• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The living need memories of the dead

Leningrad siege was lifted 65 years ago
3 February, 2009 - 00:00

On Jan. 27, 1944, the residents of Leningrad, this large, well-known city on the Neva River, finally heard on the radio the words they had been waiting to hear for 900 horrible days and nights when the city was under siege (counting from Sept. 7, 1941, when the Wehrmacht approached Leningrad’s suburbs). The message was, “The siege has been lifted. Leningrad is free.” Of course, on that day the living remembered their dead friends and relatives.

This victory was achieved at such a staggering price that it is hard to comprehend for people who live in our day and age. It is hard to grasp how people were able to withstand that ordeal and never surrender to the enemy (above all, spiritually), despite starvation and the deadly cold first winter of the siege (1941–42). This is hard if words like “patriotism” and “love for the Fatherland” mean nothing to you and if you prefer notions like “individual values,” i.e., unlimited egotism.

According to the most conservative estimates, the ruthless winter of 1942 claimed the lives of 40 percent of the city residents (the actual figures are most likely much higher). We have resolutely condemned the Soviet propaganda clich s, but it would be unacceptably cynical to brand the Leningraders’ heroism as another myth. They must have subconsciously felt that after seizing the city, Hitler would have had it totally destroyed, along with all memories of it, replacing it with a giant artificial lake, which is a fact corroborated by some top secret Nazi documents that were made public knowledge later.

Likewise, the diary of Tanya Savicheva, a 13-year-old resident of Leningrad, is not a myth but the appalling truth. This diary—actually small sheets of paper—is a chronological, hair-raising account of death by hunger, with this stunning epilogue: “Zhenya died on Dec. 28th at 12:30 A.M. 1941. Grandma died on Jan. 25th 3:00 P.M. 1942. Leka died on March 5th at 5:00 A.M. 1942. Uncle Vasya died on Apr. 13th at 2:00 after midnight 1942. Uncle Lesha on May 10th at 4:00 P.M. 1942. Mother on May 13th at 7:30 A.M. 1942. Savichevs died. Everyone died. Only Tanya is left.” (Tanya Savicheva died of undernourishment and emaciation shortly afterward. The original of this diary is stored at the Peskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg. In international anti-fascist literature this diary can be compared perhaps only to the diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl tortured to death by the Nazis).

Therefore, the heroism and patriotism of Leningraders, their fight against the aggressor to the last man is honest truth. (This is despite the incredible mistakes made by the Soviet supreme command. Also, as certain authors write in their memoirs, for a while Stalin considered the possibility of surrendering the city to the Germans due to “strategic considerations” but the idea was quickly discarded.)

However, this is not the whole truth. It is also true that Andrei Zhdanov, the formal head of the Leningrad city party organization, turned out to be a coward who feared Stalin’s wrath more than inglorious defeat, and who staged orgies and threw parties in a city gripped by a horrible famine. (These traits are characteristic of functionaries representing a totalitarian system.) It is also true that Aleksei Kuznetsov, one of the real commanders of the Leningrad defense campaign and the second secretary of the city party committee, a colorful and gifted personality, sent his family to Chelyabinsk in the fall of 1941, but kept his four-year-old son with himself to show the residents that the city would defend itself, rather than surrender. He received memos from a bewildered Stalin that read, “Aleksei, hang on in there. The Fatherland won’t forget you!” In 1949 Kuznetsov was arrested on false charges and died in a Soviet prison camp in 1949. He was tortured, his spine was broken, and then he was shot.

Such is the complex and incredibly multifaceted truth of history. We, Ukrainians, cannot be indifferent toward the history of Leningrad–St. Petersburg. One reason is that Peter I built his imperial capital city literally on the Ukrainians’ bones (Den‘ has repeatedly written on the subject). It will be remembered that in Taras Shevchenko’s poem Son (Dream) tens of thousands of Cossacks that had died in the St. Petersburg swamps send curses the ogre tsar. Another reason is that the first edition of Shevchenko’s Kobzar was published in St. Petersburg. In fact, the topic of Ukrainians playing a role in the imperial culture of St. Petersburg is inexhaustible.

There is yet another, probably the most important, aspect to this problem. It has been proved that the Holodomor of 1932–33 was a deliberate, well-designed crime committed by Stalin and his satraps. Let us compare: there is documentary proof that Hitler, realizing he was unable to seize Leningrad in one sweeping move, decided to destroy it with famine, cutting off all city supply routes (fortunately, he failed to cut off all of them). These two human tragedies, both planned well in advance and executed by two tyrants, are calling to the conscience of humankind: things like this must never happen again, anywhere in the world. The living need these memories of the dead.