Skip to main content

World War II Siege of Leningrad

I am a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

I First Learned of Siege of Leningrad During a 1969 College Tour

In the introduction to her book about the World War II siege of Leningrad, author Anna Reid states “Remarkably, the siege of Leningrad has been paid rather little attention in the West.”

I doubt that I would have known about it, other than possibly the fact that the siege had occurred during World War II, had I not had the opportunity to visit that city years ago as a part of a college sponsored, ten day tour of the then Soviet Union during my senior year of college.

This visit to Leningrad occurred in 1969, twenty-five years after the siege ended in 1944. At that time memories of the siege were still fresh and my classmates and I heard stories about the siege from those who had survived it as well as seeing pock marks left on the exterior stone walls of buildings by exploding German shells and bullets which our Soviet tour guide and others pointed out to us.

Leningrad (Ленинград), which reverted to its pre-communist name of St. Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург) following the fall of communism and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, was, and still is, Russia’s second largest city. The city, located on the Gulf of Finland at the mouth of the Neva River, was founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703.

Named St. Petersburg in honor of the Apostle St. Peter by Czar Peter, the city replaced Moscow as Russia’s capital in 1712 and remained the capital until March 12, 1918 when Vladimir Lenin, fearing a German invasion, moved the capital back to Moscow.

Having visited the city in 1969 and again with my Russian born wife in 2002 after its name had reverted to St. Petersburg, I was interested in reading Anna Reid’s book which is the first major book whose author had access to survivors and their children as well as large quantities of personal and government papers previously locked away in government archives and unavailable to the public until after the fall of communism.

872 Day Siege of Leningrad Not the Longest in 20th Century

In the introduction to her book, Anna Reid, states that despite lasting 872 days (nearly two and a half years), the siege of Leningrad was not the longest of modern sieges.

The city of Sarajevo in Bosnia endured a siege lasing over three and a half years from April 5, 1992 – April 29, 1996 during the Bosnian War and the Spanish capital of Madrid endured a three year siege that lasted from October of 1936 to March 28, 1939 during the Spanish Civil War.

However, the siege of Leningrad holds the record for human death and suffering. This siege resulted in three quarter million Leningrad civilians dying, mostly from starvation, but also from disease and from German bombing and shelling of the city. This far exceeds the death toll in the longer sieges cited above.

Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Located in NW Russia on Gulf of Finland

Located in northwest Russia on the Gulf of Finland, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was and still is Russia’s second largest city. In 1941 prior to the Nazi invasion, the city was home to just over 3 million people. Today the population of St. Petersburg is 4.8 million.

As I mentioned in my Hub Touring St. Petersburg, the city, located at 60° north latitude, has the title of being the northern most city in the world in its class (its class being cities with a population of one million or more). The city is famous for its beautiful parks, palaces and European charm. This was the true at the start of World War II and today.

Geographic Location of Leningrad

People in Leningrad Endured Three Wars Prior to the Nazi Siege

Despite the city’s beauty and charm, life in Leningrad during the first half of the twentieth century had its dark side.

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Oblisk in the Monument on Victory Square in Ploshchad Pobedy (Victory Square) in St. Petersburg, Russia

Oblisk in the Monument on Victory Square in Ploshchad Pobedy (Victory Square) in St. Petersburg, Russia

Prior to the Nazi invasion in 1941, Anna Reid tells us that Leningraders aged thirty and over had already endured three wars:

  1. World War I when Russia fought with the Allies (Britain, France and, later, the United States) but made a separate peace in March 1918 following the putsch which brought the communists to power.
  2. The Civil war between the Reds (communists) and the Whites (nobles) and others opposed to the communists. In an attempt to bring Russia back into World War I and restore the eastern front against Germany, American, British and other foreign forces invaded on the side of the whites and remained fighting after the November 1918 Armistice which ended the war in Western Europe.
  3. The Winter War with Finland (1939-1940).

In addition to this the people of Leningrad had also had to endure two famines, with the first being the result of the Civil War and the second the result of Soviet dictator Stalin’s brutal 1932-33 collectivization of peasant farms.

Finally, there were also two major waves of communist terror directed against ethnic minorities, members of the old middle class and anyone else suspected of not being totally supportive of the communist regime.

Early twentieth century life in Leningrad was tough and, with the Nazi invasion, it became much worse.

Monument to Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Sculptures of Leningraders enduring the siege.  These are a part of the large monument on Victory Square in St. Petersburg, Russia

Sculptures of Leningraders enduring the siege. These are a part of the large monument on Victory Square in St. Petersburg, Russia

Scroll to Continue

When I Visited Leningrad in 1969 Memories of the Siege were Still Fresh

My first visit to Leningrad occurred twenty-five years after the siege ended. Memories of the war and siege were still fresh among many of the people my classmates and I met.

From our tour guides and actual survivors we heard tales of starvation and suffering. People forced to live in apartments with little or no heat during the brutal near Arctic weather and food so scarce that many were reduced to eating cats, dogs and even rats and mice. It was not a pretty picture.

People in Leningrad proudly told us of how they and the rest of the nation had resisted and fought to defeat the German invaders.

Despite their sufferings under communism and dissatisfaction with Josef Stalin’s terror tactics, Russians in that era, and today, loved their country (this was not necessarily true of people in other parts of the Soviet Union such as the Ukraine and the Baltic states where people in some cases initially welcomed the Germans as liberators) and willingly opposed the Nazi invaders.

While the idea of having to eat the likes of stray pets and rats is not appealing, this is nothing compared to the accounts related in Anna Reid’s book.

At the time of my first visit, Russia was still a part of the Soviet Union and Leonid Brezhnev was the reigning dictator.

While nowhere near as harsh as Josef Stalin (Brezhnev is remembered more for the massive corruption than for brutality during his rule) he was still a dictator with his secret police (KBG) and vast prison Gulag.

Anyone who openly questioned, let alone spoke out, against the Communist Party and its ideology faced arrest and imprisonment.

When talking about the Great Patriotic War (World War II as it is known in Russia), including the siege of Leningrad, people, despite what they actually saw or experienced, had to stick to the official, Communist Party approved, version or risk arrest.

Statute of Leonid Golikov in nearby Veliky Novgorod, Russia.  Golikov was a teenage partisan who fought in NE Russia near Leningrad.

Statute of Leonid Golikov in nearby Veliky Novgorod, Russia. Golikov was a teenage partisan who fought in NE Russia near Leningrad.

Post War Purges Made People Afraid to Talk Openly About Life During the Siege

As Anna Reid states in her book, during the war the Soviets said little about the siege to the outside world and didn’t let outsiders into the city during the siege.

Despite the Germans surrounding the city, some aircraft were able to fly in and out and during the winter there was some access to the outside world across the frozen Lake Lagoda.

After the war the Soviet government admitted that here had been mass starvation in Leningrad but did not allow any public discussion of the actual horrors that the people had lived through.

Discussions as to why the city had not been better prepared for the attack and why more civilians had not been evacuated during the period before the city was encircled by the siege were also forbidden. Finally, no one was allowed to question why the German army had been allowed to reach the city in the first place.

Immediately after the war ended, Josef Stalin ordered a secret purge of the government and party officials who had run the city during the war. Following this he ordered a public purge of Leningrad residents who appeared Jewish or were thought to have any type of perceived Western leanings.

The public purge also included anyone who during and immediately after the siege had dared to deviate from the official version of what happened in Leningrad during the siege. Leningraders got the message.

It was feared that any acknowledgment of the real trials that the people of Leningrad had endured and withstood along with comments about mistakes, poor leadership and outright dereliction of duty by communist officials in Leningrad and Moscow during the war would detract from Stalin’s image of himself as the great leader during the war.

Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin (Ио́сиф Виссарио́нович Ста́лин)

Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin (Ио́сиф Виссарио́нович Ста́лин)

How Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin Failed the People of Leningrad

In reality there were many grounds for challenging Stalin’s image as a brilliant wartime leader.

Joseph Stalin shares the blame with Hitler for many of the sufferings that Leningrad’s civilians had to endure. These include:

  • Stalin’s purges of the 1930s which included eliminating many of those in the upper ranks of the military. This loss of many top military leaders hurt the nation especially during the early part of the war.
  • By believing that the August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would delay the inevitable war with Germany for a longer period, the nation was caught off guard by Hitler’s surprise attack.
  • The late and disorganized removal of civilians from the city before the siege was fully in place left thousands of civilians stranded in the city. Stalin and other leaders in Moscow also failed to ship supplies and strengthen the city’s defenses during the weeks when the Nazi army was still advancing toward Leningrad
  • Throughout the siege the communist leaders in both Leningrad and Moscow diverted food and other scarce supplies to themselves while the rest of the people did without.
  • Finally, when the German army began laying siege to the city, one of the first moves by the communist leaders in Leningrad was to begin a massive roundup and arrests of those suspected of not being sufficiently pro-communist rather than shoring up the city’s defenses.

While Joseph Stalin can’t be blamed for all that happened, had he been better prepared and more organized in the defense of Leningrad, the civilian death toll probably would have been much less. After all, as the book points out, both Madrid and Sarajevo suffered longer sieges during the Twentieth Century and each had a much lower death toll than did Leningrad.

Monument to Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Inscription below Obelisk in Victory Square in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Inscription translates to "To Your Heroism Leningrad"

Inscription below Obelisk in Victory Square in St. Petersburg, Russia. Inscription translates to "To Your Heroism Leningrad"

Hitler also to Blame for the Excessive Misery and Death During the Siege

Adolf Hitler obviously bears much of the blame for the mass starvation and suffering in Leningrad. Hitler was responsible for the attack on the Soviet Union. While war always brings misery and death, the way Hitler waged war against the Soviet Union resulted in excessive civilian misery and death.

According to Anna Reid, Hitler had no use for the Russian people, viewing them basically as a race of sub-humans. His plan was to kill as many as possible with the war and then force the rest to relocate east of the Ural Mountains leaving European Russia empty and ready for re-settlement by Germans and others he deemed racially acceptable.

The book points out that he instructed his generals to destroy Moscow and Leningrad and kill their inhabitants in the process so that they wouldn’t have to worry about having to feed them. Given this fact, surrendering rather than enduring the horrors of the siege, would have been an even worse fate for the people of Leningrad.

Focus of the Book is on the Horrors Leningraders Endured During the Siege

While both Stalin and Hitler each bear much responsibility for the massive starvation and death during the siege of Leningrad, the focus of the book is not about them and their cruel deeds.

Instead, the focus of the book is a vivid description of the horrors the civilian population of Leningrad suffered as seen through their own eyes. The book relies heavily on personal interviews with those still alive following the fall of communism in Russia as well as from notes, diaries, photos and letters written during the siege and carefully preserved by the individuals and / or their friends and relatives until the post-communist era made it safe to talk about what really happened.

Author Anna Reid also had access to local and federal government archives, which were previously off limits to all but high level officials, containing police reports, military correspondence, arrest reports and other official documents that help to reveal the true situation people faced during the siege.

One of the ironies of both Russia's communist leaders and Hitler and his Nazi leadership is that both kept voluminous records documenting their crimes against their people and the rest of humanity. Both apparently assumed that their evil systems would last forever.

In his 1960 classic, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the author William Shirer noted that much of the evidence the Allies presented in their trials of World War II Nazi atrocities came from the Nazi's documentation of their role in the atrocities. Like Hitler and his Nazi followers, Josef Stalin and the USSR's ruling elite proudly kept documentation of their crimes.

Military Honor Guard at Tomb of Russian WW II Unknown Solder along Kremlin Wall in Moscow.

Military Honor Guard at Tomb of Russian WW II Unknown Solder along Kremlin Wall in Moscow.

Book is Not for The Fainthearted

The book is not for the fainthearted. Lack of food was a fact of life and, while having to kill and consume stray pets, rats and mice sounds disgusting, it is much better than the accounts of other things people ate.

Like other nations fighting in the war, including the United Sates, food was scarce and the government instituted rationing. In every nation, including the U.S., rationing led to corruption with the politically connected usually doing better than others.

The Soviet Union was chronically short of food throughout its history and this was especially during World War II (or Great Patriotic War as was and still is known in Russia). However, while everyone in Leningrad was forced to make due with less food some, the common people, received much less than others. Government and party officials along with their families and friends received a much larger portion of the limited and continually dwindling food supply.

Since flour was scarce, substitutes, which usually contained no nutrients and were simply bulk to help fill a person’s stomach, were added to help produce the minimum quantity of bread needed.

Among these substitutes was moldy, sprouting grain that was salvaged from grain barges previously sunk by bombers and then dried and milled.

Another was cotton seed cakes that were used as fuel for ship’s furnaces but diverted and used as an substitute for wheat flour.

These were among the ingenious things that were devised to help keep people fed during the early stages of the siege.

Some People Resorted to Cannibalism

As the siege dragged on the death toll from hunger increased as did the desperation of those still living.

At its lowest point, a number of people turned to cannibalism. This took the form of surgical personal in hospitals secretly retrieving and taking home amputated limbs and eating the shrunken flesh from the previously starved owners. Others resorted to stealing bodies from shallow graves, of dead laying in the street or neighbors found dead in their apartments.

These horror tales remained off limits to discussion by the communist authorities.

While alternative food sources, especially the cannibalism, is known today as the result of entries in private diaries, newly released police and other official reports as well as some people interviewed by the author, many survivors still find it too horrible and painful to discuss.

Until the Fall of Communism Discussions of the War Had to Follow Official Party Line

During the reign of Joseph Stalin, discussion of the sufferings the people of Leningrad endured during World War II was off limits as it distracted from the official image of Stalin as the Great Leader in the war effort. The focus was on what a great leader Stalin was and not on the war itself.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the iron grip of communism on the people of the Soviet Union began to loosen a bit. People’s enthusiasm for communism not only began to diminish a bit –while people still could not criticize the regime, they no longer had to fear reprisal for not pretending to be enthusiastic about communism.

In his book, Khrushchev on Khrushchev – An Inside Account of the Man and His Era, by His Son, Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khruschev’s son describes at one point how his father in later years was disappointed by the fact that people preferred to sit home and watch TV rather than spending their after work hours at party meetings and rallies.

With this relaxation in policy, people slowly began taking pride in their nation’s success in the Great Patriotic War. With the rise of Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled from 1964 until his death in 1982, the war became more of a focus for people than communism.

However, the government still made sure that the focus was on the USSR’s victories and the people’s sacrifices for the Motherland rather than an honest discussion or critique of the war. The war became a vehicle for national pride and a means of helping to keep the communist regime in power.

Soviet Tank at World War II Memorial in Field Outside Veliky Novgorod, Russia, Veliky Novgorod is south of St. Petersburg and was captured by Germans who destroyed much of the city.

Soviet Tank at World War II Memorial in Field Outside Veliky Novgorod, Russia, Veliky Novgorod is south of St. Petersburg and was captured by Germans who destroyed much of the city.

Dictator Leonid Brezhnev’s Mawkish Siege Fairytale

In the words of author Anna Reid, Brezhnev’s mawkish fairytale made the siege of Leningrad:

one of the centerpieces of a new cult of the Great Patriotic War, designed to distract from the lagging living standards and political stagnation. Leningraders, in this version, turned from victims of wartime disaster to actors in a heroic national epic. They starved to death, true, but did so quietly and tidily, willing sacrifices in the defence of the cradle of the Revolution. Nobody grumbled, shirked work, fiddled the rationing system, took bribes or got dysentery. And certainly nobody, except for a few fascist spies, hoped the Germans might win.

This, Brezhnev version, was the tale I was told when visiting Leningrad in 1969.

Today, Russians continue to take great pride in their nation’s role in the Great Patriotic War. And justifiably so, for, as Anna Reid states, their nation’s sacrifices and victories in that war are one of the few things about their nation’s 20th Century history that they can be proud of.

Despite the Horrors The People Endured Surrender Was Not an Option for Leningrad

Today there are numerous memorials commemorating the victories as well as the efforts and sacrifices of the men and women, both military and civilian, who endured, fought and sacrificed to defeat the Nazi invaders. Among these are a large monument and other memorials in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) to the people of that city and their heroic hold out against the Nazi invaders.

At the end of the book Anna Reid states that the book is designed in part to correct Soviet myths, and as such, dwells on the negative. During the siege of Leningrad the people’s main concern was trying to stay alive and not, as the Soviet myth claimed, heroically defending communism.

That said, she also makes clear that, despite the horrors she has chronicled, the book does not argue that the city should have surrendered.

Surrender was not an option. Had the city surrendered, the Nazis would have immediately killed any remaining Jews and then let the rest of the population starve to death as they had done in other cities that they overran in the Soviet Union. The city itself would have then been razed.

Despite their Suffering, the People of Leningrad Made a Significant Contribution to the Winning of World War II

Finally, by holding out and not surrendering, the people made an important tactical as well as psychological contribution to the war effort. Also, in order to maintain the siege, the Nazis had to keep 300,000 Axis troops bogged down surrounding Leningrad rather than joining the fight in other areas. The effect was the same as if Hitler had lost 300,000 troops in a single battle or had simply discharged and sent 300,000 of his troops home.

This resulted in tying up between fifteen and twenty percent of the total Axis troops on the Eastern Front just to maintain the siege rather than helping to expand the Nazi conquest.

Had the city surrendered the way would have been opened for the troops besieging the city to link up with their Finnish allies and advance north threatening Murmansk and Archangel the main ports through which the United States and Great Britain shipped food and military supplies needed to help keep the Soviet Union as an effective fighting force against the Nazis.

Despite their suffering, the people of Leningrad, by simply surviving and not giving up, helped to reduce the damage and shorten the war for both the Soviet Union and its wartime western allies.

YouTube Video Interview with Anna Reid

In the video below Anna Reid, author of Leningrad The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 describes her experience in researching public and private archives and interviews with survivors of the siege and their children.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Chuck Nugent

Comments from upstate, NY on November 05, 2013:

Considering the almost unimaginable horrors of Russian people have had to endure it's surprising to me why they haven't seemed to learn from their mistakes. First they had the Russian version of Hitler ie Josef Stalin and now after finally getting a free government, they've elected another tyrant Vladimir Putin.

The siege of Leningrad displays the strong survival instincts of people and what you can do if you have to. The Russian people of course should be proud of their resolve to stand against the NAZI's under the worst possible circumstances. If I was a Russian I would have to separate my love for Russia's people from the oppressive Russian governments.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 18, 2013:

I enjoyed your personal slant on this interesting story. You were there in 1969? Wow. Hippies and Commies. I imagine you found Russia very different between 1969 and 2002, both in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union and time itself.

Related Articles