The Russian city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was besieged by German and Finnish forces during World War II for almost 900 days from 1941 to 1944. The city was caught unprepared, and millions were exposed to extreme food shortages. With the city surrounded, the Axis forces elected to starve out the city rather than take it by force. The winter of 1941-42 was especially harsh and the people resorted to desperate measures to survive.
Many citizens trapped within the city wrote about their experiences, from the feeling of impending doom at the approach of the Wehrmacht (Nazi Germany’s unified armed forces) to the daily grind of getting through each day. Multiple collections of survivors’ diaries have been published, but there are still many more accounts yet to be processed and translated from the Russian archives.
This collection features their stories in their own words. They weren’t soldiers, but their courage, compassion, and sheer determination to survive wouldn’t have been out of place on the battlefield.
An Order To The Wehrmacht Condemned The City To Starve
In calculations made by German scientists before the Soviet Union invasion was launched, estimates showed that as many as 30 million Russian civilians would succumb to starvation. The plan was to annihilate the Russian population and establish new German colonies in Eastern Europe (pictured).
Leningrad would experience this cold German indifference to suffering firsthand. When the city was surrounded by September 1941, the Axis forces chose not to close in and engage in costly urban fighting, but to pound Leningrad from a safe distance and let hunger do the rest.
Surrender was not an option for Leningrad – quite literally, as Adolf Hitler directly ordered any surrender to be ignored:
Requests for surrender resulting from the city’s encirclement will be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us.
Citizens Of Leningrad Dreaded The Arrival Of The Germans
The German invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa swept through the Soviet Union at lightning speed that summer. The citizens of Leningrad were only too aware of the likelihood the Germans would reach the city before long.
Georgi Kniazev was a historian who wrote a detailed account of his experiences under siege. One of his first thoughts was fear that the Kirovsk-Murmansk line would be cut by the Germans and Finns, preventing supplies from getting through. His journal entry for June 23, 1941 concluded:
The second day of the Great Patriotic War has ended. It has exhausted me.
Yura Riabinkin was a boy of 15 who noted the change in the city’s streets shortly after the outbreak of the conflict:
Once I was out in the street, I noticed something peculiar… I caught sight of the caretaker with a gas mask and wearing a red armband on his sleeve. The same thing at all the other gateways… something told me that a situation threatening the city had been declared.
Air Raids Became A Part Of Daily Life
At first, the very prospect of air raids frayed the nerves of the people of Leningrad. In July and August of 1941, citizens wrote of constantly hearing air raid sirens long before the first German planes actually appeared in the sky. Georgi Kniazev realized that the real thing would be upon them soon enough:
The bombing of Leningrad is inevitable, and anyone who spreads the opinion that Leningrad will not be bombed is either a dedicated agent provocateur or a chattering fool.
When the attacks began, it wasn’t only people who fell victim to the bombs. Kniazev noted the zoo had been struck:
The b*stards were dropping bombs again – on the zoo. The elephant perished.
By September 1941 the raids were constant; teenager Yura Riabinkin noted 11 alerts in a single day. People soon realized the planes would come as long as the siege would last: “There will be no respite for Leningrad now. They will come here every day to bomb.”
In all about 75,000 bombs were dropped on the city over the course of the siege’s nearly 900 d. Citizens began to look forward to days with bad weather, as that would give a brief respite from the bombers. As the scramble for food became especially acute during the winter of 1941-42, some citizens stayed in line even as the bombs fell:
Hunger numbed the fear of bombing and shelling. It overrode everything; there was little room for anything else. People became so weakened that they would step on the corpses that lay half-buried in the snow rather than take an extra step to walk around them. We didn’t have the strength.
Fear Soon Turned To Hatred
As the first evacuations of children took place, they were attacked by German bombers. Maria Vasilievna Motkovskaya bore witness to the carnage:
You know, he was flying so low, he would look, press – and a bomb would explode at once. They said afterwards that they hadn’t known. Rubbish! They knew perfectly well and could see perfectly well.
Afterward, she saw a group of captured German soldiers and cursed them:
I shouted out damn you to hell! Just you wait! Just you wait! The time will come when our pilots will be killing your children too.
When the tables turned and the Soviets invaded Germany, the brutality inflicted upon the Russians was repaid with interest by the Red Army. Estimates of the German prisoners of war who perished in labor camps range from the official count of a little more than 380,000 to about 1 million. The rate was especially high during the early months of the conflict.
Food Shortages Got More Acute As Time Went On
Leningrad was not properly prepared for a siege, and many citizens were well aware that food shortages were coming. Rations were distributed on the basis of occupation, with factory workers receiving the most nourishment.
They have nothing to eat, the mother has no job, they have only a dependent’s ration card – that is to say, one that dooms them to starvation.
Growing children felt the shortages especially hard; the little food that was available was nowhere near enough to satisfy hunger. Yura Riabinkin, 16, wrote of the toll weeks of inadequate food began to take:
Mother has already begun to tell me that we must get used to the idea that if a man is fed a bowl of soup a day, he should be satisfied with that. But suppose I can’t get used to such an idea? I don’t even eat a half, a quarter of the amount I need to feel full. Oh this war, this war!
Another teenager, Berta Zlotnikova, recalled:
I am becoming an animal. There is no worse feeling than when all your thoughts are on food.
As winter set in, the food shortages became critical. Historian Georgi Kniazev’s journal entry for November 12, 1941 noted, “hunger is no longer knocking on the door, but has come right inside on its bony legs.” Many firsthand accounts of Leningrad described the agony of endless thoughts and dreams of food. People would queue for hours for bread rations and still come away empty-handed. A young mother recalled the sorry sight of her 5-year-old son staring at a clock for hours, just waiting for the next meal to come.
Outside the city, the Red Army fought tooth and nail to reestablish a supply line into the city. The coming of winter opened a new overland route – over the frozen Lake Ladoga (pictured). The treacherous frozen path to Leningrad became known as the “Road of Life” during the siege. For many of the drivers, it was the road of death, as trucks that broke the ice plunged into the frigid abyss below. At first, just a small amount of flour made it over in December 1941, but this grew to thousands of tons of life-sustaining supplies in 1942-43.
Citizens Turned To Horrifying Extremes To Eat
With the extreme food shortages in the winter of 1941-42, people were forced to turn to unimaginable sources of sustenance. Animals at the zoo and family pets were swiftly eaten; reports suggest the heartbroken families swapped animals so they’d be spared the horror of eating their own. There was another source of protein available for the truly desperate – the many dead who lined the streets. Officials tried to clamp down on cannibalism, with 2,000 arrests made, but the true figure is likely far higher.
Galina Popova was a teenager who witnessed the grisly evidence of human consumption firsthand:
One day I when I was crossing the school yard I came upon the body of a woman with the flesh of her buttocks cut away.
Other siege delicacies included soup flavored with leather, boiled pork skin, boiled sawdust, and carpenter’s glue formed into jelly. The coming spring provided a new source of sustenance: sap sucked from birch trees. Lidiya Okhapkina, a nursing mother no longer able to produce milk, turned to a sickening alternative to quiet her crying infant:
Then, in an attempt to get her to sleep, I gave her my blood to suck. There had been no milk in my breasts for a long time, and the breasts themselves had completely vanished, gone. So I pricked my arm above the elbow with a needle and applied my daughter’s mouth to the place. She sucked gently and fell asleep.
Money Was Soon Worthless
During WWI, the city was known as Petrograd. The Eastern Front never advanced as far as it would in WWII, but the citizens felt the effects of the conflict nonetheless. As food and fuel shortages mounted, only the wealthy could afford to purchase both on the black market. The siege of Leningrad was different. With the city directly under blockade by the Germans, money soon had very little value.
Just a few weeks into the siege, historian Georgi Kniazev – old enough to remember WWI – noted the different circumstances:
There is nothing you can buy with money, and so it is losing its value. Those who have plenty of money don’t know what to do with it, and are either buying all sorts of rubbish or are buying up all the practical goods for barter, once money has lost all its value.
The young Yura Riabinkin also noticed the inherent worthlessness of cash by October 1941:
There is plenty of money about, but starvation is here just the same.
Money was replaced by a barter system, and citizens readily gave up valuable goods and heirlooms for just a few pounds of bread or flour. One survivor was touched by the gift of four small potatoes from her brother, noting they were worth their weight in gold. Others took full advantage of the situation; those with access to food and little conscience amassed fortunes in tradable goods.
Many Reached Their Breaking Point
As the days of the siege wore on, the effects of hunger mounted. Some people reached what Georgi Kniazev called the line – the despondent point of no return:
It is not difficult to die, but it is extremely hard to be dying….
One survivor recounted her family had all but given up; they stopped going out for food and just lay in bed waiting for the end, only for a neighbor to arrive with a rabbit (that actually turned out to be a cat) and firewood to pull them back from the brink. She remembered that soon afterward, her mother insisted they couldn’t perish on her birthday, so they struggled on, getting through one day at a time. The family began to think of January 10, 1942 as their collective birthday.
Morale ebbed and flowed; some came close to the line but struggled onward, while others fell into the abyss and simply gave up. The worst of the siege was over by the summer of 1942, although conditions were still harsh. Supplies flowed over Lake Ladoga and tens of thousands of people were evacuated to safety, relieving the pressure on those who stayed behind. Another land route was opened in January 1943, but an attempt to lift the siege failed that spring. Leningraders had to endure a few more months before the siege was finally lifted on January 27, 1944.
Relationships Were Strained But Also Strengthened
Stricken by the cold, the hunger, and the sleepless nights, familial ties were strained by the experiences. Teenager Yura Riabinkin struggled badly with the guilt of stealing from his own family and the strain it placed on his relationship with his mother and sister:
How self-centered I am! I am getting callous. What has happened to me? I watched greedily how Mother divided a sweet into pieces for Ira and me, and I pick a quarrel over every little fragment of food, each tiny crumb… I have slid down into that abyss called depravity, where the voice of conscience is totally silent.
Conversely, the shared adversity strengthened some bonds. Historian Georgi Kniazev, who used a wheelchair, felt a renewed appreciation for his spouse:
I have known my wife and friend for twenty-four and a half years, but I never suspected that she had within her such a reserve of spiritual energy and willpower to overcome all obstacles.
People Still Found Ways To Show Humanity
Even during such bleak times, the people of Leningrad still found little moments of humanity to cling to. Svetlana Alexandrovna Tikhomirova was a young girl who survived the siege. She found a small way to celebrate her mother’s birthday by saving tiny amounts of sugar each week for two months. She resisted the overwhelming urge to take some of her stash and woke early on the special day to present her mother with 300 grams (10.5 ounces) of sugar:
Well, needless to say, there were tears. The sugar was immediately shared out again. And that’s how the birthday was celebrated.
Another source of inspiration came from music and art – despite the hardships, plays and musical performances continued throughout the siege. A city orchestra broadcast a concert over the radio on November 9, 1941 in defiance to the German forces. A further performance, the Leningrad première of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 took place in the summer of 1942.
Plays and concerts were performed all over the city to raise morale and let citizens briefly escape from the harsh reality of the siege. Although the musicians and actors could barely stand, they summoned the strength to perform from hidden depths. Yevgenii Lind, director of a museum dedicated to the artists and musicians of Leningrad, noted the importance of their work in lifting the spirits of the city during its darkest days:
Without their spiritual strength, a strength that went beyond words, this city would not have survived… A person who laughs is unvanquished.
The Effects Of The Siege Led To Rapid Aging
The cumulative effects of sleepless nights, empty stomachs, and nerves frayed by the constant shelling and bombing were plainly visible on the faces of Leningrad’s citizens. Children grew up quickly, and those who were in the prime of their lives aged rapidly. As one chronicler recalled: “Now she has aged, her face has grown shadowed, she has lost her good looks, and she is not yet 30.”
The women felt a loss of femininity as their faces became haggard and their bodies skeletal. Lidiya Okhapkina recalled the initial reunion with her husband; she was evacuated in the winter of 1941-42 and her husband ended up on the same train, but didn’t recognize his own family. Later, in the cramped quarters of a refugee camp, she bared all to her husband:
I stood naked in front of my husband, “see what I have become”… Vasili looked at me and started to blink his eyes again, “never mind” he said, “since the bones are in good shape, the body will follow.”
Aleksandra Liubovskaia noted how there was increasingly little difference in the appearances of men and women:
Everyone is shriveled, their breasts sunken in, their stomachs enormous, and instead of arms and legs just bones poke out through wrinkles.
The Survivors Were Haunted By Guilt And Memories Of Hunger
The blokadniki, as the survivors of Leningrad’s siege were called, were forever affected by the experience. Many had feelings of guilt. Yura Riabinkin never made it out of Leningrad; the 16-year-old simply couldn’t summon the strength to evacuate the city. His mother and sister Ira made it out, but Yura could no longer stand and was left behind. His mother didn’t survive the evacuation. Only Ira lived to see the end of the war. In an interview many years later, she recalled the lingering guilt of her survival:
I have always felt guilty because I was the one to live – I can’t help feeling that way.
Other blokadniki would habitually hoard food, even decades later. One survivor slept with a piece of bread under his pillow, while another stored large amounts of food in her fridge but only ever ate sausages, black bread, and pickled cabbage. The siege might have been lifted in early 1944, but the mentality of the survivors remained.
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