Why you should care

Because a siege that ended 70 years ago is still affecting Russians today.

As Sochi gears up to host the Olympic Games, citizens of St. Petersburg are marking the 70th year after a chokehold on their city lifted and left them at peace. At last.

But for those of us who don’t know much more about Russia than Pussy Riot and the Olympics, here’s a tale from inside the historical lockbox that could start to explain something fundamental to us — about the tough-as-nails collective Russian psyche.

The streets of Leningrad — the Soviet name for modern-day St. Petersburg — were bitterly cold but quiet for the first time after nearly 900 days of being besieged by the German army.

The will to live is fading. My heart aches. I can’t believe that I might not make it.

— Lyubov Shaporina

The Germans starved the city. Residents lived in fear of bombardment between September 1941 and January 1944 — without any communications — as the Germans did their utmost to starve the city into surrender. And starved they were: Without food, with nowhere to turn, people resorted to eating wallpaper, shoes, pets and even one another to keep hunger at bay. And they were the lucky ones who survived; millions didn’t.

Hundreds of thousands of Germans and millions of Russians — civilian and military — died in the harsh conditions and fighting one another.

The hunger was ”turning everyone into lunatics” (said one survivor). Actor Lyubov Shaporina described daily life in blockaded Leningrad like something out of a horror film. People staggered around the icy streets with buckets looking for water — with gunfire and artillery as the soundtrack of their everyday lives. Winter rolled in — along with more German offensives — and Shaporina, working as a volunteer at a packed local hospital, wrote,” The will to live is fading. My heart aches. I can’t believe that I might not make it,” he wrote.

A girl victim of dystrophy, c1944-c1945. An example of the terrible hardships suffered by the civilian population of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Over a million civilians died during the Siege of Leningrad.

A victim of dystrophy, 1944-1945.

Source Fine Art Images/Getty

It went on that way for Leningraders, over a staggering two years, four months, two weeks and five days. And Leningrad’s nearly 3 million residents (including 400,000 children) had few options. Only the “Road of Life,” a dangerous path across the frozen Lake Lagoda, could bring in food. The road carried nearly a million civilians out over the course of the siege.

But life goes on, apparently even in wartime. Students went to school, took exams. Some artists even reached greatness — among them composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose ”Seventh Symphony,” motivated by Leningrad, was seen as an artistic outcry against Nazism — as historian Polina Barskova points out. And by maintaining close links to their cultural history and prewar norms, many Leningraders were able to hold onto a communal sense of humanity.

People resorted to eating wallpaper, shoes, pets and even one another to keep hunger at bay.

But the scars remain — many still visible even 70 years later, even in today’s bustling St. Petersburg. Perhaps the most prominent wearer of this scar is President Vladimir Putin, whose older brother died in Leningrad as a child. (In a rare show of emotion, Putin returned to lay a wreath on his late brother’s grave at a recent 70th anniversary memorial.)

And then there are the physical remnants, still lodged in the survivors like stubborn shrapnel. Some survivors internalized their torments to real medical effect, as we now know from a recent medical study of elderly St. Petersburg residents. Those who were children during the blockade are much more susceptible to high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and circulatory problems than other Russians their age, the study showed.

”Siege mentality” isn’t just a turn of phrase — some survivors internalized their torments and have never let go of them.

And that’s not even getting into legacy the siege left for modern city planners — who had to account for nearly 15 million square feet of destroyed property in the wake of the siege. Well into the 1960s, in fact, the local government was still struggling just provide basic housing.

City planners of today’s St. Petersburg had to account for nearly 15 million square feet of destroyed property.

Despite decades and the dwindling number of survivors, many Russians still have personal connections to the siege. Families turn out in droves to St. Petersburg’s largest cemetery to visit the 500,000 siege graves there. To add ornamentation to the scars and ensure that people never forget the siege, the Soviet Union filled the country with memorials to Leningrad that are still present in Russia today.

In the West, the siege of Leningrad has been consigned to the history books. For Russians, however, this volatile memory is still very much a part of their living history: from their city streets to their tough-nosed leader’s very consciousness.

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