Clues about the bombs, hunger, and remarkable hope of the tragic 872-day-long Siege of Leningrad lurk just beneath the surface of modern St Petersburg
This article is the product of my intention to find out what lies behind a wound—not the wound of a soldier or a person, but the wound of a city. The wound I am referring to can be seen in a bomb blast mark on one of the columns of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg. Why hasn’t this mark been patched in all these years?
A little over 70 years ago, this beautiful city lived through one of the most tragic episodes in its history—the Siege of Leningrad. Between the German encirclement in September 1941 and the city’s liberation in January 1944, the population was under siege for almost three years.
Some were able to escape the blockade on the “Road of Life” across Lake Ladoga. However, once the siege began, the supply of water, food, coal, and electricity was almost depleted. Eventually, the German troops decided to let the city fall from starvation rather than direct military conflict.
The people left in Leningrad exhibited remarkable strength during the arduous time—the will to life, bravery, solidarity, and pride—while withstanding the enemy and the conditions. However, the adverse and extreme conditions also brought untold death, misery, and the more sordid aspects of human nature.
In my search for existing clues about this period, I tried to look for symbols and memories of what the siege represented to the city. During that search, I discovered examples of human resourcefulness, like the making of a sundial in a time when there was a lack of electricity. Young heroes, such as the lovely Tanya Savicheva, the “Soviet Anne Frank”, wrote short notes about the cruel events around her, such as the death of her closest relatives, one by one. The notes are chilling, with the last one exhibiting the complete loneliness of the situation: “Only Tanya is left,” she wrote.
More than a hundred thousand bombs were dropped on the city of Leningrad during the war. Hospitals, schools, monuments and cultural institutions were the principal targets of the shelling.
- The “Soviet Anne Frank”—Tanya Savicheva
Tanya Savicheva started her diary before Anne Frank did it. The two young girls were around the same age, and they both wrote about the horrors of their times. Unlike Anne Frank’s diary, which was published throughout the world, Tanya Savicheva’s diary, which contains eleven frightening notes about the deaths of her relatives, was never published. Those notes hold an important place in the history of St Petersburg, as they were presented at the Nuremberg trial as documents that showcased the terrors of fascism.
- Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
The inspiration for this article came from an image of one of Saint Isaac’s columns, which had been scarred with indentations from one of the bombs. To me, the rose-like marble of the column represented a shade of human skin and I began to think of the cathedral as a live organism—like a soldier wounded in war. The authorities left this imperfection purposefully as evidence and remembrance of what had happened. Part of the rich history of this church is seen in its scars.
- Anichkov Bridge
The plinth of Anichkov Bridge also has bomb marks similar to the columns of Saint Isaac, and has also been left this way on purpose. The statues were removed during the siege in order to shelter them from the constant shelling of the city. Today, they have been restored. but the plinth still has the marks, which are now accompanied by a plaque explaining their background.
- Inzhenernaya Ulitsa
Here is another example of a plaque in the city which references the siege of Leningrad and its anonymous heroes.
- Nevsky Prospekt
Nevsky Prospekt is one of the most popular streets in the city of Saint Petersburg. Imagine this same avenue during the siege of Leningrad—in a different time but in the same space. This part of the city was one of the most dangerous places to walk on because of the constant shelling.
- Pushkinskaya Metro
There are also inscriptions which reference the Leningrad siege in the popular Pushkinskaya metro station.
- The Museum of the Defense of Leningrad
This is a fantastic museum to understand what the siege of Leningrad means for the city. It contains objects, photos, posters, diaries and magazines of that period.
- Sundial from the period.
The plaque of the Sundial reads: “The Siege of Leningrad—one of the most tragic pages in the history of our city and the Great Patriotic war of 1941-1945. The courage and resilience of its citizens will remain in our memory forever. The hunger, the shelling, the lack of transport, heat and electricity. One of the many problems of the besieged Leningrad was that the town clock did not work. On the initiative of astronomy professor V. I. Pryanishnikov, a plywood sudial was installed in the spring of 1943 on Vasilievsky Island which survived until the end of the war—a fact that for the besieged city was amazing and joyful—especially given that many other sundials were destroyed during the war, in Peterhof, Strelna and Gatchina. Sundials were popular during the siege— people planned appointments and meetings around them and stopped by them to share news from the front. Leningrad followed the movement of time. This simple, but important construction gave the strength to hold on. It was the hope of a peaceful life, which would surely come. The sundial was recreated in granite in 2016 by the initiative of the administration of the Vasileostrovsky district of St Petersburg. The authors of the project are V. Dmitriev and N. Yashin”. (Photo credit: Isolda Fabregat)
- Peter and Paul Fortress
The dome of the cathedral was preserved thanks to the mountaineer-defenders who covered it. We would not be able to admire the golden cupola now if it was not for them.
There is a plaque outside of the Shostakovich great hall which reminds us that during the terrible siege of Leningrad, a group of famished musicians performed Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, titled “Leningrad”. The piece was written by the Russian composer in order to give hope to the inhabitants of the city. He was not there, but he gave them the priceless present of this magnificent symphony, which was played with courage during these hard times.