8 Sep 1941 - 27 Jan 1944

The siege of Leningrad

The Museum of the Siege of Leningrad

From the collection of Museum of the Siege of Leningrad

The Blockade of Leningrad was a military siege of Leningrad by German and Finnish troops during the Great Patriotic War. The siege lasted from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944. The capture of Leningrad was an essential strategic and political objective of the German Army, which, in case of success, would have gained control of the entire Baltic coast and the country’s second-largest city—a crucial industrial, research and cultural center, the former capital city of the Russian Empire, where the October Revolution of 1917 began, and which was named after Lenin, the chief of the revolution.

The German Army was moving towards Leningrad at a pace of 30–35 kilometers per day during the first 18 days of the war and advanced 600 kilometers into the Soviet territory. The Nazis occupied Pskov, just 280 kilometers away from Leningrad, on 9 July, and by 8 September, had surrounded the city from the land and cut off all of the railway and road communications with the city. The Blockade of Leningrad started on that day.

The enemy had advanced too fast for Leningraders to summon up sufficient reserves of food and fuel, and the only logistic route to the city ran on Lake Ladoga. That ice road became known as the “Road of Life”—which was used to deliver food to the besieged city. During the first winter of the siege, which was extremely cold, the water and electricity supply systems, as well as the transport network were not operational.

On 1 January 1941, slightly less than three million people lived in Leningrad. Before the war, no advanced plans for the evacuation of the population of Leningrad had been made. During the siege, more than 1,300,000 people were evacuated inland, to the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia. By October 1942 the evacuation was complete.

A substantial portion of the collection has been assembled with the help of St. Petersburg residents, who donated personal articles and materials of their family archives.

Upon the outbreak of hostilities, the leading enterprises of Leningrad were reoriented to produce weapons and ammunition. In January 1942, at the most critical time of the blockade, 22 enterprises produced more than 100 types of military equipment, weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, instruments, and so on. Professional workers were joined by women and 12 to 15-year-old children. “I will never forget what I saw at the Kirov factory. I ended up there by accident. It happened that we were collecting firewood there. There were many wooden houses. We brought that to the hospitals. And by chance I ran into the factory. I saw teenagers, 12 or 13-year-old boys, 14-year-old girls working at the machines.

A Soviet push-action anti-personnel mine was put into service in the late 1930s. It was used by Red Army units throughout World War II and was decommissioned in 1949.

To protect the city from enemy air attacks, local defense units (MPVO) were formed, which consisted of 362,000 people in August 1941.

In the first months of the blockade, 1,500 loudspeakers were set up on the streets of Leningrad. Radio broadcasts informed the public about air raids. A quick metronome rhythm warned of an air raid and a slow rhythm signaled “all clear”. Almost every apartment had a loudspeaker as well.

Daily shelling and bombing aircraft caused significant damage to the city. On some days starvation and bombing killed up to 7,000 people.

When winter came the city ran out of fuel reserves. Work stopped in almost all factories, except those producing military equipment. Apartments were warmed with homemade metal stoves called “burzhuiki” (“bourgeois” stoves). The stoves heated the room quickly but also cooled it down quickly. People burned whatever they could in the stove, including furniture and books. Making fuel—disassembling furniture, floors, and wooden sheds—became an important part of everyday life in Leningrad.

“The rooms were quite dark. There was no longer morning or day; it was constant darkness. They began to get light with oil lamps fashioned from food cans that they bought in the markets, they poured kerosene into them; when there was no more, we added oil... This ancient device still provided comfort for the cave-like blockade situation. When the small tongue of flame was burning, it meant that we were still alive; during the day you could lift the curtain, bend back your blanket, and let in light, if it was not cold...” (D. Granin, Kak zhili v blokadu [How people lived during the blockade]).

The beginning of winter and the lack of a power supply had an impact on the public water system. Residents were forced to take water from urban rivers and street pumps. Water supply was restored only by the winter of 1943–44.

Food was strictly rationed. Grocery items could be bought only with ration cards within the established norms, or on the second-hand market, including bartering for goods or precious items. In November 1941, the bread only contained 40–50% flour; the rest was oil cake, bran, cellulose, malt, soy flour, as well as flour made from pine bast, birch branches, and wild grass seeds. Other products were simply not available in stores. The months of January and early February 1941 were the most terrible and critical time in the siege. The number of victims of hunger grew rapidly—every day more than 4,000 people died. This is the same number that had died in the city in peacetime over a period of forty days.

A square decimeter of cow or horse skin (with which you could make aspic), bricks of wood glue—these things were sold in the stores for about thirty rubles each. If you cook aspic with a small piece of leather, it does not turn out very good or firm, and if you add wood glue and boil it turns out great. To eat it, of course, was quite disgusting, but when seasoned with mustard, pepper, and vinegar, which was regularly issued and could be obtained for ration cards, you could somehow eat it, and we survived somehow. But in 1942 there was already nothing more to get, no oil cakes, no glue. It was all gone. So we turned to eating belts, like the polar explorers from the stories of Amundsen or Nansen. But this didn’t turn out well, because at that time, for those explorers, all the belts were rawhide. This was rawhide, that hadn’t been chemically treated, unlike ours. And what is a belt? Nothing! You cut off a bit here; it crumbles; you try to boil it; you boil and boil, and it doesn’t fall apart. And if it becomes soft, and you eat all of it, as they say, you get no pleasure from it, there’s nothing there” (A. Adamovich, D. Granin, Blokadnaya kniga).

“But even in this terrible winter, the Leningraders managed to organize small celebrations. I have a bright memory of the New Year’s tree show, which was staged by artists of the Leningrad Comedy Theater for the children. It was fantastic: a tree in the dead city, a real Father Frost, a performance, and even gifts! And what is most surprising—I was happiest not because of the sweets—a quickly forgotten oil cake—and not because the biscuits, but because of a charming New Year’s toy—a small funny cotton pig in a chef’s cap, who smiled joyfully as if to say that everything would be fine...” (from the memoirs of Tatyana Borisovna Fabritsieva)

Embroidered handkerchiefs from gift packages sent to the front.

The Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad contains a unique collection of letters and diaries from the inhabitants and defenders of Leningrad.

Photo and belongings of Koli Pokshishevskogo who died of starvation in 1942.

The subjects of the propaganda and informational posters from World War II range widely, from heroic conscription leaflets and instructional signs to folk narrative pictures with scenes of war and vicious satires on the fascist invaders. In the posters, artists combined the traditions of Russian lubki (popular prints) and Soviet political caricature, using their experience in magazine and newspaper graphic design.

The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad also displays German propaganda leaflets calling on the inhabitants not to resist and to surrender Leningrad.

After the first winter of the siege of Leningrad in 1941 and 1942, the government was considering various ways of increasing the food security of the population. In March 1942, the executive committee of the Leningrad City Council of Workers’ Deputies issued a decree “On the development of individual gardening”.

633 part-time farms and 1468 gardening groups were founded, consisting of nearly 180,000 people. In addition, more than 100,000 Leningraders had their own individual gardens. The Summer Garden, the Field of Mars, St. Isaac’s Square, and other squares and parks of Leningrad were given over to vegetable farming. There were also active educational efforts on the nutritional properties of wild plants.

The Theatre of Musical Comedy, Baltic Fleet Theatre, and Philharmonia were open for public during the siege of Leningrad.

“Leningrad had a special situation beginning in the first months of the war. On the Leningrad front, they fed the army dogs whatever they had. The situation was even harder with non-military dogs. There was simply nothing to feed them. And yet, it is not true that no dog survived the siege. People starved themselves but tried to save the animals that were dear to them. And these weren’t just isolated cases. When the most difficult period of the blockade passed, the dogs began to receive some scarce rations.

Thanks to this, a very small part of the population survived. In 1945, Leningrad already organized the first post-war exhibition. There were of course more military dogs. All the dogs were emaciated. Other dog clubs in the country aided in the restoration of the Leningrad population. And by 1949, there were the same number of purebred dogs as there were before the war...” (Quoted in B. Ryabinin, Vy I Vash drug Reks [You and your friend Rex], Uralsky rabochii, 1962)

In December 1943, the Military Council of the Leningrad Front resolved to organize an exhibition “Heroic Defense of Leningrad.” The exhibition was opened on 30 April 1944 and was further transformed into the museum of “Defense of Leningrad,” which became one of the first museums dedicated to the history of the Second World War. As a result of the “Leningrad Case,” the display was declared to be ideologically false, with emphasis placed on the patriotism of Leningraders, rather than on the decisive role of the Communist Party and Stalin. In 1949, the museum was shut down to public, and in 1953, it was disbanded. Most of the exhibits were destroyed, and those that remained were transferred to Leningrad museums. The premises of the museum were occupied by organizations subordinate to the Ministry of Defense.

During the Perestroika of 1988, veterans of the war and siege, along with representatives of the cultural community, called for the reopening of the museum, which resumed its operation on 8 September 1989.

The Museum of The Siege of Leningrad
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