The siege of Leningrad is often known as the 900 Day Siege: it claimed the lives of around 1/3 of the city’s inhabitants and forced untold hardships on those who lived to tell the tale.
What had begun as a supposedly quick victory for the Germans turned into over 2 years of bombardment and siege warfare as they systematically attempted to starve Leningrad’s inhabitants to submission or death, whichever came sooner.
Here are 10 facts about the longest and most destructive siege in history.
1. The siege was part of Operation Barbarossa
In December 1940, Hitler authorised the invasion of the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa, the codename by which it was known, began in earnest in June 1941, when around 3 million soldiers invaded the western borders of the Soviet Union, accompanied by 600,000 motor vehicles.
The Nazis’ aim was not just to conquer territory, but to use the Slavic people as slave labour (before ultimately eradicating them), use the USSR’s massive oil reserves and agricultural resources, and eventually to repopulate the area with Germans: all in the name of ‘lebensraum’, or living space.
2. Leningrad was a key target for the Nazis
The Germans attacked Leningrad (known as St Petersburg today) because it was a symbolically important city within Russia, both in imperial and revolutionary times. As one of the main ports and military strongholds in the north, it was also strategically important. The city produced about 10% of Soviet industrial output, making it even more valuable for the Germans who by capturing it would remove valuable resources from the Russians.
Hitler was confident that it would be quick and easy for the Wehrmacht to take Leningrad, and once captured, he planned to raze it to the ground.
3. The siege lasted 872 days
Beginning on 8 September 1941, the siege was not fully lifted until 27 January 1944, making it one of the longest and costliest (in terms of human life) sieges in history. It’s thought around 1.2 million citizens perished during the siege.
4. There was a huge civilian evacuation attempt
Both before and during the siege, the Russians attempted to evacuate large numbers of the civilian population in Leningrad. It’s thought approximately 1,743,129 people (including 414,148 children) were evacuated by March 1943, which amounted to around 1/3 of the city’s population.
Not all those evacuated survived: many died during bombardments and of starvation as the area surrounding Leningrad was hit by famine.
5. But those who stayed behind suffered
Some historians have described the siege of Leningrad as a genocide, arguing the Germans were racially motivated in their decision to starve the civilian population to death. Extremely low temperatures combined with extreme hunger caused the deaths of millions.
During the winter of 1941-2, citizens were allocated 125g of ‘bread’ a day (3 slices, worth about 300 calories), which often consisted of assorted inedible components rather than flour or grains. People resorted to eating anything and everything they possibly could.
At some points, over 100,000 people were dying a month. There was cannibalism during the Siege of Leningrad: over 2,000 people were arrested by the NKVD (Russian intelligence agents and secret police) for cannibalism. This was a relatively small number given how widespread and extreme starvation was in the city.
6. Leningrad was cut off from the outside world almost entirely
Wehrmacht forces surrounded Leningrad, making it nearly impossible to provide relief for those inside for the first few months of the siege. It was only in November 1941 that the Red Army began transporting supplies and evacuating civilians using the so-called Road of Life.
This was effectively a ice road over Lake Ladoga in the winter months: watercrafts were used in the summer months when the lake defrosted. It was far from safe or reliable: vehicles could be bombed or stuck in the snow, but it proved to be vital to the continuing Soviet resistance.
7. The Red Army made several attempts to lift the siege
The first major Soviet offensive to break the blockade was in autumn 1942, nearly a year after the siege had begun, with Operation Sinyavino, followed by Operation Iskra in January 1943. Neither of these were successful, although they did succeed in seriously damaging German forces.
8. The siege of Leningrad was finally lifted on 26 January 1944
The Red Army launched a third and final attempt to lift the blockade in January 1944 with the Leningrad-Novgorod strategic offensive. After 2 weeks of fighting, Soviet forces regained control of the Moscow-Leningrad railway, and a few days later, German forces were completely expelled from the Leningrad Oblast.
The lifting of the blockade was celebrated by a 324-gun salute with Leningrad itself, and there are reports of vodka being produced for toasts as if from nowhere.
9. Much of the city was destroyed
The Wehrmacht looted and destroyed imperial palaces in and around Leningrad, including the Peterhof Palace and Catherine Palace, from which they dismantled and removed the famous Amber Room, transporting it back to Germany.
Air raids and artillery bombardments did further damage to the city, destroying factories, schools, hospitals and other essential civil infrastructure.
10. The siege has left a deep scar on Leningrad
Unsurprisingly, those who did survive the siege of Leningrad carried the memory of the events of 1941-44 with them for the rest of their lives. The fabric of the city itself was gradually repaired and rebuilt, but there are still empty spaces in the centre of the city where buildings stood before the siege and damage to buildings is still visible.
The city was the first in the Soviet Union to be designated a ‘Hero City’, recognising the bravery and tenacity of Leningrad’s citizens in the face of the most difficult of circumstances. Notable Russians to survive the siege included the composer Dimitri Shostakovich and poet Anna Akhmatova, both of whom produced work influenced by their harrowing experiences.
The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad was erected in the 1970s as a focal point of Victory Square in Leningrad as a way of commemorating the events of the siege.