This is the Petersburg (we World Travelers have learned NOT to say “Saint Petersburg”) monument to the heroes of the World War II siege of Leningrad. For nine hundred days, the city was surrounded by Nazis. Many were evacuated before then, but those who remained lived in cold, fear, and near, sometimes overpowering, starvation. What they suffered was unimaginable.
The 872 days of the siege caused unparalleled famine in the Leningrad region through disruption of utilities, water, energy and food supplies. This resulted in the deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians and the evacuation of 1,400,000 more, mainly women and children, many of whom died during evacuation due to starvation and bombardment. (Wikipedia)
It is this story that the monument is designed to honor. Unlike so much Soviet art, the statues are human and lean – no giant muscles and super-strong Soviet Realism here. The glory went to the suffering instead. The museum itself is underground, below the wall where these statue stand,.
It holds with panel after panel of the names of those who died, somewhat reminiscent of Yad Vashem. There are relics of very human moments and a film that’s almost too hard to watch.
Even so, the day we were there, like every other weekday, groups of school kids, many quite young, came with their teachers to hear the story. Russians are very proud of the courage and strength demonstrated in those days, and determined to pass the story on.
We in the West have always been so preoccupied with the European Front, with the dramas of Normandy and the Resistance, that the other two fronts, in Russia and the Pacific, have gotten far less attention.
Besides, the Iron Curtain that surrounded Russia for so long made outside praise for or even commemoration of the Russian sacrifices less likely. It’s impossible to come here, though, and not be stunned by the reality of what happened.
The drama of the memorial is intense, but there are small memories too.
We visited one of the pillbox defense structures that held the final line around the city. It is being refitted to be an exhibit and hadn’t been open in a very long time. We were fortunate enough to be there when the workmen were cleaning out old trash and dirt, and able to go inside.
It eerie to imagine people, desperate with hunger, waiting in there in shifts to prevent the conquest of the city.
That’s just part of what was a remarkable day that ended in the Hermitage. Gorgeous and thrilling, but a little like too much gooey candy all in one place. It was tough to absorb, especially after the grim realities of the siege.
The beauties of Catherine’s Palace and the Synagogue and museums and churches and cathedrals will appear soon. For now, this sober and very moving set of memories will stand alone.