The Siege of Leningrad has been observed as one of the most horrifying and tragic events in history, one that had devastating effects on over one million lives. Read on to know more about the Siege of Leningrad, along with its aftereffects.
The Savichevs are dead. Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.
― An excerpt from the heartbreaking diary of Tanya Savicheva, a little girl of 11, during the Siege of Leningrad
WWII was a treacherous time in history, one that saw the death of millions of innocent people, an immeasurable loss of property and infrastructure, and over all, too much destruction that affected generations. The Siege of Leningrad is one such tragic time in the chain of events during this period. Leningrad, also known as St. Petersburg in Russia, was a major industrial center and also the second-largest city in the USSR. Also known as the 900 Days Siege, this infamous, inhuman attack on the city of Leningrad lasted 872 days which led to the death of an estimated 1 million people, civilians and Soviet troops included.
It has been counted among the worst sieges in history, in terms of destruction and casualties, and the time needed to lift it successfully. We shall look at the summary of the events that unfolded before and during the Siege and also the aftereffects.
► Capturing Leningrad was one of the most important plans during the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. One of the primary targets of the Operation Barbarossa, an industrial hub, and formerly the capital of the Russian empire, Leningrad was expected to be captured and invaded with great ease. The Siege began on September 8, 1941, when all communication lines with the city were cut off.
► As German troops began to attack the Soviet Union, Leningrad started preparing itself for defense. The Germans began approaching the city within three months of beginning the attack on the Soviet Union. The Russian Red Army was overpowered, and a siege was placed on the city which lasted almost 900 days.
► Expecting an attack, Leningrad had already done what it could to prevent an invasion. Thousands of people were evacuated, and many industrial plants were shifted. All able-bodied citizens were requested to help out in making the city as inaccessible as possible by digging trenches, making fences of barbed wire, wooden blockages, antitank ditches, etc. These preparations initially helped slow down the attack on the city; however, the German troops eventually began pouring in.
► The city and its residents fought the siege valiantly and did whatever they could despite the constant bombings and air raids, which caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. In the first week of October, 1941, Hitler ordered his men to wipe St. Petersburg off the face of the earth, and to capture it without giving the city any chance to surrender to the Nazis. All the communication routes to and from Leningrad were severed, and the city plunged into despair.
► An absence of communication routes meant that the supply of resources, particularly food and other basic necessities was completely cut off at the source. Moreover, air raids, bombings, and planned destruction had ensured that the sites housing the city’s food and other supplies were burned to the ground. The city now had enough food only to last a couple of months, and with the approaching brutal winters, it looked like Hitler’s plan was going to proceed smoothly: the city would die from starvation alone.
► By the end of the month, Leningrad’s food and oil supplies were already exhausted. Rations were dramatically lowered to about one-third of the nutrition needed by an adult daily, and people began receiving only about 10% of the required calorie intake. Thousands of people began dying everyday because of starvation and extreme winter.
► By the end of 1941, there was no heating, no water supply, a serious dearth of electricity, and an immense shortage of food. With such a shortage of food and oil supplies, came horrifying effects. Getting oil for lighting lamps was out of question, and so people began to burn books, wood, furniture, or anything else they could get their hands on, to keep warm.
► As food supplies began dwindling, the animals in the city’s zoo became an alternative source of food. Also, people turned to eating their domestic pets, rats, crows, dogs, cats, and horses. (It didn’t matter if a particular animal didn’t belong to you, if you found it, you killed it and provided your family with dinner that day.) Unfortunately, dwindling numbers of animals also meant that humans were the only supply of food left; hence, cannibalism had started to take root.
► Instances of people killing babies and their spouses to provide food for other family members began circulating in the city. Corpses were dug out and eaten in order to survive. Whenever anyone died, people fought to get hold of that person’s rations, which meant a slight addition to their share of food. Murdering for rations too became common. Death became an ordinary part of life, and the city was growing accustomed to it. Diseases began spreading like wildfire and claimed the life of countless civilians, including children.
► The authorities in Leningrad did not have enough resources to take care of the ever-increasing number of dead people in the city. The winter ensured that the ground was frozen solid, making it difficult to bury the dead properly. Therefore, the authorities began blowing up certain areas in cemeteries and then dumping the bodies in mass graves. A majority of the lives claimed during the entire period of the siege had to be buried in mass, unnamed graves.
► However, if the Germans had expected these miserable circumstances to deter the city, they were wrong. The city’s war industries continued to function, and the people refused to surrender. The winter had, thankfully, frozen the Lake Ladoga, which was the only connection the city had with the rest of the country. Though the extreme winters made traveling across the lake extremely difficult, thousands of people managed to evacuate that way. It also became a route for bringing food and oil supplies to the city, albeit under constant enemy attack. This route became popular as the ‘Road of Life‘ for the people after January 1943. Though the supplies were limited, they were more than what the city had received in a long time.
► On January 27, 1944, the siege was lifted as the Soviet troops managed to enter Leningrad and force the German soldiers to retreat. However, before retreating, the German troops managed to damage the historical buildings and landmarks of the city, along with looting precious art collections which were taken with them back to Germany.
► Unfortunately, the authorities of Leningrad who tried their best to defend the city, were arrested once the Siege was lifted. It was alleged that they had not tried hard enough to contact Moscow during the siege for help. Also, they were accused of trying to control the situation on their own by refusing help from Moscow. Though these were baseless allegations, the authorities now faced severe punishments.
► The city of Leningrad and its people were awarded the Order of Lenin in 1945 by the Soviet government as a tribute to their relentless resistance and commendable endurance during the siege. In 1965, Leningrad was also awarded the title of Hero City of the Soviet Union.
► Several monuments were structured as a homage to those who had died as well as to those who had survived this horrible time. In 1966, a monument to the ‘Road of Life’ called the Broken Ring was created to commemorate the victims of the siege, and it has a short inscription on it which speaks volumes: 900 Days 900 Nights. It is a custom for newlyweds to come and pay their respects to the dead there. Presently, this monument is open for tourists.
It would be hard to imagine that the prosperous, booming Leningrad of today had such a tragic past. Leningrad’s victory wouldn’t have been possible without the support and help of the brave citizens, who strove hard to protect their city from the Germans. Though the miserable conditions engulfed the lives of countless people, broke thousands of families, and killed innocents mercilessly, the city of Leningrad did not let anything break its resolve of not surrendering to the Germans.