The Endless Siege Ended – It Happened Today, January 27, 2017

While I’m on the subject of St. Leninsburg it is fitting to note that today marks the end of the brutal 872-day Nazi siege of what was then Leningrad between 8 September 1941 and January 27, 1944. Whatever one thinks of the regime and the name, it was an astonishing demonstration of tenacity under circumstances that literally defy belief.

It cost an estimated 580,000 German and three and a half million Soviet military casualties and a million civilians, over 600,000 during the siege and an astounding 400,000 in the evacuation (which gives you some idea of the efficiency and compassion of Bolshevism). The inhabitants were menaced, obviously, not only with death by bombardment or bombing but also and primarily by starvation.

Among the siege tales of horror were several thousand arrests for cannibalism, mostly of those already dead of natural causes although more than 10% involved deliberate killing of humans for food, and literally thousands of cases of murdering people for their ration cards. Not that there was much to be had even with a card; during the siege people ate their pets, often touchingly trading with a neighbour so as not to eat their own. There are even statues to two hero cats from the siege, Elisey and Vasilisa, though they turn out to be celebrated not for being food but for what they ate, being part of a shipment of cats delivered from Yaroslavl to help deal with the overwhelming plague of rats in the shattered city.

There are two stories I find uplifting about the resilience of the human spirit under such ghastly conditions. One is that the authorities had created an air raid system involving a metronome broadcast over the radio that speeded up if German bombers were approaching. After air raids became less frequent the radio station often broadcast music instead. But during breaks in the music the metronome resumed to assure listeners the city’s resistance had not collapsed, and apparently hungry, cold, lonely, frightened people would huddle by the radio and draw strength from the steady unquenchable tick tock tick tock. And the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad includes an underground museum whose only sounds are emergency broadcasts and the ticking of a metronome. (Horribly, an earlier Leningrad Defence Museum and many of its exhibits were destroyed in a fit of Stalin’s jealousy that saw the heroic siege declared a myth and many who had led the defence of the city purged by kangaroo courts and sent to Siberia or shot.)

The other is a soldier’s story. Kenneth Adelman, a top U.S. arms control negotiator under Ronald Reagan, tells of meeting Soviet Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev at the 1987 Reykjavik summit and learning that as a young man Akhromeyev had been tasked with defending a road outside Leningrad during the siege and that for 18 months including harsh Russian winters he never set foot inside a building. "'Never?' I asked. 'No. We were told to stay there. We stayed there.'" (Akhromeyev also told Adelman that only two of 32 boys in his high school class survived the war and that indeed eight of 10 males born in the Soviet Union in 1923, as he was, died during the conflict.)

Such heroism deserved a better cause than Stalinism, even in opposition to Naziism. But it is heroism all the same. And while I wish it had never been necessary, I do recognize and am inspired by their capacity to persevere through conditions unbelievable even to hear about, let alone endure.