On 8 September 1941, German and Finnish troops completed the encirclement of Leningrad, the second largest city in the Soviet Union. All supply channels to the city and its 3 million inhabitants were severed. This was the beginning of the 872-day siege, one of the greatest crimes in modern history. People primarily died of hunger, but also of cold and artillery fire, the death count is estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million. The Germans not only reckoned with the disaster; it was intended and planned. According to Hitler's secret orders No. Ia 1601/41 from 22 September 1941 on "The Future of the city of Petersburg":
1."The Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth. After victory over the Soviet Union there will not be the least reason for the continued existence of this large city. Finland has also announced that it has no interest in the continued existence of this city, which lies on its new borders. (…)
3. It has been suggested that the city be surrounded securely and levelled with continual air raids and artillery of every calibre. If this results in the city's capitulation, should it be rejected?" On 8 November 1941 Hitler explained in a speech that the enemy would be "starved out" in Leningrad. The report registers "thundering applause".Outside Russia, and particularly in Germany, the siege of Leningrad has yet to be anchored firmly in people's minds. Not, it should be said, for lack of trying or information. The siege was an issue at the Nuremberg Trials (although the death count was then assumed to be 600,000), and there are more than enough international books on the subject, also from German researchers, with new material constantly being added to the list. And yet it remains an almost "unknown crime". Why? Could it be that compared with the other huge crimes of National Socialism, it has remained the propagandistic "property" of the Soviet leaders, meaning that in the run-up to the Cold War after 1945 it was all but ignored?
I am not going to try now to open the eyes of the world to the of Leningrad Blockade. What I will write about here is less ambitious and somewhat more promising: the literature of the siege. First, though, I should make it clear that my use of the word "hell" in relation to besieged Leningrad, and particularly the first siege in the winter of 1941-1942, is in no way metaphorical. If hell exists anywhere, then it must literally be that: eternal coldness, darkness, unrecognisable scraps of music and news emerging from loudspeakers, marching for hours on foot with the principle means of transport used under the siege, children's ice-skates. Frozen corpses strewn on the roadside. And at home, the corpses of family members which could not be buried for days on end (of course the rest of the family would try to use up their ration cards).
At the time when food supplies were at their most scarce, between 20 November and 25 December 1941, a worker was allotted 250 grams of bread per day; an office employee, child or family member with no income, 125 grams. Soldiers on the front were allotted 500 grams. Half of the ingredients of this bread were inedible (cellulose, grain bran, chaff). But a story famously tells more than numbers: Vassily Betaki, a Leningrad translator and poet who is now 82 and lives in Paris, describes how, as an 11-year old boy during the first winter siege, he chased and roasted rats. He would sit for days on end next to a rat hole in his flat and wait, hammer in hand. Every day he would kill five or six of them. He got the idea from a Jules Verne novel that he had read so enthusiastically before the war. His mother couldn't bring herself to eat the rats and despite having her son's bread rations, she died before spring. This story disproves the popular legend that all the rats ran out of the city on 10 September 1941 after the bombardment of the Badayev storehouses and only returned at the end of the siege on 27 January 1944. But the folklore of the blockade is a subject in and of itself.
Of course lots of literature was produced in hell! The majority of writers who stayed in the city (many of them were evacuated up country) were mobilised and put to work for military newspapers and radio. This was the only relevant medium to ordinary people under the siege. The radio not only broadcast news, music and speeches by Communist Party leaders, but also poems and reportage. A number of poets who read their poems out loud on the Leningrad radio became astonishingly popular. Take Olga Bergholz (1919-1975) who, as a young poet and loyal communist in the thirties, wreaked significant damage, accusing her colleagues in the press, for example, of being "enemies". Naturally this did not prevent her from being imprisoned herself in 1938. Her husband, the poet Boris Kornilov was executed and during interrogation she lost her unborn child. In 1939 Bergholz was freed by the NKVD and rehabilitated, she joined the party and continued her career. During the siege, she was honoured like a saint for the enormous emotional strength of her poetry, which made her untouchable after the war. She was a heavy drinker and was famous throughout the city for her loose talk. Once she was invited as a guest of honour to the KGB headquarters in Liteinyi Prospect to give a poetry recital. She arrived, already drunk, and before she had even taken off her coat asked: "Come on you lot, show me where you're torturing people these days!"