The changing face of St Petersburg Part 12

12. The Second World War and the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1945)

There are so many reasons to visit St Petersburg. Some people come in search of culture, others seek inspiration from its literary associations. For some, it’s the architecture that’s top of their list, while others simply come to experience a different way of life.

One thing that’s certainly not in short supply in St Petersburg is history. The city may only have been founded in 1703, but the last 300 or so years provide a fascinating insight into the changes which have shaped this incredible city.

Here, we look at how Leningrad (as it was then called) fared during the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and the Siege (1941-1945)…

St Petersburg/Leningrad suffered through the Revolution and the Terror that ensued, but the city’s blackest hour came with the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany.

In the early hours of 22 June 1941, Hitler's Germany attacked Stalin's Soviet Union. Less than three months after the invasion, German troops reached the outskirts of the city, in which some 3 million people were trapped. Hitler planned to wipe Leningrad from the face of the earth. But first, the city had to surrender.

On 8 September, the Germans severed the last main road into the city and the most lethal siege in world history began. For 872 days, the Germans encircled the city just miles from its historic centre, shelling its residents, preventing supplies from reaching the starving civilian population, and waiting for them to surrender. Hitler had predicted the city would ‘drop like a leaf’, and menus were printed for the gala victory celebration planned at Leningrad's plush Astoria Hotel. Its citizens had virtually no food, no heat, no supplies, and no escape route, dying in the streets by the thousands, malnourished, exhausted, and frozen. The siege resulted in the worst famine ever in a developed nation - over a million people perished. But Leningrad never surrendered.

Yet amid the hunger and the horror, great works of art were created. During the siege, Dmitry Shostakovich composed the first three movements of his intense Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony. Its most memorable performance took place on 9 August 1942 in besieged Leningrad. As bombs fell nearby, a weakened, starving orchestra played to a packed concert hall. The performance was aired across the city via loudspeakers, some of which were directed toward German lines as an act of resistance.

Olga Bergholz became the voice of the Siege of Leningrad. Amid shelling and starvation, she worked throughout the blockade at the only radio station still in operation, reading poems and providing updates on bombings, fires and news from the front. Most importantly, she gave her fellow Leningraders hope. By refusing to abandon hope, Bergholz stood for resistance to suffering and fear, and she became a symbol of the city's strength and determination. Survivors said her familiar voice served as proof that the city had not surrendered and helped to keep them alive.

The Leningrad Blockade was lifted on 27 January 1944, but the war raged on for over a year. It was only on 7 May 1945 that the German High Command signed the unconditional surrender documents and the war that had claimed the lives of 25 million Soviet citizens was finally over. Because of the heroism of its inhabitants who refused to submit despite atrocious conditions, Leningrad became the first Soviet city to receive the Hero City award in 1945.