The changing face of St Petersburg Part 13

13.Leningrad under Stalin: Post-war recovery and reconstruction (1945-1953)

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 want 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.

The siege of Leningrad left the city in ruins. Thousands of apartments, factories, schools, hospitals, power plants, roads - in fact, the city's entire infrastructure - had been destroyed or damaged during almost three years of air raids, shelling and fires. Over a million civilians had died of starvation, cold and disease, and another million had been evacuated. Just 600 000 people remained to rebuild the ravaged city.

The process of rebuilding included the unenviable task of disposing of the bodies of the blockade's countless victims. Probably about half a million of them were buried in 186 mass graves at the Piskarevsky Memorial Cemetery, which during the war was just an enormous pit into which the bodies had been dumped. As Leningrad poet Sergei Davydov wrote: ‘Here lies half the city’.

Repairs to the Hermitage, which had suffered considerable damage during the bombing attacks, started before the war ended. Many of its rooms contained nothing but empty gilt frames: shortly after the Nazi invasion, museum staff and volunteers had worked around the clock, packing two freight trains with over a million exhibits that were shipped to the town of Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains. Ironically, many of these treasures were safely stored in the Ipatiev House, where in 1918 the last Romanov Tsar and his family had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. In October 1945, these invaluable objects were shipped back to Leningrad, and by 4 November, 69 halls in the Hermitage had been opened to the public.

The Hermitage story embodies the spirit of regeneration that gripped the city itself. Facades were renovated, streets repaved and parks replanted. By 1950, Leningrad had been resurrected. But Stalin felt uneasy. He feared the threat posed by the city's status as the cradle of the Revolution and former imperial capital with its enormous cultural, scientific and economic significance. During the siege, the city leaders, cut off in blockaded Leningrad, had defended the city with great courage … and without any assistance from Moscow.

To remove any potential threat from Leningrad's younger, popular leaders, Stalin endorsed the so-called ‘Leningrad Affair’. In February 1949, the Politburo brought fabricated charges of treason against top Leningrad leaders, accusing them of attempting to establish a rival party organisation. Found guilty, six of the nine defendants were sentenced to death and immediately shot. Subsequent trials followed, in which more than two hundred Leningraders were convicted on trumped-up political charges. By 1952, over two thousand municipal officials had been fired, especially those state and Party officials who played a significant role in defending the city.

The fate of the Museum of the Defence of Leningrad is symbolic. This museum, which had opened on the second anniversary of the lifting of the blockade, was declared ‘distorted’ and ‘anti-Party’. So in August 1949, the museum was closed and its first director, Lev Rakov, convicted of ideological heresy and neglecting the supposedly significant part played during the blockade by Stalin and the Communist Party. Although it had been the city's most popular museum after the Hermitage, it was liquidated in 1953 along with its collection of 32 000 objects, following an unsuccessful attempt to rework the exhibits to better reflect Stalin's greatness.

And so Leningrad's independent power base was crushed, and its official status little better than that of any other provincial town.