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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leningrad's Siege: The Terror Revisited

ST. PETERSBURG -- Father was dying, after months of starvation. Praskovya Romanova, 16, and her sister set out for help. The cold was bitter, and as Praskovya groped her way through wind-blown snow she muffled her face with her scarf, leaving only one eye uncovered.


"We saw people falling, falling on the street, dying as they walked," she said, remembering. "Some had fallen long ago, and out of their backs chunks had been cut for meat -- by the cannibals."


That was in 1941, during the Nazi siege of Leningrad -- one of history's great tragedies. German troops encircled Leningrad for nearly three years. Though the Luftwaffe bombed it almost every day, their chief weapon was hunger. German scientists carefully calculated rates of starvation and predicted the city would die out within weeks.


Leningraders proved them wrong, but at horrible cost.


Three million people endured the 900-day blockade, which was lifted 50 years ago Thursday. About 1.5 million of them died, mostly civilians felled by hunger and cold -- 10 times the number of deaths caused by the bombing of Hiroshima.


The number of casualties is also, as the historian Richard Bidlack tells his students at Virginia's Washington and Lee University, more than all casualties from all U.S. wars combined, "from Lexington and Concord to Desert Storm."


For decades the blockade has been little known in the West. Stalin rewrote the siege's history to suit his own ends and, until glasnost, the most serious challenge to the Stalin version was put forth by the New York Times correspondent, Harrison Salisbury, who spent 25 years researching and writing "The 900 Days," a book historians consider the best account in any language.


In honor of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Leningrad -- which the city plans to celebrate lustily, with fireworks and a rare visit by President Boris Yeltsin -- a Russian-language version of "The 900 Days" appeared on St. Petersburg's streets two weeks ago, six months after Salisbury's death.


Historical details uncovered in the past three years confirm Salisbury's contention -- widely criticized by Soviet leaders -- that murderous gangs roamed wartime Leningrad's streets, killing for ration cards or human meat.


People who lived through the siege describe stocks of carefully butchered corpses. Paintings, drawings and diaries, some of them released only this month, show that cannibalism was so much a fact of everyday life that parents feared their children would be eaten if let out after dark. New documents show that the city police created an entire division to fight cannibals, while some 260 Leningraders were convicted and jailed for the crime.


Other new historical finds include a blockade-era trove of thousands of autopsies, which were hidden among the private papers of one courageous physician.


"Not only are they of great interest to history, they are interesting to science in general," said Robert Sprinkle of Duke University, a member of an interdisciplinary Russian-American team studying the find.


"There have been many famines, but they haven't occurred in cities where order has been maintained and careful records kept," Sprinkle said.


The basic facts of the blockade have been public record for decades.


The official daily ration was 125 grams of bread, about the weight of a bar of soap. Leningraders supplemented it with anything they could -- as the historians Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin put it, "with everything from birdseed to the canary itself."


They scraped wallpaper down and ate the paste, which was supposedly made from potatoes. They extracted the same paste from bookbindings, or drank it straight from the glue jar. They boiled leather belts and briefcases to make an edible jelly, and plucked and pickled grasses and weeds. They ate cats and dogs, vaseline and lipstick, spices and medicines, fur coats and leather caps.


Some made face-powder pancakes; others ate grimy crystallized sugar, dug out from under the sugar warehouses leveled by German firebombs.


Historians have recorded 22 different dishes made out of pigskin, and have collected menus from military factory cafeterias where choices ranged from fern-leaf soup to pur?e of nettles and milk-curd pancakes.


Scientists at the Vitamin Institute developed diet supplements by extracting vitamin C from pine needles. They swept attics and ventilation shafts at tobacco factories for tobacco dust, which contains vitamin B.


At the laboratory where Zinaida Ignatovich worked, bacteria were cultivated for study in a medium with a meat-broth base.


"We had a large stock (of this medium). It saved many of our staff," Ignatovich said in an account related by Granin and Adamovich. "I used to extract a glassful when I arrived at work, then all the staff would sit around and I would give them each a tablespoonful."


Blokadniki, as survivors are called, number 400,000. Of them, 125,000 were teenagers or older. Many are going hungry again today.


Praskovya Romanova, the 16-year-old who braved snowy streets in search of help for her father, is typical.


Today a retired language teacher of 69, Romanova lives on a monthly pension of 36,553 rubles (about $22). She buys bread, potatoes, sunflower seed oil and macaroni. Nothing else.


Romanova was awarded a medal for the Defense of Leningrad, but her pink scarf is almost 20 years old. Her last visit to a restaurant was 32 years ago.


Sofia Borisova, 69, a retired Red Army corporal, remembers lying in bed during the blockade virtually dead.


"My sister would grab me, shake me, she wouldn't let me die. She arranged for me to be called up into the army, where they fed you much better: still mostly bread, but three times a day," she said.


Today, "I go to these beautiful new supermarkets. They have everything," said Borisova.


"I buy a loaf of bread because that's all I can afford."