St Petersburg is a beautiful city, full of superb architecture, canals, the world-famous Hermitage, a centre of art and culture. But when I visited the city, I learned of a darker episode during WW2. We’ve all heard of the devastating siege of Stalingrad but the siege of Leningrad, as St Petersburg was called in the Soviet era, is a backwater in the history of the war. The photo to the right is a stark reminder of those days. Catherine’s palace, just outside the city, was occupied, looted and trashed by German troops. The photo shows the devastation and this same destruction would surely have been delivered upon St Petersburg if the city had been taken.
But it wasn’t. The people of Leningrad kept the surrounding German armies at bay for twenty-nine months.
Maria Kuroshchepov is the direct descendant of survivors of the siege. Her grandfather wrote a diary of those years, chronicling the impact on him and his family and friends and she has translated the document into English. The Ring of Nine is one of those rare and wonderful assets in history – an eye-witness account of those dark days. Here’s her story of the diary.
Compared to other grand cities of the world, St. Petersburg is fairly young. Nonetheless, one could argue that it had seen more tumult and unrest than the ancient Slavic capitols Moscow and Kiev in half the time. History is ever present in St. Petersburg – from memorial plaques with names of famous writers, artists, composers and scientists on nearly every building, to dents left in the cobblestones by bullets dating to the October Revolution of 1917.
When looking at the beautiful architecture and historic names, visitors often forget this city was also the site one of the worst tragedies in human history. During World War II, before the German army’s advance was finally halted by Soviet troops, Leningrad ended up well behind enemy lines, but was never actually taken. Military personnel and civilians stacked sand bags around the walls to protect the buildings and placed anti-aircraft weapons on roofs to fight back during air raids. When there were not enough soldiers to man the weapons within the city, women and children took over the roof canons and taught themselves to put out fires. The city defended itself even as food rations fell and hundreds of people died of starvation every day.
Children dragging their dead parents on small sleighs through the snow, railway stations used to store bodies until ground became soft enough to bury them – this was all real, something people like my paternal grandmother, for example, were faced with when going to work at the factory every day. Grandma’s entire family died one by one, starting with her father who went to pick up the food rations one day and simply did not return. His body was never found.
While the winter of 1941/1942 was one of the cruelest and coldest in Leningrad history, the frost turned out to be an ally in the end. It kept the enemy troops at bay, as they did not dare to venture too far away from their established position and advance onto the city in sub-zero temperatures. Their planes remained grounded due to cold and blizzards. And, most importantly, the savage winter created a bridge into the struggling city – the Road of Life established over the frozen Ladoga Lake.
While removing the entire blockade was impossible at the time, Soviet troops were able to win back a section of the lake shore. As soon as the ice became solid in November of 1941, trucks with supplies started making daily trips into the city – insanely dangerous thirty kilometer (nineteen mile) crawls across the frozen expanse, protected as much as possible by anti-aircraft batteries on the ground and airplanes in the sky.
The blockade lasted for twenty-nine months, and each winter the Road of Life resumed its operations, not only bringing in the precious supplies, but also allowing people to escape from the city. The sick and wounded were transported by truck, raft and boat. Everyone else walked. 1.3 million people, including my grandmother, owe their lives to that fragile stretch of lake ice. Nobody knows how many people perished during the Leningrad Blockade.
My maternal grandfather was also a blockade survivor. He was studying to be an officer at a military school in Leningra, when the war began, and reported for active duty while there, but did not get a chance to leave the city before it became surrounded. He and his fellow cadets continued their studies to the best of their ability, although they could not participate in combat – they were too weak from constant malnutrition, and some could not even pick up a rifle, let alone use it in battle.
Grandfather kept a diary of his blockade ordeal and managed to preserve it almost in its entirety. Whatever pages were lost, he was able to restore thanks to his phenomenal memory. He and I were always very close, very good friends, and he told me, “Someday, we need to publish this, because people must remember these things.” After grandfather died in 1994, I inherited his entire library and all his journals and personal notes, including the blockade diary.
Transcribing and translating these notes proved to be more difficult than I thought – because of the subject matter. It is one thing to watch a war movie with fictional characters. It is an entirely different thing to read something that happened in reality – and happened to someone you knew and loved. Many times, I had to set the manuscript aside and take a break. Some entries took days to complete, because I wept over every page.
In the end, I am glad that I didn’t give up on this project. Grandfather and I have often talked about publishing a book together, and now we have.
December 25, 1941. One hundred and ninth day of the blockade and one hundred eighty-seventh day of war. Behind us are thirty-four days of the lowest food rations during the entire blockade, which laid foundation for higher death rates in the subsequent months.
Is there any historic significance to the day of December 25? Not much… It’s the shortest day of this year, but it doesn’t always fall on the same date. The Russian Emperor Peter III – the grandson of Peter I – ascended to the throne on this day. It wasn’t a very important event, but was recorded in historic records nonetheless.
For us, blockade survivors, December 25 is a very important day in our personal history – the history of the blockade.
Morning… The room is quiet. Last night our contingent has been expanded to full six people in a room. There is unusual activity somewhere in the hallway. The patients can hear the noise, but don’t know the reasons for such uncommon bustle.
Sergey Vasilyevich listens carefully but is not in a hurry to evaluate what he is hearing. “Something has happened,” he says anxiously, “Do you hear that? Someone’s talking, running around, it has never happened before.”
“It can be anything,” snaps Travkin, “The hospital is poorly guarded and the guards are asleep on their feet. Someone may have popped by and stolen all the food, that’s why everyone is fussing around. What else can it be?” and he quickly dives under the blanket.
“Poor auntie, soft in the head,” Ahmed says. The implication of his words is fairly accurate, apparently Ahmed is quite capable of thinking in Russian.
“You, Travkin, have a mean tongue and a panicky mind. You don’t know what you are talking about,” Pavlovski concludes.
“Yes I do,” Travkin insists, “There are only two cases, in which the ‘death ward’ staff starts running around: when someone steals the bread or when the food rations go up. Think dialectically, get it, you old fool?” Travkin yells angrily.
“If this is about a ration increase,” calmly says Sergey Vasilyevich, “I’ll forgive your insult. But if it’s something else, I’ll pay you back.”
“And how would you pay me back, old man?” Travkin asks mockingly.
“Oh, I’ll find something?” Pavlovski says quietly, “For example, I could dialectically eat dinner for two hours right in front of you.”
“Oh! That really is scary, please, do what you want, dear Sergey Vasilyevich, but spare me this torture,” Travkin begs.
At that moment the door into our room flies open and Anna Vasilyevna and Nurse Lida walk in, their faces shining with hope and kindness.
“My dears!” Anna Vasilyevna says happily, “Great news – all of the city’s population is getting a larger bread ration. Starting from today all factory workers will get three hundred and fifty grams per day, and all other workers, as well as dependents, children and retirees will get two hundred grams per day.
“This is just the beginning. Soon we’ll get another ration increase – you’ll see, my friends. Everything will be restored, life will become easier, quality of bread will get better.”
The patients express their delight at such news by all-around opening of blankets. The long-forgotten wrinkled bony smiles appear on their faces and their feeble hands applaud before hiding under the quilts.
The front line troops, the reserve divisions and the hospitals don’t get a ration increase this time around. So, the patients will continue getting three hundred grams of surrogate bread per day.
Thank you, Maria.