World War II’s most infamous siege began a little over two months after the launch of “Operation Barbarossa,” Adolf Hitler’s surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, in defiance of a nonaggression pact signed two years earlier, some 3 million German soldiers streamed across the Soviet frontier and commenced a three-pronged attack. While the center and southern elements struck at Moscow and Ukraine, the Wehrmacht’s Army Group North sped through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and moved on Leningrad, a city of over 3 million situated on the Neva River near the Baltic Sea. Hitler had long considered Leningrad a key objective in the invasion. It served as the home base of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, and its more than 600 factories made it second only to Moscow in industrial output.
While Leningrad’s civilians made a frantic attempt to construct trenches and antitank fortifications in the late summer of 1941, the Soviets’ unprepared Red Army and volunteer forces were defeated in one engagement after another. On August 31, the Germans seized the town of Mga, severing Leningrad’s last rail connection. A week later, they captured the town of Shlisselburg and cut off the last open roadway. By September 8, a water route via nearby Lake Ladoga stood as Leningrad’s only reliable connection to the outside world. The rest of the city had been almost completely encircled by the Germans and their Finnish allies to the north.
The German advance continued until late September when Soviet forces finally halted Army Group North in the suburbs of Leningrad. With his army now bottled up in trench warfare, Hitler changed strategy and ordered them to settle in for a siege. “The Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth,” he wrote in a memo. “It is intended to encircle the city and level it to the ground by means of artillery bombardment using every caliber of shell, and continual bombing from the air.” The memo stressed that requests for surrender negotiations were to be ignored since the Nazis didn’t have the desire to feed the city’s large population. Hitler had chosen a chilling alternative to advancing on Leningrad directly: he would simply wait for it to starve to death.
By the time of Hitler’s directive, the Germans had already set up artillery and launched a campaign to shell Leningrad into submission. The Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, also conducted regular bombing runs over the city. An incendiary attack on September 8 caused raging fires that destroyed vital supplies of oil and food. An even bigger raid followed on September 19, when the Luftwaffe unleashed 2,500 high-explosive and incendiary bombs. All told, an estimated 75,000 bombs were dropped on the city over the course of the blockade.
While enemy fire would eventually kill or wound some 50,000 civilians during the siege, Leningrad’s most serious problem was lack of food. 600,000 people had been evacuated before the Germans tightened their grip on the city, but some 2.5 million civilians still remained. Officials had been dangerously negligent in stockpiling food, so the Soviets had to bring in fresh supplies across Lake Ladoga, which offered the only open route into the city. Food and fuel arrived in barges during the autumn and later in trucks and sleds after the lake froze in the winter. The Ladoga route became known as the “Road of Life,” but Leningrad still remained woefully undersupplied. By November, food shortages had seen civilian rations cut to just 250 grams of bread a day for workers. Children, the elderly and the unemployed got a scant 125 grams—the equivalent of three small slices.
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During the bitterly cold winter of 1941-1942, Leningrad was rocked by a starvation epidemic that claimed as many as 100,000 lives per month. “Is this my body or did it get swapped for somebody else’s without me noticing?” one man wondered. “My legs and wrists are like a growing child’s, my stomach has caved in, my ribs stick out from top to bottom.” In their desperation, people ate everything from petroleum jelly and wallpaper glue to rats, pigeons and household pets. For warmth, they burned furniture, wardrobes and even books from their personal libraries. Theft and murder for ration cards became a constant threat, and the authorities eventually arrested over 2,000 people for cannibalism. As the famine intensified, one 12-year-old Leningrader named Tanya Savicheva recorded the dates of the deaths of all her family members in a journal. “The Savichevs are dead,” she wrote after the passing of her mother. “Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.”
Thousands of similar tragedies played out in Leningrad during what became known as the “Hungry Winter,” and yet the city still held out against the Nazi siege. In early 1942, the Soviets evacuated some 500,000 civilians across the “Road of Life” on Lake Ladoga, reducing the starvation-ravaged population to a more manageable 1,000,000. Following the springtime thaw, meanwhile, Leningrad’s survivors conducted a thorough cleanup campaign to remove bombed-out rubble and bury the dead lining their streets. Gardens were also planted across the city in courtyards and parks. Food remained in short supply, but the city had pulled itself back from the brink of collapse. In August 1942, Leningrad even played host to a performance of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, which had been written during the early days of the siege. In defiance of the Germans, the concert was broadcast over loudspeakers pointed toward the enemy lines.
The tide would finally begin to turn early the next year. The Soviets had already made several failed attempts to break through the blockade—usually with little progress and crippling casualties—but in January 1943, the Red Army succeeded in prizing a small land bridge from the Nazis. Engineers built a special railway link on the corridor, and by the end of the year, nearly 5 million tons of food and supplies had been shuttled into Leningrad. Despite an increase in shelling and bombing from the Germans, the once-starving city sprang back to life. Its factory workers—now nearly 80 percent women—were soon producing huge amounts of machinery and ammunition.
The long-awaited breakthrough followed in early 1944 when the Red Army mobilized some 1.25 million men and 1,600 tanks in an offensive that overran the German lines. Like the rest of Hitler’s forces in Russia, Army Group North was soon pushed into a general retreat. On January 27, 1944, after nearly 900 days under blockade, Leningrad was freed. The victory was heralded with a 24-salvo salute from the city’s guns, and civilians broke into spontaneous celebrations in the streets. “People brought out vodka,” Leningrader Olga Grechina wrote. “We sang, cried, laughed; but it was sad all the same—the losses were just too large.”
In total, the siege of Leningrad had killed an estimated 800,000 civilians—nearly as many as all the World War II deaths of the United States and the United Kingdom combined. Soviet-era censorship ensured that the more grisly details of the blockade were suppressed until the end of the 20th century, yet even while World War II was still underway, the city was hailed as a symbol of Russian determination and sacrifice. “There is hardly a parallel in history for the endurance of so many people over so long a time,” the New York Times wrote in January 1944. “Leningrad stood alone against the might of Germany since the beginning of the invasion. It is a city saved by its own will, and its stand will live in the annals as a kind of heroic myth.”