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WWII's Siege of Leningrad Was One of History's Most Destructive

The 872-day siege by German forces failed to capture Leningrad, but left immense devastation in its wake.

siege of leningrad
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In late 1939, Adolf Hitler's Third Reich began to execute his overarching plan to annex surrounding countries into Germany. As World War II began, the German invasion of Poland brought Polish allies into the fight, including Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Soon, the Nazi forces realized that simply defending themselves against Soviet armies would not be enough–they'd have to proactively take down the Soviet Union. So, in July 1940, they began strategic plans for what would become known as Operation Barbarossa.

A key arm of this Operation would be the taking of Leningrad (modern Saint Petersburg). The fact that the city had never successfully been invaded was of no consequence to Hitler. Supposedly, he even made up invitations calling for victory celebrations at the Hotel Astoria on August 9, 1942. In June 1941, German forces entered the Soviet Union. Three months later, on September 8, the troops had fully encircled Leningrad.

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Rather than attempt to take down the city directly and run the risk of losing thousands of soldiers, the Germans hoped to starve residents into submission. The blockade certainly starved the people of Leningrad, but it never led them to fully give in. Diaries of the time chart the despair felt by people like Tanya Savicheva, who was 11 years old when the Nazi and Finnish troops cut off Leningrad. Savicheva's diary, which chronicles the death of each of her family members, was used at the Nuremberg Trials to show the extent of the Nazis' war crimes

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At the height of the Siege, residents of Leningrad were surviving on rations of as little as 125 grams of bread a day–much of which was additionally leavened by sawdust. Even after defense forces had opened a land corridor to the city (called the Road of Life), food supplies remained fatally low. With so little food and temperatures dipping below -22 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, many civilians died on their way to kiosks that distributed food rations.

It is believed that as many as two million people died from starvation, thirst, and cold. Despite the terror and the desperation in the air, the Soviet citizens found small opportunities to seek relief. Once the winter settled in fully, nearby Lake Lagoda froze over, allowing Soviet assistance to access the city from the eastern shore. Although some supplies were sent via boat in the summer, the trucked supplies during winter was vital for the survival of the people.

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Leningrad civilians didn't just take solace in what little food could be sent to them—they also continued to create and appreciate art. Dmitri Shostakovich completed his seventh symphony in December 1941, an homage to the city under siege. Shostakovich and his family had been evacuated from Leningrad in late summer of 1941. He completed the symphony in Kuibyshev (now known as Samara), where he remained until 1943.

In Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, Brian Moynahan juxtaposes the composition of Shostakovich's best known work with the realities of living within the walls of Leningrad. This highly emotional, highly researched work highlights a lesser-known atrocity of World War II. 

Read on for an excerpt of Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, then download the book.




Leningrad: Siege and Symphony

By Brian Moynahan

There has never been a performance to match it. Pray God, there never will.

German guns were less than seven miles from the Philharmonia Hall as Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was first played in the city to which he had dedicated it, in the late afternoon of Sunday, 9 August 1942. Leningrad had been besieged since the Germans cut the last land route out of the city on 14 September 1941.

Shostakovich had started writing his symphony in mid-July 1941, as the Germans began closing in. He was flown out of the city to Moscow at the beginning of October, with his wife, two young children and the first two movements of the symphony. From there they went east, to Kuibyshev on the Volga.

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After he had completed it—and christened it the ‘Leningrad ­Symphony’—it was played to huge acclaim in Russia, in London, and New York. At the performance in Moscow, the writer Olga Berggolts watched the slight and still boyish composer rise to a torrent of applause, and bow. ‘I looked at him,’ she wrote, ‘a small frail man in big glasses, and I thought: “This man is more powerful than Hitler.”’

The music’s greatest resonance, though, its truest defiance of the Nazis—the Russians called them ‘the Hitlerites’—could come only when it was played in battered and bleeding Leningrad itself. Orders were given that, ‘by any means’, this must take place.

The score was flown into Leningrad over German lines, the aircraft making a final dash at wavetop level over Lake Ladoga. This vast expanse of water to the east of the city was its only link with the ‘mainland’, as Leningraders called the rest of Russia, by truck over the ice in winter, by barge after the ice melt.

‘When I saw it,’ said Karl Eliasberg, who was to conduct the premiere, ‘I thought, “We’ll never play this.” It was four thick volumes of music.’ It is indeed a colossal work: 252 pages of score, 2,500 pages of orchestral parts, an hour and twenty minutes long. It demanded an orchestra of 105 musicians, battalions of strings among them. What most worried Eliasberg, though, were the demands on woodwind and brass in a starving city of ravaged lungs.

The Leningrad Philharmonia, the city’s leading orchestra, was gone. It had been evacuated to safety in Novosibirsk, in Siberia, before the siege began. Its conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, who had undertaken the premieres of Shostakovich’s Fifth and Sixth, had gone with it. The city’s second string, the Radio orchestra, under the Radiokomitet, the Radio Committee, and Eliasberg, was all that remained.

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Over the winter of 1941–42, it had lost more than half its players. The survivors were weak and traumatized. A quarter of a million died in the city in three months, of hunger and hypothermia, with a ration of less than a slice of adulterated bread a day, and temperatures of minus 28 degrees Celsius. German shells and bombs took others. Some were dragged, on children’s gaily painted sledges, to mass graves. Sappers blasted pits in the frozen earth with explosives, and the bodies were thrown in. They were the lucky ones.

With spring, the snow began to melt. It revealed the corpses of those who remained in the streets. Some were cannibalized. ‘Severed legs with meat chopped off them,’ said the clarinettist Viktor Kozlov. ‘Bits of body with breasts cut off. They’d been buried all winter, but now they were there for all the city to see how it had stayed alive.’ A neighbour pounded on the door of Ksenia Matus, an oboist, and begged her to let her in. Her husband was trying to kill and eat her.

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  • Composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

Worse awaited her when she went to the first rehearsal of the Seventh, in the Radiokom studios. ‘I nearly fell over with shock,’ she says. ‘Of an orchestra of a hundred people there were only the fifteen of us left. I didn’t recognize them. They were like skeletons ...’ Eliasberg raised his arms to begin. No reactions. ‘The musicians were trembling. The trumpeter didn’t have the breath to play his solo. Silence. “Why don’t you play?” Eliasberg asked. “I’m sorry, maestro. I haven’t the strength in my lungs.”’

Eliasberg scoured the front lines for other musicians. He found them in the remnants of regimental bands. The trombonist Mikhail Parfionov was one of them. He was given a special ID card marked ‘Eliasberg’s Orchestra’ so that he was not shot as a deserter when he made his way through the ruined city to rehearsals. If the sirens sounded, he had to leave the rehearsal studio and return to serve his anti-aircraft gun. Nikolai Nosov, a former trumpet-player in a jazz band with no experience of classical music, was horrified to find himself playing the symphony’s difficult trumpet solo. The lead trumpeter suffered a pulmonary oedema, and was too weak to play.

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‘We’d start rehearsing and get dizzy,’ said Kozlov. ‘Our heads were spinning when we blew. The symphony was too big. People were falling over. We might talk to the person sitting next to us. We spoke only of food and hunger, never music.’ If a musician was late, or played badly, he lost his bread ration. A man was late one afternoon because in the morning he had buried his wife. Eliasberg said that this was no excuse, and the man went hungry.

‘Some of the orchestra died,’ says Parfionov. ‘I recall a flautist called Karelsky. People were dying like flies, so why not the orchestra? Hunger and cold everywhere. When you are hungry, you are cold however warm it is. Sometimes people just fell over onto the floor while they were playing.’

Summer came. ‘At last, leaves, blades of grass, and the will to live’: but the Germans held the city as tightly as ever. Attempts to dislodge them failed in a welter of blood. A bridgehead the Russians had held at desperate cost, on the east bank of the Neva river, fell after repeated assaults so intense that, to this day, nothing grows on the pitted surface but rank tussock grass.

An Army, the Second Shock, was meeting its Calvary in the pine forests and peaty swamps of sphagnum moss to the south. Like the city it was trying to relieve, the Army was surrounded, bludgeoned and starving. A final break-out attempt was made on 28 June. None made it. That day, the Germans took 20,000 prisoners: ‘many were wounded ... and barely retained the semblance of human beings.’ The Red Army lost 149,000 dead in this attempt to lift the siege, for nothing. ‘A giant forest of stumps stretched out to the horizon where the dense woods had once stood,’ a German sergeant-major recorded. ‘The Soviet dead, or rather parts of their bodies, carpeted the churned-up ground. The stench was indescribably ghastly.’

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As the pale northern sun lit the July nights, Eliasberg continued his search for musicians. A machine-gunner, M. Smolyak, had played in a dance band in a cinema before joining up. He was astonished to receive formal orders detaching him from his unit. ‘I was put under the Radiokomitet to perform in the Seventh Symphony by D. D. Shostakovich,’ he said. ‘Once again, I was “armed” with a trombone.’

The orchestra moved to the Philharmonia Hall. They began playing small sections of the symphony. Slowly they added more. ‘But we never played the whole thing until a dress rehearsal three days before the concert,’ says Matus. ‘It was the first and only time we had the strength to practise it from beginning to end.’

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The city seemed in keener peril than ever. Far to the south, after eight months of bombardment, the ruins of Sevastopol had fallen to the Germans. Hitler ordered five crack divisions—their victory instilling in them ‘the belief that we could accomplish almost ­anything’—to be transferred from the Crimea to Leningrad. Siege was no longer enough for him. He wanted the city stormed, in an operation code-named Nordlicht, Northern Light. He was confident. Leningrad, he declared, over his vegetarian lunch on 6 August, ‘must disappear utterly from the face of the earth. Moscow, too. Then the Russians will retire into Siberia.’

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German guns ranged across the city at will for hours each day, seeking out places where people congregated, tram stops, crossroads, factory gates when shifts changed, queues for bread rations. It seemed madness to give them a swarm of concert-goers to feast on.

But a miracle was in the making. An hour before the concert, Russian guns began laying down a ferocious barrage of counter-battery fire. It was based on an artillery fire chart as complex in its way as Shostakovich’s musical score, drawn up by a brilliant Red Army gunner, Lieutenant-Colonel Sergei Selivanov, so intimately experienced in German gun positions by now that he knew the names of some of the enemy battery commanders. The Germans took shelter in their bunkers. None of their shells hit the centre of the city for the duration of the concert.

The people who flocked to the Philharmonia wore their glad rags, perhaps for the last time. The women’s stick-insect limbs were hidden beneath their pre-war concert dresses, the men in fading jackets. ‘They were thin and dystrophic,’ said Parfionov. ‘I didn’t know there could be so many people, hungry for music even as they starved. That was the moment we decided to play the best we could.’

Eliasberg wore tails. He looked a scarecrow as they flapped on his emaciated body. Members of the orchestra wore layers of clothes to stay warm. ‘It was too cold to play without gloves,’ says the oboist Matus. ‘We wore them with the fingers cut off, like mittens.’ The air temperature in the hall was over 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but to be cold is a classic symptom of starvation.

They began to play.

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‘The finale was so loud and mighty I thought we’d reached a limit and the whole thing would collapse and fall apart. Only then did I realize what we were doing and hear the grand beauty of the symphony,’ says Parfionov. ‘When the piece ended there was not a sound in the hall—silence. Then someone clapped at the back, and then another, and then thunder ... Afterwards, we held each other, kissed and were happy.’

The symphony’s fame circled the world. Its timing was a godsend. For the first 22 months of Hitler’s war, as France, the Low Countries, the Balkans, were overrun, the Russians enjoyed a non-aggression pact with the Nazis. German U-boats and bombers in the Battles of Britain and the Atlantic were fuelled with Soviet oil, their crews clothed with Soviet cotton, and fed with Soviet cereals.

Together, Hitler and Stalin had dismembered Poland: the Soviets had then swallowed the Baltic states, and part of Finland. In arbitrary arrests, in the volume of executions, in the numbers slaving in labour camps, in the use of terror, the Bolsheviks—in June 1941, at least, at the moment of the German invasion—far outstripped the Nazis.

There was every reason to hold these new Soviet allies to be as godless, fanatical, and as hostile to Western values, as their erstwhile Nazi friends.

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  • Citizens of Leningrad during the siege.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

The Leningrad Symphony was the perfect antidote. The Allies wanted, badly, to believe in the Russians, in their survival, and in their decency. The Allies wanted, badly, to believe in the Russians, in their survival, and in their decency. Their own campaigns were sagging—the United States Navy suffered its greatest ever disaster in the early hours of 9 August, losing four heavy cruisers and 1,270 men in a few minutes in the dark seas off the Pacific island of Guadalcanal, while the British were reeling from the loss of Tobruk to the German Afrika Korps—and Shostakovich’s music helped to give them the reassurance they sought. Leningrad still lived, and fought, and, in drowning out the mechanical squeal and clang of the enemy’s tank tracks in a creative storm of music, it seemed to the anxious watchers to confirm Russia’s resilience and humanity. ‘Like a great wounded snake’, Time magazine wrote, ‘dragging its slow length, it uncoils for 80 minutes ... Its themes are exultations, agonies ... In its last movement the triumphant brasses prophesy what Shostakovich describes as the “victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism”.’ It provided a moral redemption for Stalin and the Soviet regime.

At the heart of its first movement is an 18-bar theme with 12 accumulating repetitions. It was called the ‘invasion theme’, a devastating response to the Nazis that reviewers found conveyed their ‘naked evil in all its stupendous arrogant inhumanity, a terrifying power overrunning Russia’. The world was spellbound by the drama.

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The poet Carl Sandburg addressed Shostakovich in the Washington Post:

All over America ... millions [are] listening to your music portrait of Russia in blood and shadows ... The outside world looks on and holds its breath. And we hear about you, Dmitri Shostakovich ... In Berlin ... in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo, Prague, Warsaw, wherever the Nazis have mopped up, no new symphonies ... Your song tells us of a great singing people beyond defeat or conquest who across years to come shall pay their share and contribution to the meanings of human freedom and discipline.

The score had been copied on microfilm and flown out of Russia to Teheran. From there, it travelled by staff car to Cairo, then on to London, across Africa and round Spain and far out over the Bay of Biscay, beyond the range of German fighters based in France. In late June, to coincide with the anniversary of Hitler’s onslaught on Russia, it had its Western premiere in London. Sir Henry Wood conducted at the Albert Hall.

In America, the leading conductors—Koussevitsky in Boston, Stokowski in Philadelphia, Rodzinski in Cleveland—fought for it. Arturo Toscanini in New York had NBC money behind him. He won. A thunderstorm raged as he conducted an orchestra of 110 musicians in Radio City. In its first season, the symphony was broadcast by 1,934 American radio stations, with 62 live performances.

The story of its creation—written under fire, delivered out of the besieged city—was a sensation. Shostakovich’s photograph appeared on the cover of Time, the first time a musician had appeared there. He was wearing a fireman’s helmet and uniform, looking fiercely out over the burning city. The cover line reads: ‘Fireman Shostakovich. Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad, he heard the chords of victory.’

Want to keep reading? Download Leningrad: Siege and Symphony now.

From September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944, the citizens of Leningrad remained under siege. Over the course of 872 days, some three million people are believed to have died. The siege is considered the largest loss of life in a modern city. Over a million women and children were evacuated from the city–many of whom died from starvation and cold, just as they would have if they remained. As a gesture towards hope, on August 9, 1942, the day that Hitler had claimed he would be throwing a victory party at Leningrad's Hotel Astoria, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra performed Shostakovich's symphony, and the performance was broadcast throughout the city. A year and a half later, the people of Leningrad would finally be freed by Soviet troops. Unfortunately, before the German forces were driven from the city, many cultural landmarks, like the Catherine Palace, were looted and destroyed.

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Featured photo of residents of Leningrad queueing up for water: Wikimedia Commons