Skip to content
The siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest episodes of WWII

On September 8, 1941, the siege of Leningrad began, one of the major objectives of the German offensive launched a few months earlier during Operation Barbarossa. For 872 days, its inhabitants will live through hell, suffering from hunger, cold and bombardments. Nearly a million civilians are killed.

“Jenia died on December 28 at midnight. Grandmother died on January 25 at three in the afternoon. Leka died on March 5 at five in the morning. Uncle Liocha died on May 10 at four in the morning. afternoon. Mum died on May 15 at seven-thirty in the morning. The Savichevs are dead. Everyone is dead. Tania is all alone. ” Tania Savitcheva was eleven years old when the siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941. In a few months, the young girl helplessly witnessed the disappearance of a large part of her family. Evacuated before the end of the siege, she died of exhaustion on 1er July 1944. It then becomes the symbol of the victims of this siege of more than two years (872 days), the longest in modern history until that of Sarajevo in the 1990s.

Tania Savitcheva’s diary notes and her portrait. © Wikimedia

When Adolf Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Leningrad – now renamed Saint Petersburg – was one of the major targets of the German army. “This city is first and foremost a symbol. It is the former capital of the Tsar and of the Revolution (from October 1917)”, summarizes the historian Pierre Vallaud, author of “L’Étau. The siege of Leningrad” (ed. Fayard). “It is also a lock in relation to the Baltic. It is a very important strategic point in the context of the conquest of the USSR and the living space desired by Hitler.”

In the first weeks, the troops of the Wehrmacht, supported by the allied Finnish army of IIIe Reich, move quickly. In two and a half months, they arrived at the gates of Leningrad. “During this time, the city had time to barricade itself and prepare the resistance. Hitler will therefore give the order to destroy it either by sea or by land, without entering it. He is well aware that it is almost impossible to take such a large city because it means engaging in street fights “, describes Pierre Vallaud. The watchword is simple. Leningrad must be “razed to the face of the earth”.

The siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest episodes of WWII
German soldiers during their advance towards Leningrad in September 1941. AP

Famine seizes Leningrad

The city is surrounded by the Germans to the south and the Finns to the north. The bombardments are intense. The blockade begins. Residents find themselves cut off from all sources of supplies, except for a small corridor on Lake Ladoga – dubbed the “Road of Life”, but which was not always in working order. Food reserves can only last a month. It is the start of a long nightmare.

Sarah Gruszka, doctor of history, studied hundreds of testimonies for her thesis “Voice of power, voice of the intimate. The personal diaries of the siege of Leningrad (1941-1944)”. In these stories, she saw the weight of famine and brought to light “an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe”. “Ration standards reached, during the winter of 1941-1942, a daily portion of 125 grams of bread for most Leningrad residents, knowing that this was generally the only food to which they were entitled, and that the bread was made from ersatz (such as cellulose) that were not very nutritious, ”she says. “The rations allocated by the official system of supply hardly allowing survival, the Leningradois had to deploy all their energy in the search for means of subsistence, pushing, for some, pushing back the limits of the edible.”

The siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest episodes of WWII
Three men carry corpses to the Volkovo cemetery in October 1942. © Wikimedia, RIA Novosti archives

Facts of cannibalism are reported. As Pierre Vallaud writes in his book, in the six months following the end of 1941, the police arrested around 2,000 people for having consumed human flesh. Hunger becomes the only obsession. The queues are endless. All the animals pass through it, the glue of the wallpapers, the boiled leather or even the cosmetics. Many end up giving up. Corpses litter the streets. “It’s so easy to die today! You start by losing interest in everything, then you stretch out on your bed and never get up again,” Elena Skriabina wrote in her diary. “It is famine which is responsible for the mass death of the population. The toll is still difficult to establish, but historians agree on nearly a million people (mainly civilians) who perished during the siege – mainly from hunger and during the first winter. The city had, on the eve of the Second World War, a little more than 3 million inhabitants “, summarizes Sarah Gruszka.

Cultural resistance

The people of Leningrad also endure other hardships, as the historian lists: “The isolation, the darkness, the cold, the German shelling, the repressive Stalinist context, the lack of running water and the necessity to go and tap it by drilling the ice of the Neva river, illnesses, grueling pace at work, the kilometers to cover in the absence of transport, etc. “

Despite these apocalyptic conditions, daily life and in particular cultural life continues. Libraries, theaters and concert halls are open intermittently. Dmitry Shostakovich – of which Leningrad is the birthplace – wrote his famous Symphony No. 7, which was performed at the Philharmonic in the besieged city in August 1942 by musicians who were considerably weakened. “I wanted to write a work on the men of our region, who will become heroes in the fight they wage against the enemy in the name of victory”, urges the composer in an article in Pravda.

The siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest episodes of WWII
Dmitry Shostakovich working on his Symphony No. 7, in the siege of Leningrad in 1941. AFP

The struggle of artists against fascism also becomes a tool of propaganda. “The cultural dimension of life in besieged Leningrad is one of those aspects on which the local authorities have emphasized”, stresses Sarah Gruszka. “As in most situations of military and political crisis, the Leningrad authorities tried to hide the extent of the difficulties in which the inhabitants found themselves, for various reasons: because they had to be mobilized, by avoiding ‘they are not panicked or despondent, and because above all they should not question the capacity of power to protect and feed its citizens. ” Population control is still pervasive. The agents of the NKVD, the Soviet political police, did not stop their repression and sanction the defeatists. The executions continue.

A long forgetfulness

But the population is holding on. In January 1943, the situation improved thanks to a counter-offensive. The lock of Leningrad jumps, a land corridor is finally opened and allows a better supply of the city. But we still have to wait a year before the city of Peter the Great is finally liberated, after a siege of nearly 900 days. On January 27, 1944, the Germans were definitively pushed back. The blockade is lifted. The heroism of the inhabitants is then exalted, before being finally stifled. The Soviet leader does not want us to overshadow him. “Leningrad was the city of the Revolution where Stalin had not really shone”, analyzes Pierre Vallaud. “He also did not want at all that we scratch too much and that we realize that there had been a million deaths and that it had especially resisted thanks to the courage of its inhabitants.”

It was not until the end of the 1970s that testimonies emerged and offered a version more centered on the suffering of the population. Nowadays, Sarah Gruszka notes at the same time “a revival of the cult of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and an interference of the capacity in the writing of the national history”, while observing within the population “a vision of the things much more nuanced and critical, often more focused on the traumatic dimension “.

As a result, official commemorations with a “military-heroic tone” rub shoulders with private initiatives centered on meditation and homage to the victims of the siege. Some of them take place in the cemetery of Piskarevskoye where 470,000 civilians and 50,000 combatants died during the blockade of Leningrad were buried. In its center rises a monumental statue representing “the Motherland” on which are engraved the verses of the poet Olga Bergholz, survivor of the siege: “Here lie those of Leningrad, here lie the men, women and children of the city, and beside them, the soldiers of the Red Army. At the cost of their lives, they defended you, Leningrad, cradle of the Revolution. We cannot here enumerate their nobles. They are so under the eternal protection of granite. But know, you who look at these stones, that no one is forgotten, that nothing is forgotten. “

The siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest episodes of WWII
The monumental statue representing “the Motherland” at the Piskarevskoye memorial cemetery, during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad, January 27, 2016. Dmitry Lovetsky, AP

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.