And then war is declared, and everything you once knew or thought you knew is thrown into question. This is the situation that all Leningraders faced on June 22, 1941.
World War Two is a topic in history I have always been drawn to. While the subject has been extensively talked and written about and portrayed in other media, there are some stories of the conflict that receive less interest than others. One of those, I discovered, was the Siege of Leningrad.
Lasting 872 days, the Siege of Leningrad is one of the longest sieges in history and yet has not received as much attention as other events in the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Some films have been made of the event, and there have been some novels set during the conflict, notably The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons, but they are often few and far between. With this knowledge, I decided to write a three-book series set during those dark and chaotic days, told from the Russian and German perspectives. Leningrad: The People’s War is the first book in the series and details the siege’s story from the start of the war to the beginning of winter.
Leningrad had not had an easy history in the twentieth century. If one were alive at the beginning of World War Two, living in Leningrad, and aged thirty or older, they would have witnessed the fall of the Romanov dynasty, three wars, two famines, and two waves of political repression. Therefore, it was not an understatement when the poet Olga Berggolts wrote that “we measured time by the intervals between one suicide and the next.”
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, most were taken completely off-guard, including Soviet High Command. Though England had been sending warnings to Stalin about the possibility of Hitler invading, Stalin had remained confident that war between the two nations would not happen until the following year. This naivety would help seal Leningrad’s fate.
Even as cities and men fell under the crushing boot of the German Army, Soviet authorities did little to save Leningrad’s population, who still clung to the belief that the war would soon turn in their favor. While men were mobilized and sent off to the front, those who remained in Leningrad volunteered for any duty they could fulfill; building trenches, keeping patrol for bombers, boarding up buildings and monuments, and any other work that could be done.
However, as the summer progressed, many Leningraders began to see that their home would be the next target in the German advancement. Unfortunately, Soviet leaders did not or refused to see it. Little was done to evacuate Leningrad’s three million residents, which had gradually risen as refugees flooded the city. Some parents took the initiative at the beginning of the war by sending their children out of Leningrad, but in the chaos of the invasion, the trains were often re-routed or left in the middle of nowhere, leaving them easy targets for German bombers. Most of those who fled Leningrad in these first few weeks rarely reached their destination. Additionally, Soviet officials made leaving Leningrad difficult, labelling the idea as “traitorous.”
On September 8, 1941, Leningrad was surrounded, and the siege officially began. Harrison Salisbury, who wrote the first historical account of the siege in 1969, believes roughly two and a half million people were left in the encircled city, including four hundred thousand children. Cut off from the rest of the country, and with a limited food supply, the winter of 1941-1942 would be one that would scar the city forever.
One of the most moving things I learned when researching Leningrad was the resilience of her people. Despite all the hardships Leningraders had faced and would end up facing both during and after the war, they never gave up, and this determination is what the Leningrad series pays tribute to. Their hope and strength are why the Siege of Leningrad’s story needs to be told.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx