Leningrad was a primary objective of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Its importance as Russia’s second city (even as St Petersburg, and Russia’s Tsarist capital, it never displaced Moscow) was secondary to its strategic value at Russia’s northwest comer. Take Leningrad – and with the Finns as allies in the north and west, and the Wehrmacht rolling up Belarus and Ukraine to the south, Moscow could be encircled and the USSR either defeated or pushed over the Urals out of Europe.
By September 8 1941 Leningrad was cut off, an enclave backed onto the shore of Lake Ladoga. The lake made it possible (just) to cut and run. Leningrad snorted its contempt for Hitler, stayed and fought. Knowing they faced winter with no food, fuel or public utilities, some three million people sacrificed themselves to keep going the city’s factories, schools, businesses and shops, and supporting whatever Soviet army units survived in their midst with hurriedly organized militia. In 1942, in January and February alone, died of cold and starvation. The city shrank as Leningraders contested each building and street in hand-to-hand fighting with the Nazis. If you couldn’t fight you did what you could: surviving was an act of war. Old man Shostakovich composed a symphony to inspire the besieged; others braved incessant shelling on the Doroga Zhizni (Road of Life) across Lake Ladoga – a road of ice or open water which was Leningrad’s only lifeline for food, ammunition, or evacuation of the wounded. The dead were left unburied. The dying hurled one last grenade.
Leningrad survived carnage and starvation for 872 days, creating a propaganda triumph from the city’s disaster. It took Stalin to turn it back again: terrified that Leningrad’s exhausted leaders might acquire a popular following, he had them executed.
When: September 8 1941 to January 27 1944
Where: Leningrad (now St Petersburg), USSR (now Russia)
Death toll: At least 641,000 people died. Many survivors believe the figure is closer to 1.1 million. For Russia, Leningrad’s disaster was also a moral victory. For Hitler, Leningrad’s resolute will was an early harbinger of the disaster of ultimate defeat.
You should know: The brutal conditions of the siege left survivors unwilling even to describe it. When the only ‘food’ came from boiling leather boots or extracting the glue from wallpaper, cannibalism was inevitable.