Holden Lombardo '23
Here are some words: there is a city that lies in the west of Russia on the banks of the Neva River bordering the Baltic Sea. In the 18th century, this city, Saint Petersburg, stood as the shining capital of the Russian Empire and the nucleus of its art, politics, business, and culture. However, the 20th century brought war and with it revolution. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin and the Communist Party came to power, replacing the Russian Empire with the Soviet Union and its new capital city of Moscow. Nevertheless, Saint Petersburg, renamed Leningrad after the Communist leader, remained an important Soviet city, both politically and economically, but above all as a symbol of Russian culture and history. The city’s symbolic value as the birthplace of the Russian Revolution became an important motivator for Nazi Germany’s plan to capture Leningrad during World War II. After Germany’s surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Nazi Army Group North moved swiftly through Russia with the final goal of seizing the city. In anticipation of the siege, almost two million people, or half the population, fled Leningrad in a mass evacuation. Once the Germans reached the city on September 8th, 1941, the siege of Leningrad began: the most intense and casualty inducing attack on a modern city ever.
For two and a half years the Germans bombarded the city, destroying much of the its infrastructure and buildings, decimating the homes of millions of civilians. All in all, the bombardments destroyed half of all the buildings throughout the entire city, including 78% of hospitals which were needed more and more to receive injured, sick, and starving citizens. Additionally, the Germans established a firm blockade on Leningrad, so food and supplies could only be brought into the city during short windows when the lake that bordered the city, Lake Ladoga, froze over in the winter. From the very start of the siege, the limited supply of food rapidly decreased since food warehouses were primary targets for the Germans, who wanted to starve the city into submission. The government drastically reduced food rations five times in only the first year of the siege, causing mass starvation. If not from starving, thousands died of the cold during the winters since the majority of indoor areas were at least partially, if not fully, destroyed. As death rates skyrocketed, all basic societal and legal norms disappeared and the local government ceased to function. The extreme lack of food caused many citizens to seek other sources of sustenance from the ravaged streets and crumbling buildings. Many people began to eat leathers or wallpapers that contained potato starch, and yet others, more desperate for food, succumbed to eating pets, zoo animals, and even the human corpses that increasingly littered the roads. Conditions only worsened as the siege continued until finally a Soiet offensive ended the German siege and freed the city after almost three years. Estimates approximate that overall around 1.2 million Russians died, the vast majority of whom were civilians.
The unbearable conditions of the siege brewed in the people of Leningrad a desperation seldom seen throughout all of history: people so reduced to their basic instincts of survival as to be capable of terrible and unthinkable acts of violence and inhumanity. The prolonged starvation of an entire city tested the limits of human nature, exemplifying the potential for immorality contained in every person under extreme conditions. It is easy to judge and to condemn. It is easy to denounce the acts of murder and cannibalism during the siege as the evils of “bad” people. It is not easy, however, to even begin to fathom the atrocious circumstances undergone in Leningrad. To us, the siege is nothing more than a fact of history, to be read about and to talk about, but never any more real than words on a page.