Bankovsky Most, Leningrad as depicted in a diorama at the Great Patriotic War Museum, Moscow, Russia.
Many outrageous and inhuman actions occurred during the War, but nothing quite like the siege of Leningrad. While not every historian agrees on the number of deaths the siege caused, it seems however that a civilian number between, 800,000-1,000,000, is realistic. The siege began in 1941, and was part of a larger German tactical maneuver dubbed Operation Barbarossa. The German army crossed the border into the Soviet Union in June 1941. By August they were close to Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg). By September they had totally encircled the city, and initiated the blockade which would last for 900 days. What did that mean? Nothing got in or out of the city.
When Leningrad authorities realized that the German were likely to invade Leningrad they built fortifications. “In all, civilians built 190 km of timber blockages, 635 km of wire entanglements, 700 km of anti-tank ditches, 5,000 earth-and-timber emplacements and ferro-concrete weapon emplacements and 25,000 km of open trenches.” When the Germans reached the city limits on August 30, all train connections stopped. Bombing of the city began on September 8, 1941 and numbered a total of 178. Nonetheless, the Germans refused to enter the city under Hitler’s order. The siege had begun—the biggest and longest in history.
Ironically, Leningrad was a show-case city. It was the former home of Tsarist Russia, and it had become a model city for the new Soviet state espoused by Stalin. With twenty medical institutes and a remarkable public health service, the city system continued to operate throughout most of the siege and mortality figures were recorded. Population numbers were also maintained through the rationing of cards, though there were several thousand refugees who took refuge in Leningrad as the Germans advanced through the Baltic States.
Leningrad was a city of three million people before the siege. During the siege many residents managed to flee the city or were killed in the process. Initially the Germans bombed the city non-stop for months with fire-bombs and heavy air bombs. Stopping fires became a major task for people living in the city. With the first bombings of the city all main food warehouses were destroyed, thus leaving very little food from the beginning. When the siege ended, just under a million people remained in the city. How people managed to get food during this time is a story unto its own. Cannibalism existed and over 300 were shot for the deed, and another 1000 people were imprisoned. Records indicate that many of these were the refugees. The greatest period of starvation lasted from the end of November 1941 to March 1942. With low calorie consumption, continual bombing and destruction from fire, death was a regular occurrence. At one point over 20,000 bodies lay stacked at the city’s main cemetery. Disease ran rampant as did psychological disorders.