900 days

mother-russia0001Today marks the breaking of the siege of Leningrad, and President Medvedev choose the moment to announce that Russia would attempt to finally calculate Soviet losses during World War II.  It will be a large number, but it will just be a number.  Such a scale is necessary to witness in some way or another.  This is a story of stumbling upon the sort of thing that words and numbers will always fall short of describing.

It was three days after my arrival.  I had been enjoying the respite of a classically Russian birch forest after my other walks through blocks of Kruschevnikis and industrial wastelands when i popped out onto a sidewalk.  Ahead was the tricolor flying at half mast.  I wondered what might have happened in the three days i’d been cut off from the outside world.  Then i saw two suspiciously clean buildings.  I approached, turning between them.

In the foreground was an eternal flame.  In the background was Mother Russia.  Between the two were regular, rectangular mounds of grass.

One of the books i had read shortly before leaving was The 900 Days (Harrison Salisbury), which details the siege of Leningrad.  The years between 1941 and 1944 consisted of unrelenting brutality, a detached struggle for survival, and a few of the most uplifting things one can imagine.  What food had been in the city heading into the winter of ’41 was mostly destroyed by the shelling of the warehouse.  That winter would also be the coldest in close to a hundred years, spent without heat, running water, or electricity.  At times, food rations dipped to 200 grams of “bread” per day for women and children while workers (men) got twice that.  In many cases the bread was mostly sawdust.  The military found a way to process the linseed oil fuel cakes from ships into something digestible.  Wallpaper paste, leather, grass and bark were all considered food during those years.  There were no pigeons or squirrels or pets.  The stories of cannibalism, denied by the Soviets, are almost certainly true.  Hitler said, “Leningrad must die of starvation,” and he nearly succeeded.

One memorable story tells of a man who saw a body outside his building, but the next day it was gone.  It wasn’t until the spring thaw that he realized the body had just been covered with snow and he had walked on it every day.  People died everywhere, far too fast for the authorities to intern them in the frozen ground.  People died pulling the corpses of a loved ones on a sleds to collection points.  At the collection points the bodies were stacked like cord wood until spring.  Some estimates put the number of those bodies as high as 1.5 million.

Many of these bodies were eventually buried at Piskarevskoe Cemetery, where i found myself that day.  I remember measuring the mounds in my head.  At least three bodies (head to foot) wide; probably fifty bodies (shoulder to shoulder) long; and god only knows how deep but the mounds are about two and a half feet high.  Each one is marked with a single headstone displaying only the year.


The old folks bring an armful of flowers and place one every headstone that might contain a loved one.  I don’t cry often, but that day i wept.  It is one thing to have the whole horrid story in your head.  It is another to find the end result of that story unexpectedly.  But it is something wholly different to then see the survivors there paying their respects and clearly still living the pain of so many years ago.

The Germans never razed the tourist sites.  The Hermitage was basically unscathed, as was Peter I rearing his bronze stead.  The people, however, learned to live in the most inhumane of circumstances.  Yet people did live.  Shostakovitch wrote his 7th symphony for Leningrad, and musicians barely alive from hunger and cold carted their instruments from all over the city to what today is called The Shostakovitch Philharmonic.  The roof of the building had been bombed out, so when the musicians performed the piece for a nationwide radio broadcast the shelling played as accompaniment.

I did not talk about the siege with most of the older Russians i knew.  My morbid curiosity seemed unworthy of their pain.  It happened a few times though, wizened old babushkas who seemed tough as nails after all they’d lived through reduced to tears that physically shook them.  One of my floor ladies spent her childhood, roughly from 8 – 11 living through the siege.  She watched her grandparents, parents and siblings all die the way only cold and hunger can kill.

Today i think of her.  Today i remember not only that first visit to Piskarevskoe but the regular visits i made throughout my time in St. Petersburg.  There was always an old person laying flowers and letting the tears roll down or freeze on her cheeks (sometimes it was his cheeks, but there aren’t many old men in Russia).  There was always solemn music coming from speakers in the trees.  Yet it was always silent.  Profoundly silent.  And somehow, amidst the tangible proof of man’s inhumanity towards man, there was always peace.

The photos are mine, though my best shots are waiting for me to get negatives digitized.


~ by Lex on January 28, 2009.

4 Responses to “900 days”

  1. Lex,

    Great story. It made me think of my late wife who spent the year of 1977 studying at the University of Moscow. At the time, she was a committed communist, and got a free year scholarship courtesy of the the USSR. She loved Russia, but ended up hating Communism after awhile. She always said that her year there was the time of her life. We always intended to go over there as a couple, but her death got into the way. Someday, I’ll make it over for a visit.

    I prefer discussing your excellent posts over here, as your blog is very civilized, unlike some other venues.


  2. That’s ’cause there aren’t many people here…

    Russia has that ability with people. It’s a place that one can really fall in love with (though you generally have to live there rather than visit to fall in love). I’m not sure why, but it happens. I do recommend a trip there if the opportunity arises, particularly old Novgorad.

    And thank you very much for the compliment.

  3. Lex,
    Periodically, I like to look at the slides my wife took in Russia. She managed to go to St.Petersberg, Minsk, Georgia, and a bunch of other places. When she was there, the KGB would follow her around as, 1977 in Russia wasn’t hospitable to Americans. I might go next year when I take my son back to Europe….Last year when we went, he became addicted to the encierro in Pamploma. Although I’m not a kid anymore, I might join him for a little jog. Anyways, Russia is on my agenda in the future……there might also be some good business opportunities in that neck of the woods in the near future. In Russia, everything is always for sale.


  4. I don’t know if everything is still for sale, but it certainly was when i was there (late 90’s). My visualization of free markets is Russia in that era: the good and the bad. Whatever you might want was available on sidewalks and outside metro stations, and every price was fully negotiable. It could be gut-wrenching to see a little old lady standing outside in the bitter cold trying to sell an assortment of goods that she obviously scrounged from her mostly bare kitchen.

    But i loved the gypsy-cab transportation system. Any and every car was a possible ride. I flagged cars all the time, mostly because it was fun to haggle for the price and then who knows what might happen.

    I once committed to getting a friend of a friend to the airport (generally an hour and a half with traffic), and told the driver that i’d pay him X for getting us there in; Y for getting us there in under an hour; and Z for getting us there in less than 45 minutes (with Z being a significant amount of money for the average Russian, the price of a licensed cab to the airport).

    He tried his best. We played chicken with trams, drove in oncoming traffic, and twice were driving on the sidewalk. It was the second most death defying example of vehicular transport i had while i was there. He didn’t make the 45 minute mark; it was just barely over an hour and i paid him the under and hour rate because the sheer insanity was worth the money.

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