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Leningrad, Siege of


For 872 days during World War II, German and Finnish armies besieged Leningrad, the Soviet Union's second largest city and important center for armaments production. According to recent estimates, close to two million Soviet citizens died in Leningrad or along nearby military fronts between 1941 and 1944. Of that total, roughly one million civilians perished within the city itself.

The destruction of Leningrad was one of Adolf Hitler's strategic objectives in attacking the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. On September 8, 1941, German Army Group North sealed off Leningrad. It advanced to within a few miles of its southern districts and then took the town of Schlisselburg along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. That same day, Germany launched its first massive aerial attack on the city. Germany's ally, Finland, completed the blockade by retaking territory north of Leningrad that the Soviet Union had seized from Finland during the winter war of 19391940. About 2.5 million people were trapped within the city. The only connection that Leningrad maintained with the rest of the Soviet Union was across Lake Ladoga, which German aircraft patrolled. Finland refused German entreaties to continue its advance southward along Ladoga's eastern coast to link up with German forces.

Hitler's plan was to subdue Leningrad through blockade, bombardment, and starvation prior to seizing the city. German artillery gunners, together with the Luftwaffe, killed approximately 17,000 Leningraders during the siege. Although supplies of raw materials, fuel, and food dwindled rapidly within Leningrad, war plants within the city limits produced large numbers of tanks, artillery guns, and other weapons during the fall of 1941 and continued to manufacture vast quantities of ammunition throughout the rest of the siege.

Most civilian deaths occurred during the winter of 19411942. Bread was the only food that was regularly available, and between November 20 and December 25, 1941, the daily bread ration for most Leningraders dropped to its lowest level of 125 grams, or about 4.5 ounces. To give the appearance of larger rations, inedible materials, such as saw dust, were baked into the bread. To make matters worse, generation of electrical current was sharply curtailed in early December because only one city power plant operated at reduced capacity. Most Leningraders thus lived in the dark; they lacked running water because water pipes froze and burst. Temperatures during that especially cold winter plummeted to -40 degrees Farenheit in late January. Residents had to fetch water from central mains, canals, and the Neva River. The frigid

winter, however, brought one advantage: Lake Ladoga froze solid enough to become the "Road of Life" over which food was trucked into the city, and some 600,000 emaciated Leningraders were evacuated.

During the spring and summer of 1942, those remaining in Leningrad cleaned up debris and filth from the previous winter, buried corpses, and planted vegetable gardens in practically every open space they could find. A fuel pipeline and electrical cable were laid under Ladoga, and firewood and peat stockpiled in anticipation of a second siege winter. The evacuation over Ladoga continued, and by the end of 1942 the city's population was pared down to 637,000. Repeated attempts were made in 1942 to lift the siege; yet it was not until January 1943 that the Red Army pierced the blockade by retaking a narrow corridor along Ladoga's southern coast. A rail line was extended into the city, and the first train arrived from "the mainland" on February 7. Nevertheless, the siege would endure for almost another year as German guns continued to pound Leningrad and its tenuous rail link from close range. On January 27, 1944, the blockade finally ended as German troops retreated all along the Soviet front.

Leningrad's defense held strategic importance for the Soviet Union. Had the city fallen in the autumn of 1941, Germany could have redeployed larger forces toward Moscow and thereby increased the chances of taking the Soviet capital. Leningraders who endured the horrific ordeal were motivated by love of their native city and country, fear of what German occupation might bring, and the intimidating presence of Soviet security forces. In just the first fifteen months of the war, 5,360 Leningraders were executed for a variety of alleged crimes, including political ones.

Relations between Leningrad's leadership and the Kremlin were tempestuous during the siege ordeal. The city's isolation gave it a measure of autonomy from Moscow, and the suffering Leningrad endured promoted the growth of a heroic reputation for the city. From 1949 to 1951 many of Leningrad's political, governmental, industrial, and cultural leaders were fired, and some executed, on orders from the Kremlin during the notorious Leningrad Affair.

See also: leningrad affair; world war ii


Glantz, David M. (2002). The Battle for Leningrad, 19411944. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

Goure, Leon. (1962). The Siege of Leningrad. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Petrovskaya Wayne, Kyra. (2000). Shurik: A Story of the Siege of Leningrad. New York: The Lyons Press.

Salisbury, Harrison. (1969). The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. New York: Harper & Row.

Simmons, Cynthia and Perlina, Nina, eds. (2002). Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women's Diaries, Memoirs, and Documentary Prose. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Skrjabina, Elena. (1971). Siege and Survival: The Odyssey of a Leningrader. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Richard Bidlack

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