September 08, 2015

City Under Siege

City Under Siege

For many people, the word “siege” conjures up images of medieval citadels beset by siege towers and battering rams, with trebuchets representing the pinnacle of artillery power. But as recently as 74 years ago, September 8, 1941, the Soviet city of Leningrad found itself surrounded by Nazis and their allies.

The ensuing 900-day siege cut the population of Leningrad – now St. Petersburg – by an estimated one million people. The Germans dropped over 148,000 artillery shells and bombs on the city – a long way from the trebuchets of the Middle Ages. In the fall months, incendiary bombs made quick work of the city’s grain stores; in later years, cynical rumors circulated that Stalin had ordered them burned to speed the destruction of a city he didn’t like.

A few months into the siege, ration cards became the only source of food, and getting that food – full as it was of sawdust and other fillers – took precedence over everything else, including staying out of the way of the shelling. As more and more died of hunger and shelling, death and destruction became normalized.

Already at 6 in the morning I get on my pants, hat, blazer, and overcoat, and go to take my place in line. The store won’t open until 8, and the line is long, 2-3 people across. You stand there and wait, while an enemy plane flies low and slow over the street and rains down from its guns; the people scatter, and then they get back into the line, without panic – it gives you chills… (Siege diary of Angelina Efremovna Krupnova-Shamova)

Images of the siege

As ration cards replaced money, they also became the most common target for theft. Desperate times called for desperate measures – but even those were not always sufficient. Krupnova-Shamova wrote of a “friendly” old woman who couldn’t save herself, even by stealing:

In the morning, an old lady stopped by. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you haven’t gone to get bread yet, give me your cards, I’ll go.’ We got our cards for ten days, from the first to the tenth, and the last three were left – 250 grams, and three for 125 grams each, for three days. That old lady never did bring us that bread… But April 9 I saw her dead in the courtyard – so there’s nothing to judge her for, she was a good person…

Of all the records of the siege, none are as harrowing, as pure a distillation of that awful experience, as the famous 9-sentence diary of 11-year-old Tanya Savicheva:

December 28, 1941. Zhenya died at 12:00. 1941.

Grandma died January 25 at 3. 1942.

Leka died March 17 at 5 in the morning. 1942.

Uncle Vasya died April 13 at 2 at night. 1942.

Uncle Lyosha, May 10, 4 in the afternoon. 1942.

Mama – May 3, 7:30 in the morning. 1942.

The Savichevs have died.

Everyone has died.

Only Tanya is left.

Year after year, the Siege of Leningrad fades further and further out of living memory. Those who remember it, who survived it, are fewer and fewer. But to this day, on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s busiest street, passers-by can still read a sobering reminder from those times:

“Citizens! During shelling this side of the street is especially dangerous.”

Sources: Diary of Krapnova-Shamova, Diary of Tanya Savicheva; translations by Eugenia Sokolskaya

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons,, Eugenia Sokolskaya


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