Memory in a Museum (Ben Oelberg)

Considering Russia’s volatile and sometimes quite frightening history, Saint Petersburg might be seen as a breath of fresh air. This city is the gem of progress brought to Russia by Peter the Great – a city of art, music, theatres, universities, gardens, fountains, and ships. It illustrates the ambitious emperor’s desire to link his country to European civilization. It has served as an alternative to what might be seen as the harsher and less-friendly Moscow – the center of Soviet totalitarianism and Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarianism. However, the beauty and cosmopolitanism of Saint Petersburg can easily conceal its darkest hours. When the Germans and Finns surrounded the city which was by now named Leningrad, in 1941 its people would experience unspeakable suffering and death from starvation, diseases, and aerial bombardment. Of Leningrad’s two and a half-million inhabitants, over six hundred thousand lost their lives due to starvation, cold, and diseases. The total death toll was approximately one million when civilian and battle casualties are included (Tumarkin, 69).

The State Memorial Museum of Defence and Siege of Leningrad was one of the first monuments to the predations of the blockade. It was founded around its present location immediately after the siege was lifted in early 1944 (“900-day Siege;” “Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad”). However this museum was originally much larger, covering an area more than thirty times the size of the current exhibition. It featured 37,000 exhibits such as German tanks and aircraft and many of the exhibits were donated by Leningrad citizens. Yet Joseph Stalin was afraid of the “unifying power of such a monument,” so he had it destroyed while purging Leningrad Communist Party officials in 1948 (“Museum”). Perhaps the museum had the potential of reminding Leningraders that the Soviet government basically left the city’s residents to fend for themselves in the midst of starvation for over two years. That could certainly tarnish the myth that Stalin was the ultimate architect of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Fortunately, the museum was re-established in the late 1980s. Just like the first time, most of the exhibits were provided by the survivors and their families. The museum re-opened on 8 September 1989 (“Museum”).

A visitor entering the museum is confronted by an untitled large painting by an anonymous artist of five women trying to keep warm during the bitter Russian winter. They are huddled together on what might be a frozen river since there appears to be what looks like a small bridge in the background, along with snow-covered buildings. Each of the women is heavily cloaked with coats, shawls, and boots. The woman standing on the left side is also wearing large mittens, but the other two women standing have no mittens or gloves and are struggling to keep their hands warm. The one in the middle is cupping her hands together and blowing into them for the slightest bit of warmth. She may also be praying. The woman standing in a corner on the right side is actually just a young girl, possibly the daughter of one of the four older women. The other two women are on the ground, surrounded by those standing. One of them is sitting on the snow with her back to the viewer, while the one next to her appears to be kneeling, comforting the other with her hand on her shoulder. The woman who is sitting looks like she must be the oldest of the group. She is probably sitting because she does not have much strength left. It is rather dark where they are, but there are pinkish orange rays of sunlight far behind them in the sky. However, it is not clear whether it is dusk or dawn. Either way, the sunlight could represent that small glimmer of hope that the people of Leningrad held on to during the blockade. As desperate as they were, the hope they clung to was strong enough to help them avoid giving up and surrendering to the Germans.

Most of the exhibits were on the second floor, prominent among them another painting titled “Words of Farewell,” also the work of an anonymous artist. This work of art shows an old woman wearing a long dark coat and shawl hugging a soldier, whom we can assume is her son. He wears a thick coat and an ushanka with a rifle strapped on his right shoulder. The woman not surprisingly has a subtle expression of sorrow on her face as she leans it against her son’s chest. Yet, there is also some unexplainable hint of confidence in her expression. While she is certainly afraid for her son, she seems to have faith that he is strong and even if he does not return, he will at least have died defending the city and the Motherland. In the near background, we see the back side of another soldier walking along a snowy path to the front.

On the top floor, the many propaganda posters took a more militaristic tone. One of the first posters in the glass display was particularly striking. In the middle of the poster, a Red Army soldier (who literally is red) shoves his bayoneted rifle into a giant Hitler snake that is covered with white swastikas. Below this act of defiance, it reads in red letters “Death to Fascism!” This poster also features a smaller picture and caption in each corner. In the top-left corner, a beastly loincloth-wearing
savage is burning books, the caption reading “Fascism is the destruction of culture.” In the bottom-left corner, a thin woman holds her naked starving child, with the statement “Fascism is hunger.” The top-right corner shows a swastika-shaped building, below which reads “Fascism is a prison.” Finally, the bottom-right corner features a green-skinned, helmet-wearing, troll-like creature carrying a bomb in one hand and a sword dripping with blood in the other. The caption simply reads “Fascism is war.” In desperate times of war, it can obviously be quite effective to dehumanize the enemy. These illustrations might have also been useful in getting across the patriotic message to any Soviet soldiers who could not read.

Another patriotic poster shows a mighty medieval Russian warrior, reminiscent of Alexander Nevsky, on horseback swinging his blade and decapitating a dragon whose eyes have swastika-shaped pupils. Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century Novgorodian prince, who had won significant victories against Swedish invaders in 1240 and against the Teutonic Knights two years later, became a useful heroic talisman for the Soviet regime during the Great Patriotic War (Evtuhov, Goldfrank, Hughes, and Stites, 67). In the bottom half of the poster, a Red Army soldier is also on horseback and about to strike a German fascist with his sword. The call-to-arms at the top of the poster roughly translates to “Liberating the people in the century of centuries is the fate of a Russian noble blade.” By drawing comparisons to Russian heroes like Alexander Nevsky, the Soviet state is assuring the people that no matter how fierce the invaders may appear, Mother Russia need only look back at her history to be reminded that she will ultimately triumph against the enemy.

Another poster similarly uses the past to draw comparisons to the Soviet Union’s current crisis. However this one refers to events that are not nearly as distant as the one with Alexander Nevsky. The left half of the poster has the year 1919 at the top and shows a Red Army soldier in the garb of a commoner. He has a determined and fearless expression with his bayoneted rifle raised forth, ready to confront the anti-Communist reactionary White Armies. In the background, a crowd of armed Leningraders stride forth into battle. They carry a giant red banner that reads “Everything for the Defense of Petrograd.” The city’s name had been changed to Petrograd during the First World War when the Russian Empire was at war with the Germans since Petersburg sounded too Germanic (although it had in fact derived from Dutch). In the same fashion, the right half of this poster has the year 1941 – the year Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union – at the top and there is now a Red Army soldier in the same pose with a bayoneted rifle, only this time he wears a proper military uniform and helmet. Sure enough, he is followed by other proletarian warriors who carry a giant red banner that says, “Everything for the Defense of Leningrad.” Like the previous military poster mentioned, the message of this one is quite simple: just as the Red Army defeated the counterrevolutionary White Armies during the Russian Civil War, the Red Army will triumph once more over the German fascists, especially since the Red Army is now better equipped and better trained. Of course, this does not mention the fact that in the first few months of the German invasion, some Red Army soldiers were sent into battle without rifles due to shortages.

Considering Saint Petersburg’s/Leningrad’s significance in the development of the Russian navy, it is no surprise to see a poster that praises the Soviet fleet. It shows two Soviet sailors in their black uniforms with caps, aboard a battleship firing an anti-aircraft gun at German planes. One of the planes is already hit and about to crash into the Gulf of Finland. Underneath the illustration the poster declares “There will be no black wings flying over the homeland.”

Another colorful poster, which is not military-themed but just as patriotic, displays four images of women doing manual labor. It is not too surprising that all of the workers in the poster are female, since every able-bodied man was needed to fight. The top-left image is of a proletarian woman standing on top of a table cleaning the ceiling near an elegant chandelier. The top-right has two brave women on a scaffold painting over the battle scars of a building. The bottom-right shows two women repairing Leningrad’s trolleybus wires. The bottom-left portrays two women placing new tiles on the roof of a building that was likely bombed by German aircraft. The top of the poster reads “Working people of Leningrad! Restore our city.”

The determination of the hardworking women of Leningrad is depicted in yet another illustration, showing four women working together and helping each other to rebuild a destroyed building. In red lettering at the top, the poster proclaims “We will give all our strength for a speedy recovery of urban Leningrad!”

The museum also contains other kinds of representations of the past, for example the reconstruction of a typical room during the winter of 1941 to 1942. The first winter of the Leningrad blockade was the harshest and most “hungry” time of the entire siege (“Room of Winter 1941 – 1942”). The exhibit mentions that the water supply ceased to operate due to bombardment, air raids, and frost “that set in as early as November, 1941.” It is very dark in this room and this is explained by the lack of fuel: “…the electricity was supplied only to strategic objects – state, military, industrial objects and bakeries.” This “frozen-through” dwelling received only scant heating from an oven known as a burzhuika, which was nothing but a cast-iron moveable stove, and people burned books, furniture, and floor parquetry to keep warm (“Room”). The lack of light in the reconstruction of the room might make visitors confused and make them somewhat realize the difficulties of life during the blockade of Leningrad. In order to truly understand the suffering, though, uninformed visitors will need to read the many descriptive plaques in this museum.

The worst aspect of the Leningrad blockade was starvation. It became so acute during the blockade that people resorted to eating dogs, cats, petroleum jelly, carpenter’s glue, sheep’s gut jelly, and sometimes each other (Tumarkin, 69-70). By November 1941, the city had little food or fuel and thus little lighting and transportation, forcing people to walk everywhere. Leningraders worked until they no longer had any strength to “pull the frozen little corpses of their children on sleds to common graves.” People died suddenly “at work, at home, on the street – anywhere, at any time” (Tumarkin 70).

One museum case contained two small photographs of emaciated children lying on what would likely become their death-beds. These two photographs are probably the most powerful images in the entire museum. They provide clear proof of the horrors of life in a besieged city with no food. When you look at these pictures, you might think you are looking at Holocaust victims – bony children devoid of strength, slowly wasting away. It might be difficult to know that this beautiful European city could be the site of such horrendous suffering and death.

This exhibit also features rationing cards and a meager slice of bread that weighs only 125 grams and this was an entire day’s ration. In addition to making jelly out of glue, the people of Leningrad also consumed various leather products such as belts, bags, gloves, and “even parts of technical units.” People made cakes from “saltbush and other grass” that were only available during summer. The exhibit mentions notes that there were “[h]eaps of corpses” lying in the mortuaries and cemeteries. In fact, there were so many bodies that it was impossible to bury all of them. Trucks were loaded “up to the top” with corpses and then drove the bodies to communal graves. Explosives had to be used to provide burial pits since the shovels could not penetrate the frozen soil. The exhibit claims that on 20 February 1942 alone, ten thousand bodies were buried at Piskarevskoye Cemetery (“Famine”). One might argue that the museum does not in fact devote enough attention and space to this existential aspect of the blockade.

Overall, in my opinion, the State Memorial Museum of Defence and Siege of Leningrad does not do enough justice for the victims and the survivors of the blockade in commemorating the extreme loss of life and the unspeakably desperate conditions of the city’s residents. The museum tends to romanticize the Soviet military victory against Nazi Germany in what became mythicized as the Great Patriotic War. Both the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes have capitalized on Russia’s victory in the war to the point where it has essentially become sacred – never to be questioned or stained with uncomfortable truths such as hundreds of thousands of people starving to death in Leningrad. It is as if Russia wants to forget the ugliest realities of the blockade and paint a largely positive picture, therefore ignoring the fact that for many Leningraders, there was no glory to remember. What is to remember then? Corpses – sometimes only parts of them lying in the streets; freezing winters that showed no mercy; darkness; and eating anything one could find. It was just about living to see the next day.

Works cited