Philharmonic Society early in the war, Shostakovich was bombarding the local recruitment centres with demands to send him out to the frontlines. All his pleas turned down, he then joined his friends digging trenches outside the city. After his attempt to join the militia also fell flat, Shostakovich signed with the local firefighters squad and, during his duty hours on the Conservatory roof, was putting out incendiary bombs the Nazis dropped on the city. It was during those trying days that he actually decided to write his larger-than-life Seventh Symphony…
In a radio message broadcast on September 20th, 1941 Dmitri Shostakovich said: ‘An hour ago I finished writing the second part of my big new symphony… Why am I telling you this? Because I want all the Leningraders who are listening to me to know that life goes on and we are all doing our duty…’
The Leningrad radio orchestra was now too small to play the Seventh Symphony though. The score called for 80 musicians and there were only a handful of them spared by famine and the enemy bullets at the frontlines... Then they made a radio announcement inviting the musicians who were still alive to join in. Unit commanders were instructed to dispatch their musicians with special passes, which said that they had been relieved from combat duty to perform the Seventh Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Finally, they all got together for the first rehearsal, their hands roughened from combat duty, trembling from malnutrition but everybody still clinging to their instruments as if for their own life… That was the shortest rehearsal ever, lasting for just 15 minutes because that was all the emaciated players could afford… And play they did and conductor Karl Eliasberg who was trying his best not to go down himself now knew that the orchestra would play the symphony…
August 9th, 1942 was just another day in the Nazi-besieged city. But not for the musicians, though, who, visibly uplifted, were busily preparing for the first ever public performance of the Seventh Symphony. Karl Eliasberg later wrote recalling that memorable day: ‘The chandeliers were all aglow in the Philharmonic Hall jam packed by writers, artists and academics. Military men were also very much in presence, most of them right from the battlefront…’
The conductor, his tuxedo dangling freely from his emaciated body, stepped to the pulpit, his baton trembling in his hand. The next moment it went up and the hall filled with the stirringly beautiful chords of one of the best music works Shostakovich had ever written in his whole life…
When the last chord trailed off there was a momentary silence. Then the whole place literally exploded with thunderous applause. People went up to their feet all, tears rolling down their faces, tears of joy and pride…
Buoyed by the deafening success of their performance and visibly proud of themselves, the musicians were happily hugging each other like soldiers do winning a major battle…
A German soldier who picked up the radio broadcast of that memorable concert was stunned by what he heard: ‘When I heard Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony being broadcast from the famine-stricken Leningrad I realised that we would never be able to take it. Realising that, I surrendered…’
The Germans never managed to capture the city. In January 1944 the Red Army counterattacked, ending the deadly siege of Leningrad, which lasted for 900 days and nights and made Russia’s northern capital an enduring symbol of Soviet courage and invincibility…
Click here to return to the September 2006 index.