Nevsky Prospekt: Part 2 – Obelisk to the Hero City Leningrad

Leningrad Hero City Obelisk (Jorge Láscar, CC BY 2.0, 2014)

Граждане! При артобстреле эта сторона улицы наиболее опасна

Citizens! During shelling this side of the street is the most dangerous

(Inscription stencilled on walls along Nevsky Prospekt during the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1944)

Walking westwards from the Alexander Nevsky Lavra you’ll eventually come to Ploshchad Vosstaniya where you’ll be greeted by the most visible of Saint Petersburg’s memorials of the Great Patriotic War, the Obelisk to the Hero City Leningrad (Обелиск «Городу-герою Ленинграду»).

Designed by the architects Vladimir Lukyanov and A. I. Alymov, the monument was erected on Victory Day, 1985, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Red Army’s victory. It pays homage to the heroic defence of Leningrad and the suffering of its citizens during the 872 days the city lay under siege by the German forces of Army Group North.

On 22 June 1941 Hitler launched Unternehmen Barbarossa. As German forces shelled Red Army positions in the border area Luftwaffe planes appeared above Kronstadt, Peter I’s fortified island and now the base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. A Soviet squadron scrambled from Vyborg, and on the ground first lieutenant S. Kushnerev ordered anti-aircraft batteries to commence firing. Within hours of the German invasion commencing, Saint Petersburg had experienced the first hostilities in what was to be a deadly, drawn out conflict.

Behind the frontline frantic preparations for the defence of the city commenced. Trenches and dugouts appeared on the streets. Windows were boarded up. A fleet of barrage balloons floated above the city. Industrial machinery, workers and citizens were evacuated. The city’s treasures were put into storage, or shipped out to the Urals. On Nevsky Prospekt the equestrian statues adorning the Anichkov Bridge were removed and buried in the Alexandrinsky Gardens. Pushkin’s letters were removed from the State Public Library, Russia’s first and oldest library, for protection.

The first shells fell on Nevsky Prospekt on 6 September causing damage to buildings and bursting a water pipe. Luftwaffe attacks intensified and on 19 September in the heaviest air raid Leningrad suffered during the war the avenue’s famed indoor shopping arcade, Gostiny dvor, was hit, killing 100 shoppers.

Sign on Nevsky Prospekt, 1944.

The grim reality of Hitler’s aim to, “wipe Leningrad from the face of the earth through demolitions, and hand the area north of the Neva to the Finns”, began to bite. In a directive of 29 September 1941, Army Group North were advised that, “After the defeat of Soviet Russia there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban centre. … Following the city’s encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for our very existence, we can have no interest in maintaining even a part of this very large urban population.”

As the winter of 1941-42 approached people began to starve as the encirclement of the city cut supply lines. From November, German shelling was directly targeted at stockyards, bread factories, communal kitchens, and electricity plants. In December more than 50,000 died of starvation. As temperatures plummeted to as low as -32 degrees centigrade another 200,000 died in the first two months of 1942. Fuel was scarce, electricity for home use was forbidden during the day, and other utilities were drastically curtailed. On Nevsky Prospekt the trams no longer ran and snowdrifts blocked the avenue. Drinking water was raised from holes cut in the ice covering the Neva. Bodies lay in the streets where they had fallen, weak from cold and hunger, and died.

Shelling on Nevsky Prospekt, circa 1942

Inevitably a black market in food arose. Those working in food production and distribution took huge bribes, or stole provisions for themselves. Opportunistic thieves snatched food from customers as they left shops. People murdered for food or ration cards, or worse, as the cases of cannibalism testify.

Leningrad was on its knees. But it did not fall. Along the narrow strip of land still in Russian hands on the shore of Lake Ladoga, and across the winter ice, the, Дорога жизни, ‘Road of Life’, brought crucial supplies into the city and took evacuees away. As winter turned to spring the Lensovet Executive Committee led the organisation of agricultural enterprises to supply the city with vegetables. 633 subsidiary farms and 1,468 gardeners’ associations were established in the spring of 1942. By the autumn of 1942, Leningrad had grown enough food to keep itself alive for four months. A year later the city produced a harvest of vegetables and potatoes amounting to 135 thousand tons.

A corner had been turned, and, as German soldiers in the trenches remarked to the conductor, Karl Eliasberg, after the war that when they heard the strains of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’ drifting towards them from the Philarmonie Hall and the city loudspeakers during the symphony’s first Leningrad performance on 9 August 1942, they knew Leningrad would never be captured.

Around Leningrad the Red Army’s Sinyavino Offensive and Operation Iskra wore down German forces, the latter leading to a land corridor to Leningrad being established for the first time since November 1941. In late 1943, Peterhof, Pushkin, and Pulkovo were liberated, and in January 1944 the Leningrad-Novgorod strategic offensive operation finally lifted the siege, pushing the Germans back from the southern outskirts of the city. On 27 January 1944 the evening sky was lit by with flares, and the sound of shelling was replaced by the boom of gun salutes from ships and forts.

At least one million people are estimated to have died in Leningrad during the 900 days it was under siege. Think on that figure for a while. One million people. More than the number of civilians killed in Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than the combined casualties of Britain and America during the war. One million people. From one city.

On May 1 1945, Stalin’s Supreme Commander Order #20 named Leningrad as город-герой, ‘Hero City’, for its heroic defence and stand in the Great Patriotic War. On 8 May an official decree confirmed the honour, with the addition of the Gold Star medal. Today a gold star sits atop the Obelisk to the Hero City Leningrad, a memorial to the sacrifice and fortitude of the inhabitants of the city in the dark days of 1941 to 1944. A strength captured by Olga Bergholz, the poet, playwright, and journalist, whose voice could be heard on Leningrad’s only radio station during the siege:

To have survived this blockade’s fetters,
Death daily hovering above,
What strength we have needed, neighbour,
What hate we’ve needed – and what love!
So much so that moods of doubt
Have shaken the strongest will:
“Can I endure it? Can I bear it?”
You’ll bear it. You’ll last out. You will.

Никто не забыт, ничто не забыто.

Citizens queue for water on Nevsky Prospekt

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