You Think You Have It Tough? Be Glad You Didn’t Live through Leningrad’s 900-Day Siege

tags: Russian history, Eastern Front, World War 2

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: https://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm

One of the comforts of being a historian, especially one with a global focus, is the realization that compared to most people throughout history and in various parts of the world, we Americans have been incredibly fortunate. And I say this realizing that many Americans—for example the homeless, the institutionalized, the sick, the poor—have not been as fortunate as I. And I say this realizing the Trumpian years have been a national nightmare.


But the tragedy, the horror, I am perhaps most familiar with as a historian is the German 900-day siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944. Below is some material I’ve borrowed from my A History of Russia, Vol. 2:

Despite the evacuation of many people, including most of the city’s children, about 2 million inhabitants remained in the besieged city, and there was not enough food. Inadequate planning and German air attacks had deprived the city of any emergency supplies. And the amount of food that could be brought in by the only supply route open—over Lake Ladoga, frozen by the end of November—was insufficient. People ate whatever they could to stay alive, including their pets, birds, rats, carpenter’s glue, and hair oil. Yet it was not enough…

What the courageous Leningraders endured in the winter of 1941–1942—and altogether for about 900 days—is almost unimaginable. Hunger; German shelling and bombing; and severe cold, both inside and outside of dwellings, took their toll. Although matters improved somewhat after the first winter, the siege was not lifted until late January 1944. Altogether about 1 million Leningraders lost their lives during the siege, most of them from hunger and cold.

And here is some material from my review of Leningrad: State of Siege, quoting from a Leningrad diary entry:

February [1942] has begun—the sixth month of the siege. Everywhere people are dying: cold and hunger are paralyzing the will to live. There are no means of transport or communication and such conveniences as light, water, electricity and gas have passed into the realm of legend. If you stay on the streets for a couple of hours you come across dozens of dead people, lying, solitary in the snow, and cartloads of corpses. The prices for foodstuffs on the black market are astronomical, and people are eating the most appalling filth, from joiner’s-glue jelly to cuts from the soft parts of corpses…

…but there were also numerous acts of self-sacrifice and quiet heroism—an old professor, weak and frail from lack of food, giving half his bread ration to a small girl; starving people avoiding the temptation of snatching loaves of bread from an overturned cart because a young girl tells them she is taking the bread to a hospital; a woman weak from hunger dragging her heavy double bass on a sledge through the snow to participate in a concert recital to cheer up hospital patients.

My takeaway from these historical examples is not to ignore or downplay the millions of coronavirus cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths that are now happening—they are all individual tragedies and we should do all we can to prevent more of them from occurring. 

Read entire article at LA Progressive

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