Vavilov's Garden

Imagine a city the size of Chicago, surrounded, cut off from the rest of the country, no heat or electricity or running water, dwindling food supplies, subject to constant bombing and shelling, with no relief on the horizon. Colder than any Chicago winter, its people starving and desperate, separated from their sons and fathers and brothers by a brutal war. This was Leningrad in 1941.

The siege of Leningrad lasted almost 900 days, and by its end some 600,000 to 1 million civilians were dead. On Christmas Day in 1941 alone, nearly 4,000 Leningraders – men, women, and children – starved to death. The toll in this one city exceeded the combined war dead, both civilian and military, for Britain and the U.S. in all of WWII.

On June 22, 1941, the combined forces of Germany’s military – air, land, and sea – invaded the Soviet Union in a well-planned attack known as Operation Barbarossa. The Germans, flush with initial success, decided that they would not storm the city of Leningrad. Hitler stated to his generals that once Leningrad had been surrounded and bombarded from the air and by artillery on the ground, the resolve of the city to continue the fight would disappear. German bombers also dropped propaganda leaflets on the city claiming that the population would starve to death if they did not surrender.

The ruling elite of Leningrad imposed martial law in June, a reaction to the success of Barbarossa. Authority to govern the city was handed to Lieutenant-General Popov, commander of the city’s garrison, A. A. Zhdanov, head of the local party committee and P. Popov, head of the city’s Soviet Executive.

Zhdanov told the people of Leningrad:

“The moment has come to put your Bolshevik qualities to work, to get ready to defend Leningrad without wasting words. We have to see that nobody is just an onlooker, and carry out in the least possible time the same kind of mobilization of the workers that was done in 1918 and 1919. The enemy is at the gate. It is a question of life and death.”

“The Unknown War” episode on the Leningrad siege

Many in Leningrad had expected the Germans to attack and occupy the city. However, a resolute Russian defense and inadequate German manpower meant that the Germans could not successfully achieve this. By September 8th, German tanks were just 10 miles from Leningrad and the city was cut-off from the rest of the Soviet Union by any form of land communication. Supply lines existed in the air and by river, but both were under constant attack. The Germans continually bombarded the city, putting out of action power stations that supplied Leningrad with electricity. The city also quickly became short of food.

When the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, the population of Leningrad was about 2,500,000. However, as the Germans advanced into Russia, a further 100,000 refugees entered the city. The area that the city authorities controlled produced just 1/3rd of what was needed for grain, 1/3rd of what was needed for coal, 1/12th of what was needed for sugar and half of what was needed with regards to meat – if the supply lines could be kept open.

The nearest rail head outside of the city was about 100 miles to the east at Tikhvin, but this was to fall to the Germans on November 9th. By mid-September (two weeks into the siege), Leningrad was effectively surrounded and cut-off from the rest of Russia with minimal food and energy supplies for her population. While the city had a rail network of sorts, Stalin ordered that all vital goods in the city that could help defend Moscow be moved out of Leningrad and to the capital.

Rationing had been introduced almost immediately. Soldiers and manual workers got the most of what was available, followed by office workers and non-working dependents and children. The city authorities found it difficult to grasp just how serious their situation was. While certain food was rationed, restaurants continued to serve non-rationed food in their ‘normal’ way. The authorities also failed to inform people in Leningrad just how much food there really was. This was probably done to prevent panic, but if people had known the true situation, they could have planned accordingly. The number of shops handling food was drastically cut to allow for better control, but it also meant that people had to queue for much longer. There is also evidence that money could buy food away from rationing and the black market thrived where it could away from prying eyes.

Winters in Leningrad are invariably extremely cold. The winter of 1941-42 was no exception. Lack of fuel meant that the use of electricity in homes was banned – industry and the military took priority. Kerosene for oil lamps was unobtainable. Wood became the major source of heat in homes with furniture and floor boards being burned in most homes.

The food needed to fight the cold was simply not available. If bread was obtainable, people had to queue in the bitter cold in the hope that some might be left by the time they got to the front of the queue. Dogs and cats were hunted for food and stories emerged of cannibalism. Freshly buried bodies were, according to some, dug up in the night. Gangs of people braved German guns to leave the city and dig up potatoes in fields outside of the city. This actually did bring in some food that was not kept by those who ventured out. The potatoes were handed in to the authorities and then distributed equitably.

The city authorities ordered that a bread substitute be concocted by those who might have the skill, as they knew that flour was in very short supply. ‘Bread’, even in the first few months of the siege, contained only 50% rye flour. To boost the loaf, soya, barley and oats were used. However, the oats were meant to feed horses and malt was used as an alternate substitute. Even cellulose and cottonseed were tried in an effort to produce bread. Both had little nutritional value but there was plenty of both in Leningrad. The city developed ingenious ways to produce food – cats and sheep intestines were stewed, flavoured with oil of cloves, and the resulting liquid became a substitute for milk. Seaweed was made into broth and yeast was made into soup.

Despite all the work done by the experts in Leningrad, food remained in very short supply and people were only getting 10% of the required daily calorific intake, even though most of their work was labour intensive. One writer in the city, Tikhonov, wrote about workers who ate grease from bearings in factory machines and drank oil from oil cans such was their hunger. People collapsed in factories and on the streets and died. The city organized mass burials to cope with the number who died. When not enough grave diggers could be found, explosives were used to blow a hole in the ground and the bodies were simply thrown in with the expectation that snow would simply cover them up. Where people died in the street, there was a scramble for their ration card.

“If this happened, there was an immediate scrabbling for the dead one’s ration card – not because anyone wanted to steal it but because everyone realized that a ration card handed in to the authorities meant an infinitesimal portion more food for all. Such were the indignities we suffered.”

“I watched my father and mother die – I knew perfectly well they were starving. But I wanted their bread more than I wanted them to stay alive. And they knew that about me too. That’s what I remember about the blockade: that feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.”

In November 1941, while the siege was in its early stages, 11,000 people died of what the authorities called ‘alimentary dystrophy’ (starvation) – over 350 a day. This number greatly increased as winter took hold.

Two lifelines had to be constructed: a new road out of the city to the nearest rail link, and another across the a nearly-frozen Lake Ladoga.

Thousands of people assisted in building the road that was meant to link to Zaborie, the next major staging post east of the fallen Tikhvin. The road, more than 200 miles long, was completed in just 27 days. In many places it was barely more than a track, not wide enough for two trucks to pass. Parts of it were too steep for trucks to cope with, and the snow made parts of it impossible to use. On December 6th, the city authorities announced that the road – known by the people as the ‘Road of Life’ – was to be used for the first time. The news was well received in the city but, in truth, the road would never be capable of providing all that the city required for survival. Over 300 trucks started out on the first journey, but breakdowns and blizzards made for slow going (only 20 miles per day).

On December 9th, the city received news that Tikhvin, with its vital railhead, had been recaptured by the Russians. Hitler believed that the Russian campaign would be over quickly, and the Germans, who had not been issued winter clothing, became victims of both the weather and a major Russian assault. 7,000 were killed in the attack and they were pushed back 50 miles from Tikhvin. Railway engineers were brought in to repair the line and bridges. Supplies started to trickle into the beleaguered city.

The other supply route was across Lake Ladoga. Ironically, though the weather was extremely cold for the people of Leningrad, it was not cold enough to sufficiently freeze the lake to hold the weight of trucks. The lake was frozen enough to stop barges bringing in supplies but the ice had to be 200mm thick to cope with trucks. It only achieved such a thickness at the end of November, and on November 26th, eight trucks left Leningrad, crossed the lake and returned with 33 tons of food. It was a major achievement, but the city needed 1000 tons of food each day to function. Once the ice had proved reliable and safe, more journeys were made and occasionally this mode of transport brought in 100 tons of food a day.

Though the ‘Road of Life’, the rail system and the use of Lake Ladoga brought much needed relief to the city, they could not provide all that was needed and the city’s records show that 52,000 died in December 1941 alone – lack of food and the cold accounted for over 1,600 deaths each day. However, the figures collected by the city were for those who were known to have died and been buried in some form or another. They do not include people who died at home or on the street and whose bodies were never found. The official death total for the 900 day siege is 632,000. However, some believe that the figure is likely to be nearer 1 million.

The rail link to Tikhvin did allow the authorities to move out the worst medical cases. But the frozen lake and the man-made road also accounted for many refugees who fled the city, against the wishes of those who ran it. 35,000 left Leningrad in December 1941 alone, at a time when manpower was required. No records exist as to how many died while attempting to leave Leningrad. By the end of 1942, the city had a population of less than 1 million. In June 1941, it had been 2.5 million. Though the authorities may have had great difficulty gaining accurate figures for the city’s true population, the effect of the siege is clear from these figures. Disease, starvation and those who fled the city may well have accounted for 1.5 million people.

One man’s death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic. – Stalin

The siege was only lifted after the Germans, as part of their general retreat, withdrew in the face of the advance of the Red Army. Then in one of the great ironies of the war, those who had led the city in its time of need were arrested by the NKVD (presumably on the orders of Stalin). Their crime was that they had failed to contact Moscow frequently enough during the siege to ask for support and guidance and that this policy of acting alone like mini-tsars could not be tolerated. Those arrested, after 900 days of being besieged, now had to face Stalin’s gulags.