The Great Patriotic War still lives on in Russia’s consciousness today. To Russians, Mother Russia won the war, saved Europe, and paid the greatest cost for it. The mythic total death count reaches well beyond twenty million, an unfathomable number. Factoring into that count is the Siege of Leningrad, a dark cloud in the Soviet War narrative. From September 1941 through January 1944, millions of Russian soldiers and civilians died barricaded into the city of Leningrad by German forces. The chief cause of death was starvation, peaking in 1942 from January to March where an estimated 100,000 citizens passed each month (Reid 209). With hundreds of thousands dying annually in the city, voices of a generation died off with no consolation or promise of remembrance. One of the surviving voices of the siege was Olga Berggolts, an inspirational figure who united and spoke to the thousands starving alongside each other during those terrible years. With her help and the determination of the people of Leningrad, the memory of the siege was kept alive and commemorated years later in the Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery (Piskarevskoe memorial’noe kladbishche). Over the decades, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, memory of the blockade receded into the background. Into the 21st century, those who survived the siege are dying and their descendants have begun to move on. Who left today still holds close the memory of those lost almost eighty years ago?
The Siege of Leningrad
“Lord save us… We are perishing. But his Greatness is as implacable as Soviet power is unbending. It is not important to it, having 150 million [people], to loose three million of them. His Greatness, resting in the heavens, does not value earthly life as we do… We are living in the frozen and starving city, ourselves abandoned and starving.”
The blockade of Leningrad commenced in early September 1941. The Germans occupied an area east of the city along Lake Ladoga, and working in conjunction with Finnish troops, they successfully cut off all land routes leading in and out of the city (Legacy of the Siege 2). Unable to take the city by force, the Nazi military forces focused their goals on sieging the city completely and ruthlessly. Anna Reid, a journalist whose primarily focus is Eastern Europe, wrote, “For the next three winters, the Wehrmacht prosecuted a classical siege… Mass starvation, it should be stressed, was not an unforeseen… byproduct of this strategy, but its central plank” (Reid, 136). In this respect, the Nazis were largely successful, as modern estimates put the death toll due to starvation at over one million (Legacy of the Siege, 3). The first few months of the siege proved brutal and unforgiving. On November 8th, the Germans captured Tikhvin and severed the final rail line that brought supplies to the city. Hitler proudly stated: “Leningrad is doomed to die of famine” (Jones, xviii). Early on, rations and stocks began to run thin, and for many, merely the possession of food became the single thing between life and death. Soon, as power and water systems began to fail, many were left starving in the dark and in freezing temperatures. In January 1942, temperatures fell into the -30’s and the death toll began to climb rapidly (Reid 208). In December, the number of lives lost tallied to 52,881 out of two and a half million. January totaled 96,751 more and in February, 96,015 more died (Reid, 211). Life in the city ground to a halt as almost all activity ceased and bodies began to litter the streets.
The remaining two years of the siege dragged on painfully out of sight and out of mind of the rest of the world. In early 1942, the Leningraders gained an important victory in the establishment of the “Road of Life” (Doroga zhizni), an ice road that took groups of citizens to the mainland and brought back supplies to the entrenched city (Reid, 203). While the war raged outside the city, the German Front remained resilient and held the city under a consistent siege that decimated the population. During 1942, the weather improved and the people endured. With a fragile supply route established in and out of the city, facilities such as power and water restored, and over time the city adapted better to siege conditions. In the winter of 1943, better equipped and blessed with less extreme weather conditions, the death toll did not come close to the staggering numbers of the previous winter (Reid, 373). Come 1943, Leningrad was “down to a fifth of its pre-war population” (Reid, 273). Despite the fight raging in Stalingrad, another push was made to break the blockade in Leningrad. In January 1943, Soviet forces succeeded in freeing a small corridor from German occupation that allowed a railway to be constructed to bring supplies into the city. However, despite the downturn in the German war effort, the city continued to remain under siege and artillery fire till the following year. On the 22nd January 1944 the siege officially ended. For the first time in 3 years, Leningrad was free (Reid 385).
Though the war was not over, the liberation of Leningrad served as the city’s resurrection. With routes in and out of the city reopened, supplies and former residents began returning in vigorous numbers, nearly doubling the decimated population in a matter of months (Reid 394). Despite this turn of fortune, the events of the siege undoubtedly changed the city forever and many would be haunted by the losses endured by the resilient citizens and troops. The blockade of Leningrad is a haunting memory of one of the most horrific events to have taken place in the history of WWII and in the history of mankind.
Who Was Olga Berggolts?
“Only we ourselves know how we all deserve a respite.”
Born on May 16th 1910 in Saint Petersburg, Olga Berggolts spent most of her adult life working as a journalist and writer. In the beginning she idolized the promises of Communism, however, this broke upon the secret execution of her ex-husband in 1937 and her expulsion from the Communist Party and the Writers’ Union. Months later, she was arrested and beaten until she suffered a miscarriage. Her later release came from her personal good fortune and the changing focus of the Great Terror to higher officials in Leningrad. Two years would pass before the war came to her doorstep (Reid 30-1). She lived in Leningrad during the entirety of the siege, penning her most famous work, the February Diary, during the siege’s first winter. She later broadcast the verses on the radio in early 1942 (“Olga Bergholz.”). The radio was a source of emotional support for many Leningraders during the siege. Before the siege, Berggolts was unknown, her previous work going largely unnoticed. This would change with the powerful impact her words held over the radio during those dark days. Her famed February Diary, written in commemoration of Red Army Day, “managed to combine patriotism with an unusual degree of realism and personal feeling, perfectly fitting the public mood” (Reid 247). Hers was a voice that resounded with the public. These verses, a survivor remembers, were ‘so simple that they just stuck in your head. You’d walk along, muttering the lines… When I had to climb up on to our library roof and stand there during the shelling it was somehow a big help knowing them by heart.’ Another calls them ‘splendid … they really shook us out of that animal brooding about food’ (Reid 247). She was an honest writer who wrote brutal truths into poetic verse. Where the news they received was likely riddled with half-truths at best and where the promise of tomorrow was far from a guarantee, her voice gave them something onto which they could cling. If she did not provide hope, she did supplement understanding and solidarity for her listeners. Alexei Pavlovsky said, “She evoked the courage of Leningrad,” said Alexei Pavlovsky, “a courage that could counter the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our citizens” (Jones 309). Olga Berggolts, through the power of her verse, inspired the people of Leningrad to keep going even when they had nothing.
Olga Berggolts has often been a tragically overlooked piece of the blockade narrative. Her words empowered a dying city to unite and persevere and those words are remembered to this day as the mantra of a resilient population. In January 1943, she imparted over the radio, “We’ll take vengeance for all we’ve shrouded in silence, for all we’ve concealed from the rest of our land,” (A Book of the Blockade 29). Unfortunately, she did not realize then, but it would be decades until Leningrad would receive the memorial it deserved.
Piskarevskoye as a Site of Memory
“I’ve just heard over the radio that… you’re starting to collect stories about the lives of Leningraders during the blockade… Although some young people, when they hear reminiscences of blockade survivors, sneer and say that the real heroes of the blockade are all in the Piskarevskoye Cemetery.”
-Alexandra Chikanina in A Book of the Blockade
The Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery stands as a site of mourning established to honor the 186 mass graves that house the 420,000 civilians buried there (“The Piskariovskoye Memorial”). Piskarevskoye served as a military cemetery before the war and it became a site of mass burials of civilians who starved to death and soldiers who perished in the city’s hospitals. Here, mass graves were created using dynamite as the soldiers burying the bodies were too weak to dig them manually. Faces became one of many, and the “anonymity of death in besieged Leningrad” shaped the construction of the Soviet memorial at the site (Legacy of the Siege 193). Proper construction for the memorial would not begin till after Stalin’s death, for it was initially
viewed as an embarrassment and shortcoming of the war (Reid 407). Plans for the site were reasonably bare and simple, allowing a focus to remain on the hills and strips of land holding the hundreds of thousands lost. “A sensation of infinite emptiness defined the memorial” (Legacy of the Siege 194). The memorial was opened to the public in 1960, composed of the graves, an eternal flame at one end, and a carved female statue at the other. Behind the statue sits a frieze carved with the words of Olga Berggolts. Anna Reid points out, “Like all such places, the Piskarevskoye fails. Statues, landscaping, poetry – nothing can say all that should be said and felt about a tragedy on the scale of Leningrad” (Reid 407). When creating the memorial, Levinson, a leading architect on the project, goes on record to say “From the very beginning I knew which poet would be able to find the right words for the occasion. That was Ol’ga Berggol’ts” (Legacy of the Siege 197). In 1948, Levinson brought Olga to the cemetery to persuade her to contribute to the site (“Gender, Memory, and National Myths, ” 558). The emotional connection and sway the site had with her and Levinson proved a simple point: that “Piskarevskoe was a monument built by and for Leningraders” (Legacy of the Siege 199). Inspired by the site, here are her words are printed below:
“Here lie Leningraders
Here are citydwellers – men, women, and children
And next to them, Red Army soldiers.
They defended you, Leningrad,
The cradle of the Revolution
With all their lives.
We cannot list their noble names here,
There are so many of them under the eternal protection of granite.
But know this, those who regard these stones:
No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten”
Olga Berggolts (Legacy of the Siege 205)
There is no pride in victory at the site. Contrary to the image of the Great Patriotic War as a Soviet victory, the Siege and Piskarevskoe is an acknowledgement of the sacrifice and tragic side of war. In A Book of the Blockade, Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin collected the stories of survivors of the blockade. The book was published in 1982 before the collapse of the USSR, and the final story of the collection tells of Yura Ryabinkin, a victim of the siege whose diary was given to the authors working on the book. The final page of the book conveys the power the cemetery held for Soviet citizens: “On May 9, Victory Day, thousands of Leningraders go to the Piskarevsky Cemetery. Entire families and single people, old and young. The common graves are free of snow by this time, exposing last year’s grass, some lay sweets, cigarettes bread – small pieces of it. Maybe Yura Pyabinkin is among those who lie in the common graves. And even if he is not, every one of those buried there needed that bread” (A Book of the Blockade, 496).
Can I Understand?
To get to Piskarevskoye, I rode a metro north from Vasileostrovskaya to Ploshad’ Muzhestva, crossing the Neva river that divided the heart of Saint Petersburg from the mainland. Stepping out of the metro station, it felt as though I was stepping backwards in time, as an apartment complex rose up across from the bus stop with a giant ‘1945’ emblazoned at the top. From there we took a bus ride for twenty minutes on the 80. It was roughly a 45-minute journey each time I went, and I went a total of three times.
When I first went, I remember telling my host mother where I was going. She seemed taken aback. Why would I want to go there? I tried to explain my project, why it was important for me to visit. She shook her head and looked at me like I was being unreasonable. It was a beautiful Sunday, why would I want to waste it? I was confused at first by her displeasure at my plans. I wonder now what was the source of this reaction, and I regret not at least asking her as to why she felt that way. In A Book of the Blockade, the authors interviewed a woman who survived the siege: “When on April 5, 1975 we taped our first interview while visiting Maria Stepanchuk we already knew about the most painful thing in her memory— the death of her daughter. But she would shy away from the subject. And we could not bring ourselves to insist. Then later it turned out that this had caused her even more suffering. This blockade memory is a complex feeling!” (A Book of the Blockade, 24).
Looking back now, I know I was too quick to judge my host mother’s emotions, to come to conclusions on matters I knew nothing about.
The day I journeyed for the first time to Piskarevskoe Memorial Cemetery, I dragged a friend with me for support. When we arrived, there was an eerie orchestral piece playing through speakers radiating out from the cemetery. It was a beautiful space, but the implications behind the size of the cemetery were overwhelming. I still cannot comprehend the sheer number of the graves. On one of my return visits, I went to the flower store across the street from the cemetery and bought 10 flowers to place at the mass graves. I barely made a dent. Beyond the center rows of the mass burial sites that held the majority of the half a million laid to rest there, there are hundreds of labeled graves, of soldiers who were fortunate to be able to be buried with their names. Around the perimeter of the site there are photos, ribbons and flowers nailed into trees. Some of the photographs had been there long enough that they began to melt into the bark. Despite their age, fresh flowers were left at the base of the trees.
In class, I remember my Russian professor once being moved to tears while talking about the siege with us. The cemetery itself is frequented by members of the older generation, and I often saw grandparents accompanied by their grandchildren as they sat and reminisced on benches together. Aside from them, I saw only a handful of younger visitors and tourists visiting the site. Even my guidebook remarked on the fact that Piskarevskoe was an older and far less frequented memorial that no tour groups took their guests too anymore. The museum commemorating the siege was closed when I visited. In fact, it has been closed for renovation for a few years now, according to my professor. It does not seem to be a priority. Despite seeing fresh flowers and a well-maintained memorial site, the number of visitors and the general disregard for the blockade of Leningrad museum appear to me as a cause for concern.
It is difficult to talk about the memory of Piskarevskoe Memorial Cemetery, the memory of those lost during the siege, without sacrificing a part of one’s emotionless academic voice to a more empathetic part of oneself. Remembrance and memory are crucial themes in these memoirs and collections and I now feel a responsibility to make sure people remember, even though I have no right to do so. I cannot comprehend the events that took place in Leningrad between 1941 and 1944. I, who has never experienced hunger, cannot come close to understanding starvation. I can only read and pretend to understand what these stories share with me. The memory of the siege has not died, but it is failing, losing itself as those who remember it now die of old age. Time is the greatest enemy. Olga Berggolts, with all her resonant words, is becoming an obscure name carved into marble. Even my classmates who came and visited the site with me grew weary easily and left unchanged and unperturbed. It is painful to try and understand the anguish of others and is easier to forget their experience. I fear that, with time, the memory of the siege will be forgotten. Eventually, despite the fact that the site is incredibly well-maintained today, it may lose importance and funding. It is possible that in fifty years, the name of the Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery may be forgotten. By then, like the photo of a young man growing into the tree, the memory of the siege will be eventually be buried by time.