Today marks the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad by the Red Army. While not the climactic battle of the Second World War the Siege of Leningrad was a nearly nine-hundred-day long siege that resulted in roughly one-million military and civilian deaths.
After the initial breakthrough into the Soviet Union created by Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941 Army Group North of the German Wehrmacht began its assault on the city of Leningrad in July with the intent to capture it by the end of the year. Plans would change however as Army Group Center was tasked with taking the Soviet capital of Moscow. Thus, Army Group North had to divert some of its forces to support the push to Moscow. This turn of events more or less forced Army Group North to encircle the city and force its surrender by starving it out. The progress of the siege was minimal as the Wehrmacht was intent to constantly bombard the city and contain its garrison for nearly three years. Furthermore, the cities supply line was constrained for most of the siege to a single ice road across Lake Ladoga (the aptly named “Road of Life”). Even still, the cities populace was starving to death as bread rations shrank to only 125 grams per day. There were widespread reports of cannibalism that even the NKVD secret police were unable to suppress. Furthermore, the number of instances of cannibalism is certainly higher than post-war records indicate. Nonetheless, the siege was largely stabilized in terms of military advancement and would continue in a similar fashion, with some Soviet gains, until its lifting on January 27th of 1944.
Of course, the citizens of Leningrad tried to carry on their lives and maintain a facade of normalcy. The most striking example of this to me was Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, while it was written outside of the city for the orchestra’s safety, it became a symbol of the cities perseverance in the face of the humanities greatest adversary, that of war and predation. Richard Overy, the author of Russia’s War writes about the symphony thusly, “The composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the early drafts of his 7th Symphony, later to be known everywhere as the ‘Leningrad’, to the sound of shells and bombs.” and “Musicians had to be recalled from the front lines to rehearse but by the time the symphony was staged many of the players were dead or wounded.” Nevertheless, the 7th Symphony was finally performed in the city in August of 1942 and was a rallying cry for its defenders and the Soviet people for the remainder of the war.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this particular event from the Siege of Leningrad it is that humans strive to create, even in the face of ruin. While Russia’s greatest city was being destroyed by the Germans, Shostakovich labored to create a symbol of the city as only a composer could.