900 days

mother-russia0001Today marks the breaking of the siege of Leningrad, and President Medvedev choose the moment to announce that Russia would attempt to finally calculate Soviet losses during World War II.  It will be a large number, but it will just be a number.  Such a scale is necessary to witness in some way or another.  This is a story of stumbling upon the sort of thing that words and numbers will always fall short of describing.

It was three days after my arrival.  I had been enjoying the respite of a classically Russian birch forest after my other walks through blocks of Kruschevnikis and industrial wastelands when i popped out onto a sidewalk.  Ahead was the tricolor flying at half mast.  I wondered what might have happened in the three days i’d been cut off from the outside world.  Then i saw two suspiciously clean buildings.  I approached, turning between them.

In the foreground was an eternal flame.  In the background was Mother Russia.  Between the two were rows of rectangular grass mounds and a long line of rose beds.

One of the books i had read shortly before leaving was The 900 Days (Harrison Salisbury), which details the siege of Leningrad.  The years between 1941 and 1944 consisted of unrelenting brutality, a detached struggle for survival, and a few of the most uplifting things one can imagine.  What food had been in the city heading into the winter of ’41 was mostly destroyed by the shelling of the warehouse.  That winter would also be the coldest in close to a hundred years, spent without heat, running water, or electricity.  At times, food rations dipped to 200 grams of “bread” per day for women and children while workers (men) got twice that.  In many cases the bread was mostly sawdust.  The military found a way to process the linseed oil fuel cakes from ships into something digestible.  Wallpaper paste, leather, grass and bark were all considered food during those years.  There were no pigeons or squirrels or pets.  The stories of cannibalism, denied by the Soviets, are almost certainly true.  Hitler said, “Leningrad must die of starvation,” and he nearly succeeded.

One memorable story tells of a man who saw a body outside his building, but the next day it was gone.  It wasn’t until the spring thaw that he realized the body had just been covered with snow and he had walked on it every day.  People died everywhere, far too fast for the authorities to intern them in the frozen ground.  People died pulling the corpses of a loved ones on a sleds to collection points.  At the collection points the bodies were stacked like cord wood until spring.  Some estimates put the number of those bodies as high as 1.5 million.

Many of these bodies were eventually buried at Piskarevskoe Cemetery, where i found myself that day.  I remember measuring the mounds in my head.  At least three bodies (head to foot) wide; probably fifty bodies (shoulder to shoulder) long; and god only knows how deep but the mounds are about two and a half feet high.  Each one is marked with a single headstone displaying only the year.


The old folks bring an armful of flowers and place one every headstone that might contain a loved one.  I don’t cry often, but that day i wept.  It is one thing to have the whole horrid story in your head.  It is another to find the end result of that story unexpectedly.  But it is something wholly different to then see the survivors there paying their respects and clearly still living the pain of so many years ago.

The Germans never razed the tourist sites.  The Hermitage was basically unscathed, as was Peter I rearing his bronze stead.  The people, however, learned to live in the most inhumane of circumstances.  Yet people did live.  Shostakovitch wrote his 7th symphony for Leningrad, and musicians barely alive from hunger and cold carted their instruments from all over the city to what today is called The Shostakovitch Philharmonic.  The roof of the building had been bombed out, so when the musicians performed the piece for a nationwide radio broadcast the shelling played as accompaniment.

I did not talk about the siege with most of the older Russians i knew.  My morbid curiosity seemed unworthy of their pain.  It happened a few times though, wizened old babushkas who seemed tough as nails after all they’d lived through reduced to tears that physically shook them.  One of my floor ladies spent her childhood, roughly from 8 – 11 living through the siege.  She watched her grandparents, parents and siblings all die the way only cold and hunger can kill.

Today i think of her.  Today i remember not only that first visit to Piskarevskoe but the regular visits i made throughout my time in St. Petersburg.  There was always an old person laying flowers and letting the tears roll down or freeze on her cheeks (sometimes it was his cheeks, but there aren’t many old men in Russia).  There was always solemn music coming from speakers in the trees.  Yet it was always silent.  Profoundly silent.  And somehow, amidst the tangible proof of man’s inhumanity towards man, there was always peace.

The photos are mine, though my best shots are waiting for me to get negatives digitized.

6 replies »

  1. Very well written, brother. I remember going to Piskarevskoe when we were visiting Petersburg and being pretty well stunned by the gravity of the place and the just the unimaginable number of people buried there.

  2. Beautiful piece Lex. The cemeteries are fixed memorials, but it is the music that really takes these souls onward. Do you know of the Theresienstadt music? Theresienstadt, the Czech concentration camp for the cultural elite, described here.

    Thank you for sharing this story.

  3. Americans just do not get that the Russians, through staggering sacrifice, won World War II. If you don’t want to commit yourself to a mammoth history, try this book by one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists, Vasilly Grossman: Writer at War.

    It’s a recent compilation of his impressions, along with some of his articles. The Russian experience of WWII was so different from the American and British you’d think they were fighting two different wars.

  4. Thanks all.

    Russ’s suggested reading is excellent, and he’s very right about the different perspective on WW II. And while history often portrays the Red Army fighting for Stalin or Communism, that was not the case. They were fighting for Mother Russia.

    Two other non-tome suggestions: Ivan’s War (Catherine Merridale) which is about life (not tactics or strategy or geo-politics) for regular soldiers and Shurik (Kyra Petrovskaya Wayne) which is the story of a nurse who adopts an orphan during the siege.

  5. They were fighting two different wars. Germany was fighting against Russia in an attempt to gain a little lebensraum, while the rest of the Allies were enemies because they attacked Germany and allied themselves with Russia. And so the conflict with Russia was more existential (for Russia)/genocidal (for Germany), while the conflict with the other Allies was tactical and strategic (“leave us alone” or “if we hurt you bad enough, it’ll take time for you to come to Russia’s defense if you even want to do so”).

    Hitler hoped that Britain would either sit the war out entirely or would enter it on Germany’s side. That didn’t happen.