Food. It’s the first thing that comes to Anatoly Gregorevich’s mind. Cooking tree branches, roots, even leather, if he was lucky, getting 100 grams of bread a day. Seeing people starve to death, being afraid of air raids, these are Gregorevich’s first childhood memories, aged four.
What sounds like the horrors of a Syrian city today is a disturbing chapter in the history of Russia’s “window to the west”, St. Petersburg. Between 1941 and 1944, terror came in through that window, brought by the German army, supported by Finnish troops. A slow and brutally executed offensive known in Russia as Блокада – the siege.
“The food shortage was the worst thing,” Gregorevich recalls. “People were dying everywhere, they simply had nothing to eat. Especially in the winter, when it got really cold, it was hard for people to stay alive.” In 1941/42, temperatures dropped below -30 degrees, with the gas supply cut off and the city partly destroyed by artillery shelling. “People just fell down on the streets and died, they were too weak to get up again.”
Gregorevich, now 80 years old and living in a small, Soviet-style one-room flat, tells his story of the Siege of Leningrad without the oft-heard pathos. There are no heroic citizens and no exalted descriptions of the Hero City, as it was later called. When he talks about the horror of starvation, air raids and the cold winters, he speaks of it as of something that was and is no more. For him, it is incomprehensible how people could still be interested in it. “It was the worst time of my life,” he says. “It’s enough that I lived through it. I don’t have to talk about it again.”
5.000 firebombs in one day – 100.000 in less than 3 years
That he had to live through it though was his mother’s choice. Though difficult, it ultimately proved to be the right decision: Shortly before the Germans blocked all ways out of the city, Gregorevich’s mother put him into one of the cattle cars on a train leaving the city. Before the train departed, she pulled her son back off, out of fear. “Later on we heard that German planes attacked the trains, killing all the people inside.”
It was the starting point of a life filled with permanent shortages: Not enough fuel for heat, not enough room to live, and, again and again, not enough food. To destroy the last of the city’s provisions, the Luftwaffe (German airforce) deliberately attacked storage buildings with more than 5000 firebombs during the first day. In the more than 900 days of the siege, 102.520 firebombs hit the city, destroying much needed housing as well as any infrastructure.
“My mum was working at the other end of the city,” Gregorevich recalls. “She left very early in the morning, made the whole way through the city by foot and only came back late at night.” In the apartment, his mother and sister installed an improvised wood-burning stove, in which they burned their furniture piece by piece to make it through the winter. “One night a fire broke out,” Gregorevich recalls. “I woke everyone up and we had to leave the house.” What for most people would be one of life’s most horrifying experiences is a mere footnote for him.
Even after his family made it through the siege, life didn’t immediately get better. Compared to others though, he had been lucky, he says. “Of my school year of 40 children, only three pupils’ fathers returned from the war. Mine was one of them.” Together with both his parents, Gregorevich then had to live in a 13m2 flat until the 1960s, helping to rebuild a not only morally destroyed city.
Nowadays, when he sums up all the stories of his life, the old days doesn’t seem to bother him anymore. Nor do any of the other hardships he went through. When Gregorevich talks about his life, he speaks of his now divorced wife, his friends in Leningrad, the parties with local celebrities from the SKA hockey team. “You know, I wasn’t a very good guy”, he adds with a smile, while showing photos of himself. Surrounded by friends, in front of a Mercedes, in the locker room with the hockey team.
After some time, when Gregorevich has gone through nearly all of his photo album, he shows a picture of himself in a restaurant next to two women serving food. “Do you know where that is?”, he asks. “It’s my restaurant”, he answers himself, full of pride. It seems like food never left the mind of that then 4 years old boy.