“Bread in those days was like gold!”
A survivor’s account of the Siege of Leningrad
The Blockade of Leningrad is a particularly dark period in modern history. Almost anyone who has family ties in the city will know someone directly affected by it. My great uncle was among those who survived the blockade – aged only six when it began. Hearing his account of events – which I recorded earlier this year – had a profound effect on me and I felt obliged to further research the blockade.
On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany announced war on the Soviet Union. On 12 September, the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) was encircled by the Wehrmacht, beginning what was to be a nearly 900-day siege. Though the city was never taken, it underwent unprecedented destruction and loss of life. On top of military casualties – already catastrophic in scale – conditions of famine, extreme cold and artillery bombardment caused the deaths of almost a million civilians.
The attack on Leningrad was completely unexpected. With food and fuel reserves low, the Soviet state was forced to put a rationing system in place. Over the first six months of the blockade, rations were cut five times, reaching their lowest point over the winter of 1941-1942.
Two thirds of the population, as Alexis Peri’s account of the siege records, received little more than 125 grams of bread a day – “a fraction of the calories needed to sustain life”. Obtaining rations meant queuing in freezing temperatures – sometimes for as long as twelve hours – with no guarantee of receiving anything at the front of the line.
In the first winter of the blockade, temperatures reached lows of -40°C, freezing pipes and leaving many people without power, running water or central heating. “We even slept in our winter coats and hats,” recalled Ilya Glazunov, an artist from the Soviet Union, who survived the siege as a child. “But none of this helped. It was just as cold indoors as it was outside.”
On a daily basis, the Luftwaffe would drop bombs on the population of Leningrad, creating further physical and psychological torment for the civilian population.
The American historian John Barber has described the Siege of Leningrad as “the greatest demographic catastrophe ever experienced by one city in the history of mankind”. As men went to the front to fight, many women and children took over their husbands’ and fathers’ jobs. With workers allocated greater rations, many children opted to leave school and enter the workforce where they would be better fed. The children of Leningrad were forced to grow up ahead of their time, plunged early into the unknown world of adulthood.
Two of those children to survive the blockade were my grandmother and her brother. While my grandmother passed away when I was ten, my great uncle Sasha is still alive today. More than seventy years on, his recollections capture the true horror of living through the blockade.
In the two incidents described below, transcribed and translated from Russian, we can see both sides of life during the siege: the kindness and selflessness that existed in some, and the greed, selfishness and desperation to which others were driven.
During the Blockade I lost my mother, father and brother, aged four. My father died in the war. I was six when the war broke out. My mother, brother and sister stayed in Leningrad, we lived in Petrogradskaia.
During the winter of 1942, my mother fell ill and, before she passed away, she left my older sister, Antonina (20) in charge to look after us. She made the 12 km trip to our auntie’s flat in Srednaia Podiacheskaia, on foot whilst pulling us on the sledge in the freezing cold.
The streets were dark and silent, nobody was outside and the power was out. Along the way my brother was whining, he was ill and he couldn’t cope with the hunger.
I remember this one incident. A man came up to us (I think he was a soldier), and he retrieved from his pocket a piece of bread, and broke it in two, handing one half to my brother. Bread in those days was like gold!
We finally arrived at the flat of our auntie, where we were fed. After dinner my brother left this world. I was left alone with my sister. We were sent off by our auntie to a hospital to get better, we stayed in the hospital for six months. Whilst in hospital we were fed well and we started to become healthy again. The hospital saved our lives! After six months in the hospital, I returned to live with my auntie.
One event sticks very prominently in my mind. One day, my auntie and I went to pick up some bread from the bakery on our ration cards. My auntie told me to wait outside the bakery whilst she got the bread. Whilst I was waiting, a woman approached me and told me to follow her. She promised to give me bread, sweets and other treats. I went after her – I believed her – after all I was hungry!
My auntie left the bakery and found me gone. She called for me, and then she saw me from afar. I was being dragged into the woman’s flat. My auntie called a policeman and he arrested the woman (she was taken outside and shot on the spot). It turned out that the woman was a cannibal! She wanted to eat me! Her flat was searched by the police and they found many human body remains, some were half eaten.
This is the story of how I was almost eaten during the Blockade. These were scary times! People were experiencing terrible hunger, and some went to extremes to deal with it.
Mikael Kai Zakharov is a UCL student in his final year studying Russian Language and Russian History. He have just returned from his year abroad in Russia, where he spent 6 months in St. Petersburg, conducting research into the Leningrad Blockade. Both his grandmother and her brother (his great uncle) lived through and survived the Blockade. His grandmother passed away when he was ten. His Great Uncle Sasha passed away on 18 November 2018. This article is dedicated to his memory. This article was originally published by History Workshop Online.