On September 8, 1941, the Nazis began siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. The 900-day-long siege took so many lives it is regarded by many as an act of genocide; nevertheless, it was unable to break down the resistance of the Soviet people, who survived the entire blockade with no thought of surrender, committing one of the most remarkable and unprecedented feats of strength and courage in history.
The siege was undertaken by the Wehrmacht troops as part of Hitler’s “Barbarossa Plan.” The capture of Leningrad was one of three strategic goals in Hitler's plan for an immediate takeover of the Soviet Union, for he deemed Leningrad significant as a former Russian capital and the cradle of the Socialist Revolution. Leningrad also attracted him as the main base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet and its industrial strength, as it housed numerous arms factories.
Hitler’s personal order for the future of the city provided that “St. Petersburg should be wiped out from the face of the Earth. After Soviet Russia is defeated, the existence of this largest populated locality appears no longer necessary… In this war, which is fought for the right to survive, we are not interested in preserving at least part of the population.”
By September 8, the German troops surrounded the city in a tight circle, trapping 2,887,000 people, including 400,000 children. The Nazis undertook systematic bombardments of the city, their major goal being food warehouses. Although the city dwellers eventually learned to conceal their scarce leftover food supplies, after the major bombings the city only had grain and flour left for 35 more days, cereals and pasta for 30 more days and meat for 33 more days.
November 1941 marked the beginning of an unprecedented famine in Leningrad. The only connection between the city and the rest of the country was Ladozhskoye Lake. However, the city’s needs superseded its carrying capacity.
The biggest fire destroyed the Badaevsky warehouses, with tons of produce burning and melted sugar flowing across the city. One of the survivors recalled that when all the food was gone, they went to the site to collect the sweet dirt. Once put in water and boiled, the dirt settled down, leaving clean, drinkable sweet water -- a drink they called “earthly coffee.” People also boiled old book covers made of papier-mâché and cooked cakes out of the oilseed residues.
The unprecedented famine was aggravated by the disruption of utilities, water and energy supplies. The entire public transport system stopped working due to a shortage of fuel. Starting in November 1941, food vouchers were introduced. The lowest quantity of food supplies was registered in the unusually severe winter of 1942 - only 125 grams of bread per person.
All waste was thrown out of windows, which was relatively harmless in the winter at low temperatures. But in the springtime, it could cause a serious epidemic. Citizens of the city, exhausted and starving though they were, didn’t let the poison spread with the melting waters, carefully cleaning up the streets, hanging on by the skin of teeth. Sometimes, people were so drained of all energy, only three or four could manage holding one spade.
Two winter months in 1942 alone saw the death of 200,000 citizens of Leningrad from cold and starvation. However, most of the plants kept working, and people, though starving, refused to give up. Regardless of the unbearable conditions, adults still went to work every day, and, though suffering from dystrophy, made blood donations for the front to get a larger portion of bread for their families in exchange.
Children resumed studies at school, even in the winter, when the weather was so cold they had to sit in their overcoats and break ice on their inkpots. Both grown-ups and children, even as young as 11 year olds, had to take turns digging trenches or standing on the roofs during bombings, cleaning them from the fire bombs which, if they stayed there longer, could burn down houses.
Despite it all, the city managed to uphold at least a semblance of normal life. The valuables of the Hermitage Museum were partially evacuated or disguised in the museum’s cellars for safekeeping during the nonstop bombings. Scientists resumed research, and the great Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich finished and performed his Symphony #7.
The blockade was lifted on January 27, 1944. The Piskarevskoye Cemetery, the last resting place for almost 500,000 victims of the blockade, has become one of the most significant national memorials of World War II. Among the best depictions of life in besieged Leningrad was the diary of 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva, who recorded the deaths of all of her family dying herself shortly after the blockade was lifted.
During the course of the blockade, 16,747 were killed in the bombings and 632,253 died of starvation. The economic destruction and human loss in Leningrad on both sides exceeded those of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Moscow or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.