Siege of Leningrad 900 Days of Hunger and Death

Year two of the siege: Leningrad residents must leave their homes following an air raid
Year two of the siege: Leningrad residents must leave their homes following an air raid | Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #2153 / Boris Kudoyarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

An art project by the Goethe-Institut and the Hamburg Kunstverein asks why the three-year German siege of Leningrad during the Second World War is so little known in Germany and the mere asking is remedial. By Petra Schellen

Today, the sight of a children’s sledge makes many a St. Petersburger feel queasy. Famously, starting in autumn 1941, children’s sledges were used by the inhabitants of former Leningrad to transport their dead, who starved or froze to death or were killed by German artillery. For three years, from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944, the German armed forces besieged Leningrad; in September 1941 the armed forces and the Waffen SS placed a ring around the city closing it off to almost all food.

Food could be brought in only over frozen Lake Ladoga that winter, and it was far too little for the two and a half million inhabitants of the city. They had to make do with increasingly smaller rations of bread, soups made of joiner’s glue, crows and cats, Vaseline and glycerol. There were lootings, murders for food ration cards, even cannibalism at that time in Leningrad. 1.2 million people perished; many simply dropped dead on the streets where the dead were already lying in huge numbers.

In Germany, surprisingly little is known of this siege, one of the greatest crimes by the German armed forces during the Second World War. To remedy this, the Goethe-Instituts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, together with the Hamburg Kunstverein and Metropolis cinema, designed an exhibition accompanied by a film program and a symposium. The name of the project, 900 and Some 26,000 Days, is easy to explain: The blockade lasted 900 days and happened about 26,000 days ago. These were the two poles of interest, says Astrid Wege, responsible for the cultural programmes of the Goethe-Institut in Moscow. “On the one hand it’s about the historical facts and, also about forms of remembrance – both in Russia and in Germany.”

In preparation, fourteen German and Russian artists met last year in St. Petersburg to talk about the facts and the cultures of remembrance and to counter the official, often static culture of memorials by means of art and performance. They also explored the large gap in Russia between official and personal remembrance and why Germany only tenuously remembers the Blokada.

Historian Ekaterina Makhotina from Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität explains that in Russia, people were “long unable to officially talk about the personal, traumatic experiences of this siege.” For many years, discourse in the Soviet Union over the war and the past focused on heroicising; anyone who survived the blockade was considered a “hero” for just that reason.

Not until the 1970s were survivors, like the writers Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin, able to publish collected volumes of siege journals and even these were censored. Among the most notable was that of Tanya Savicheva: “Uncle Vasya died on Apr. 13th at 2:00 after midnight,” wrote the twelve-year-old girl. “Uncle Lesha on May 10th at 4:00 PM. Mother on May 13th at 7:30 AM. Savichevs died. Everyone died. Only Tanya is left.” Savicheva herself died in 1944, two years after being evacuated. Passages from her diary were presented as evidence in the Nuremberg War Crimes trials in 1945 and 1946. They are also inscribed on almost all Russian monuments to the blockade, reports Makhotina.

Testimonies of horror

“Many people kept diaries during the siege of Leningrad,” according to Makhotina, who is from St. Petersburg herself, “they distracted themselves from their hunger, wrote down what they ate each day in detail to discipline themselves and not eat their whole ration of bread at once.” Hence, there are many personal testimonies of horror, as the opening of more Russian archives in the 1990s demonstrated.

“Still, when Victory Day is celebrated on 9 May in Russia nowadays it is primarily a heroic memory,” says Makhotina. “But many Leningrad residents go through personal grieving on that day and visit Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, where about 500,000 of the 1.2 million blockade victims are buried.” And Hamburg which has been twinned with the present-day St. Petersburg since 1957? When the twinning was finalized “the Soviet Union did not mention the siege with one word,” says Axel Schildt, director of the Hamburg Research Centre for Contemporary History. “It was more a matter of detente.”

There is also no memorial to the blockade victims in Hamburg. “That was not the aim of the project,” says Bettina Steinbrügge, head of the Hamburg Kunstverein. “But we can point out this gap and publicize the subject matter.” They do so in a variety of ways; the installations and performances at the Kunstverein range from a “hunger kitchen” performance with recipes from the days of the siege, to how they dealt with darkness (Leningrad rarely had electric power during the Blokada), to reflection of last and this years’ meetings of artists. Alongside the exhibition, the local Metropolis cinema is showing a four-part programme of old and new documentary films.

It is not least a matter of closing knowledge gaps. Not only is it notable that despite all adversity in besieged Leningrad, libraries, theatres and schools remained open and that Shostakovich’s Seventh, the “Leningrad” Symphony, was performed on 9 August 1942. But the question goes around every now and then in Russia of whether the starvation deaths of Leningrad could not have been prevented by a capitulation. “But it was historically proven long ago that Hitler had ordered the rejection of a possible offer of surrender,” says Makhotina. “His goal was to annihilate the population.”

Schildt concurs that Leningrad was as symbolic as Stalingrad for Hitler. “These cities bore the names of his political and ideological adversaries, and therefore he wanted to wipe them out.” The historian can only guess why to this day Germans remember the Battle of Stalingrad far more than the Leningrad siege. “Maybe it’s because Stalingrad also demanded huge numbers of German victims and Leningrad did not.” The Soviet Union also denied the blockade victims a voice for many years, emphasizes Makhotina. They were simply not publicly visible.

Courtesy of the taz, where this article appeared in the issue of 14 October.