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The Siege of Leningrad

Nearly everyone in St. Petersburg today has a family member who lived through the 900-day siege of the city by Nazi forces, and mere mention of the humanity-crushing blockade still brings tears to the eyes of those who survived it. About one million people died during the siege of the city then known as Leningrad, most of them civilians who wasted away of hunger, cold, and disease. From September 1941 to January 1944, residents of this former imperial capital were reduced to eating leather belts, stray dogs, and even human corpses to survive. Antique furniture was stuffed into stoves to survive three winters without heat or electricity. All the while, shells from German aircraft rained down on the city's monuments, accompanying Leningraders' descent into desperation. The only source of supplies to the city was the Road of Life, a rough and remote ice road cut across Lake Ladoga during the first winter of the siege. Though Russians credit Stalin with breaking the back of Nazi forces, the Soviet dictator is also blamed for prolonging Leningrad's suffering by not doing more to end the blockade or to boost supplies to the city.

Today the politics of this period are largely forgotten, and the siege is viewed as evidence of the city's resilience and endurance. St. Petersburg has several museums about the blokad, as Russians refer to it, and monuments to victims of the siege;. Even if you don't visit one (they're not for the weak-kneed), keep an eye out for shell wounds on city monuments such as St. Isaac's Cathedral, or for plaques around town showing residents which sides of city streets to favor to avoid shelling. Harrison Salisbury's book The 900 Days remains the most vivid and respected chronicle of the blockade in English, 40 years after it was first published.

I did not on this day forget

The bitter years of oppression and of evil

But in a blinding flash I understood

It was not I, but you who suffered and waited

. . .

My Motherland with the wreath of thorns

And the dark rainbow over your head

I love you -- I cannot otherwise --

And you and I are one again, as before.

-Olga Berggolts, St. Petersburg poet, writing on the day of the German invasion, June 22, 1941, of her love for her country despite being imprisoned in Stalin's purges of the 1930s

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