Non-Russians may not appreciate the significance of the Siege of Leningrad, which ended 70 years ago today, but Michael McFaul, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, hopes to change that.
“As an ambassador and as a university professor, I would like more Americans to learn about this tragic, but heroic chapter in the history of your city,” McFaul wrote in an article in Nevskoye Vremya published today, “I want to do all I can to help Americans learn more and I am proud of the fact that I have visited your wonderful history museums with my two sons.”
Russians remember the siege with a sad mixture of pride in the city’s resilience and horror at what that resilience led to.
The city, now known as St. Petersburg, was of major strategic importance to Nazi Germany. It was not only the former Russian capital and the birthplace of Russian Communism but also the the home of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, a major industrial city, and — just 130 miles away from Finland by road and a major port — was Russia’s “window to Europe.”
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler reportedly planned to have a big party at Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria and to rename the city “Adolfsburg,” although he was also considering burning it to the ground.
Caught between German and Finnish troops, the Soviet army in Leningrad was besieged. Over a million citizens in the city were mobilized in June 1941 to help build fortifications. On Sept. 7 all land connections to the city were severed by the Axis front.
Artillery bombing of the city began in September 1941 and continued for 872 days (just short of 2 1/2 years). The destruction wrought on the city has been called the largest loss of life in any modern city. It is thought that 750,000 civilians and the same number of soldiers died during the siege. Books were burned for heat and zoo animals were eaten for meat — some even resorted to cannibalism.
The siege was finally broken on Jan. 27, 1944, but its legacy went on.
Before the siege, the city contained around 3 million people. It did not reach those levels of population again until the 1960s. Russia President Vladimir Putin, born in 1952, was one of the people who grew up in the shell of the city that had been there before, and his elder brother had died of diphtheria during the siege itself.
“Once [during the Siege], my mother lost consciousness and people around thought that she died,” Putin revealed in his book Ot Pervogo Litsa. “She was even put together with dead bodies. It was fortunate that the mother came to her senses in time and moaned. In general, she stayed alive by a miracle.”
“Not only the people of Russia, but also the people of the whole world owe a lot to those who stopped and drove away the Nazis,” Ambassador McFaul wrote today. “Without your victory in Leningrad and other battles of WWII, world history could have taken a totally different path. Thank you.”
You can see more pictures from the siege below:
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