900 days of starvation

The siege of Leningrad

Anti-aircraft guns near St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, during the siege
(Photo: Boris Kudoyarov)

The siege of Leningrad of Nazi Germany’s Army Group North during World War II holds the appalling record of being the deadliest and one of the most destructive sieges in history. Over two and a half years, a German force that was incapable of capturing or destroying the city outright attempted to starve out its defenders and citizens as part of Hitler’s plan for “cleansing” Eastern Europe to make space for the superior Germanic race. The publication of this article coincides with the 82nd anniversary of September 8, 1941, when the Wehrmacht severed the last road leading into and out of the surrounded city.

Red Army soldiers during the siege
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Leningrad, previously and today called St. Petersburg, was one of the main strategic goals of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The city had great industrial importance thanks to its arms factories and for being responsible for 11% of the country’s total industrial output. It was the home base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, making it an important military target as well. Finally, it was the former capital of Russia and the spiritual birthplace of the Russian Revolution, and losing it would have surely dealt a grave blow at Soviet morale.

Police firing on protesters in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in July 1917, a few months before the October Revolution
(Photo: Viktor Bulla)

The city and its suburbs are bordered by the Gulf of Finland on the west, and nearby Lake Ladoga on the east, leaving two approaches by land: north and south. Finland had fought its own war, the Winter War, against an invading Soviet Union over the winter of 1939-40, and had to cede some of its territory. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was an opportunity for the Finns to regain that territory from a weakened Russia and even extend their borders, and so they joined on Germany’s side not as allies, but as co-belligerents (fighting a war against the same enemy with cooperation but without a formal treaty).

Finnish soldiers crossing the Finnish-Soviet border in mid-July 1941
(Photo: Finnish Military Museum)
The Finnish-Soviet border originally lay very close to Leningrad, and the Finnish military pushed all the way up to it, capturing the land to the north of the city and between the bay and the lake. They also advanced east, securing the western, northern and eastern shores of Lake Ladoga. Meanwhile, German forces advanced from the southwest and surrounded the city from the south. The southern shore of Lake Ladoga’s remained largely in Soviet hands, but was cut off from the city.
General disposition of forces around Leningrad on a German-language map
(Image: Memnon335bc / Wikipedia)

With Leningrad separated from outside help, Hitler was so certain of victory that he had invitation cards printed for the victory celebration in the city’s Hotel Astoria. This did not, however, mean that the Nazi regime wanted to keep Leningrad. A secret directive from Hitler stated that “Saint Petersburg must be erased from the face of the Earth”, and that there was “no interest in saving the lives of the civilian population.” German commanders were forbidden to accept the city’s capitulation. Leningrad’s 3.5 million residents were to be killed or left to starve, then the city was to be completely demolished and the area handed over to Finland for occupation.

Two teenage girls assembling submachine guns in besieged Leningrad
(Photo: Sergey Strunnikov)

The Soviets started building fortifications and returning some old ones to service in late June 1941. A million citizens helped construct defensive lines. The cruiser Aurora, which played an important role in the Great October Socialist Revolution, had its guns stripped and put in service as part of the land-based defenses. The ship itself was sunk during the siege, but salvaged and repaired later.
The situation was dire for Leningrad’s defenders, but there was a silver lining: Hitler greatly overestimated the Finn’s willingness to contribute to the siege. The Finnish army was content to just sit along the old border and the secure the shores of Lake Ladoga, but refused to conduct air or artillery strikes against the city. This allowed the defenders to concentrate their forces in the south.

Soviet tanks in Leningrad in 1940
(Photo: worldwarphoto.info)
The Germans attacked the city’s hospitals, schools, food stores and other infrastructure with massive artillery barrages and aerial bombing campaigns. German scientist speculated that starvation would hit the city in a few weeks. It did, but the Germans failed to anticipate that the city would keep fighting for two years and four and a half months despite the hunger and the winter cold. The siege became the deadliest one in history with roughly a million Soviet soldiers killed, captured or missing, and another million civilians losing their lives in the siege or during evacuation attempts.
Since German artillery was located to the south and southwest of the city, the northern and northeastern sides of the street were the most exposed to explosive shells. Signs saying “Citizens! During shelling this side of the street is the most dangerous” became a symbol of the siege, and recreations can still be found in the city today as memorials.
Citizens removing one of the warning signs in 1944, after the siege
(Photo: public domain)
The deadliest killers, however, were not the artillery or the bombers, but the starvation and the cold. With Leningrad cut off from Soviet-controlled territory on the ground, the only way to supply the city was through Lake Ladoga. The Russian-controlled shore section allowed ships to pick up food and other basic necessities and take them to a spot near the city that was still held by the defenders, and pick up refugees for the return trip. This was a dangerous undertaking, as German artillery and aircraft did their best to sink the ships. The Germans stepped up their efforts to cut this supply line: a small force of Finnish armed barges and minesweepers were deployed on the lake in 1942, along with a squadron of Italian torpedo boats (the Italians were considered experts in small vessel warfare). However, even these additional forces failed to stop the supply runs.
Boats of the Italian squadron preparing to leave Lake Ladoga in late 1942
(Photo: Finnish Defence Forces)
The runs even continued over the winters, when Lake Ladoga froze over. Supply trucks and other vehicles drove over the ice along the route called the “Road of Life,” which the Germans, in turn, tried to break up with artillery strikes. Many vehicles were lost when they broke through the weakened ice, got stuck in snowdrifts, or were abandoned after the drivers got lost. The Soviets even began constructing a railroad directly over the frozen lake in the winter of 1942-43, though this was never quite completed, as the Red Army had managed to establish a narrow land-based bridgehead by then. An underwater pipeline and a power cable were also laid down to get some fuel and electricity to Leningrad.
Truck on the Road of Life
(Photo: unknown photographer)
But despite all efforts to feed the city from the outside, starvation took a horrifying toll. Rations were reduced several times over the siege. The daily food portion over the winter of 1941-42 was 4.4 ounces (125 grams) of bread, half of which was sawdust or some other inedible admixture. Flour for baking bread was substituted with finished cellulose, cotton-bread and oats originally intended for horses. The horses themselves, along with the zoo animals, the pets, the birds and the rats were all slaughtered and eaten. Wallpaper was peeled off and the paste, made from potato starches, was removed for use in soup.
A Leningrad resident with his daily bread ration, 1942
(Photo: The Central State Archive of Film and Photo Documents of St. Petersburg)
On one occasion, a food warehouse was struck by artillery, and molten sugar seeped through the floor and into the ground. Desperate people dug it up and tried to eat the sugar-impregnated soil. The stuff was also sold on the market to people who tried to boil the sugar out of it. For many people, walking a few miles to the food office was too strenuous an exercise and they died because they couldn’t get their rations. Bodies were often left on the streets in the winter, when the ground was frozen too hard to dig graves.
Residents gathering drinking water from a burst pipe
(Photo: Vsevolod Tarasevich)
It is unsurprising that cannibalism eventually reared its desperate head. 2,105 cannibals were arrested just by December 1942. Most of them were classified as “corpse-eaters,” people who ate from the dead who died from unrelated causes (mainly starvation). A minority, however, were “person-eaters” who killed someone for their flesh. One example was a mother who smothered her 18-month-old child so she could feed her other three children, and a plumber who murdered his wife to provide meat for his sons and nieces. 64% of the cannibals were women, many of them with no support and children to feed. These women could hope for some clemency by the courts, but most person-eaters were shot rather than sent to prison. Another, much more common crime was to kill someone for their food stamps, or to hide and not report a dead family member to continue collecting their stamps.
Men burying the dead in the fall of 1942
(Photo: Boris Kudoyarov)
While suffering incredible privations, the defenders and the civilians who couldn’t make it out also showed a spirit of heroic resistance. Women and children fought in the trenches when needed, and thousands of children joined the night watch organized against fires caused by bombing and Nazi arsonist agents hiding inside the city. Famous poets Olga Bergholz and Anna Akhmatova broadcast their works over the Leningrad radio. Nine scientists from Pavlovsk Experimental Station, a nearby seed bank, starved to death, refusing to eat the edible seeds and berries they were tasked with safeguarding for future generations.
Pavlovsk Experimental Station, where several scientists chose to starve to death in order to preserve seeds, after the siege
(Photo: unknown photographer)
Famous Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, a Leningrad resident himself, began work on his Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony while still in the city, finishing it after he was evacuated. The world premiere of the composition was held on March 5, 1942, in Kuybyshev, and a microfilm version of the score was flown to Tehran so the Western Allied could play the symphony, too. A special Leningrad premiere was held on August 9, 1942, by members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra who were still in the besieged city, and whose ranks were bolstered by other local musicians and army band members transferred from the front. The musicians themselves were starving, and three of them died during the rehearsals despite enthusiastic citizens sharing some of their own rations. Collapsing from hunger and exhaustion during rehearsals was a common occurrence, especially among brass instrument players. In fact, only one single rehearsal could be completed without any such incidents.
The historic Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony
(Photo: Russian Mir Foundation)
The 80-minute performance was held on the same day Hitler intended to celebrate victory in the Astoria, and was broadcast to the Germans through loudspeakers as an act of proud defiance. The Red Army also contributed to the event by shelling German artillery positions during the concert in order to prevent them from disrupting the event with their own bombardment. The orchestra received an hour-long ovation.
Close to two and a half years of unimaginable suffering was eventually broken by the efforts of the Red Army. Several offensives launched from outside the siege ring managed to weaken the German positions. Operation Iskra (“spark”) finally managed to establish a narrow land corridor to the city in January 1943.
Red Army troops from out- and inside the German siege ring linking up after a corridor was established
(Photo: RIA Novosti)
Before they retreated, German forces looted and destroyed the historic palaces of several Russian tsars that were located outside the Soviet defensive ring, taking the artwork found there to Germany. For the heroic collective defense of its inhabitants, Leningrad was the first of twelve cities and a fortress to receive the honorary title of Hero City for actions taken in World War II. This honor, though, was bought at a terrible price. Leningrad had 3.5 million residents before the siege; at its end, there were only 700,000 living people in the city, 300,000 of whom were soldiers from elsewhere. It is impossible to know the accurate death toll due to incomplete Soviet records, but most independent researchers estimate around 1.1 to 1.3 million civilian losses.
1981 photo of the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad
(Photo: RIA Novosti)
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