The piece is entitled “In the Iron Nights of Leningrad”, a line taken from the powerful poem “Kirov is With Us“, penned in 1941, at the height of the Leningrad blockade, by Soviet poet Nikolai Semyonovich Tikhonov.
На улицах рвы, баррикады,
Окопы у самых ворот.
В железных ночах Ленинграда
За город он тихо идет.
И видит: взлетают ракеты,
Пожаров ночная заря,
Там вражьи таятся пикеты,
Немецких зверей лагеря.
(On the streets are moats, barricades,
Trenches built right up to the gates.
In the iron nights of Leningrad
He quietly stalks through the city.
And he sees: rockets are exploding,
Noctural dawn of bonfires,
There the enemy pickets are lurking,
There are the camps of the German beasts.)
Enemy At the Gates
At the time of its greatest trial, the city of Leningrad was headed by a man named Andrei Zhdanov.
It was July 1941. The German “Northern” army was at the very gates of Leningrad. Forty-two full divisions, including 7 tanks and mechanized divisions. Germans enjoyed massive air support. In all, 1500 tanks, 1070 planes, 725,000 soldiers and officers. A full 30% of the entire German war machine launched by Hitler onto the Eastern Front, for “Operation Barbarossa”, was dedicated to the seizure of Leningrad, Russia’s Jewel of the North.
By this time, the Soviet resistance had become better organized. But step by step the Soviet army had to fall back. The Germans advanced towards Leningrad on average of 30 kilometers per day. In Berlin the Nazi bigwigs were already celebrating the inevitable victory and printing tickets for a banket, to be held in the “Astoria” Hotel once the city was taken.
Враг к городу рвется со злобой,-
Давай ему дом и уют,
Набей пирогами утробу,
Отдай ему дочку свою.
Оружьем обвешан и страшен,
В награбленных женских мехах,
Он рвется с затоптанных пашен
К огням на твоих очагах.
(With rage in his heart, the enemy surges toward the city.
Give him shelter in your home,
Feed him with meat pies,
Give him your own daughter.
Garlanded with weapons, fearsome,
Wearing furs he stole from women,
He surges from the scorched cornfields
To the welcoming fires in your hearth.)
On The Front Lines
The Russian and Soviet people responded as always: They organized a People’s Resistance. 659,000 residents of Leningrad enlisted in the army. Civilians joined in massive volunteer efforts, for example building trenches and moats to stop the tanks. In the first 10 days of the siege, 10 divisions were formed of the People’s Militia (“narodnoe opolchenie”). The Communist Party headed this effort, employing its wealth of experience in political and social organization of the masses. Without this professional level of organization, the people’s resistance (however massive, however popular) would have been futile.
A major organizing role in this effort was played by Andrei Zhdanov, a local Communist Party political leader, as well as member of the Military Council of the Leningrad Front.
Zhdanov’s political leadership proved to be effective and inspiring to the besieged citizens. Zhdanov didn’t stay inside his office: He was frequently seen in person, on the front lines. He handed out awards and commendations in person, including the medal “For the Defense of Leningrad”.
Besides effective leadership and the heroism of its people, Leningrad was saved by a program of pre-war planning. A huge industrial potential had been built up. After the start of the war, every factory was converted to the needs of the war. The Kirovsky and Izhorsky factories continued to produce tanks, even while under fire and bombardment. Other factories continued to function within just a few kilometers of the front line. They produced mine-launchers, grenades, mines, and even molotov cocktails. During the years of the ensuing blockade the city continued to produce over 200 types of war product, while also manufacturing and repairing over 2000 tanks, 225,000 automatic rifles, and 12,000 mine-launchers.
As the city continued to survive long past the “due-date” set by Hitler and his generals, the people of Leningrad were forced to endure a long and torturous blockade. Here, as in the first battles, they at least enjoyed effective leadership of the local Communist Party. Leadership and organization – without these, the people would have been toast, in the face of such a determined and ruthless enemy.
What is Effective Leadership?
About Zhdanov it was said, that even in the darkest hours of the attack and ensuing blockade, when all seemed lost, the man continued to sport a vigorous and optimistic attitude. Only his very closest associates were allowed to glimpse his occasional doubts and mental agitation.
Examples of leadership, and bolstering the mood of the people, include the organization of concerts and other social events. People flocked to hear Dmitry Shostakovich’s “Seventh Symphony“, aka the “Leningrad Symphony”. Zhdanov personally helped organize this event, seeking out musicians, many of whom had to take brief leaves from the front lines, in order to come to rehearsals. The concert was conducted by Karl Ilyich Eliasberg, who was later to be awarded the medal of Meritorious Artist of the RSFSR.
The concert helped to lift the spirits of the citizens. It is an example how art and culture, by filling people with dignity and feelings of human worth, can help to overcome even the most insuperable obstacles.
The concert could be heard even over in the German lines. Many years later, one of the German soldiers was to recall: “At that moment, in August of 1942, we understood that we had lost the war. We sensed your strength, which was able to withstand hunger, fear, and even death.”
(Words of an old man inspiring the people in the street):
“Пусть наши супы водяные,
Пусть хлеб на вес золота стал,
Мы будем стоять, как стальные,
Потом мы успеем устать.
Враг силой не мог нас осилить,
Нас голодом хочет он взять,
Отнять Ленинград у России,
В полон ленинградцев забрать.
Такого вовеки не будет
На невском святом берегу:
Рабочие русские люди
Умрут, не сдадутся врагу.
Мы выкуем фронту обновы,
Мы вражье кольцо разорвем,-
Недаром завод наш суровый
Мы Кировским гордо зовем. ”
(“Even though our soup is watery,
And bread costs its weight in gold,
We shall still stand like steel men,
Later we will be able to sleep.
The enemy was not able to conquer us by force,
So he hopes to win by starving us,
To take Leningrad away from Russia,
And drive all the Leningraders into slavery.
But this will never happen
On the sacred shore of the Neva River!
Russian working people will die
Before they will give in to the enemy.
We will continue to forge weapons for the front,
We will break through the enemy encirclement.
Not for nothing I work in a factory
Named after Kirov!”)
The Road Of Life
But even though the Germans were starting to realize they might have over-reached themselves, there was still much suffering for the people of Leningrad to endure. Months of cold and hunger, as the blockade continued. Months of dwindling bread rations, starvation. An unusually cold winter, with no heat on in most houses. Basic municipal functions such as water and electricity, had come to a halt. The trams no longer ran. The Germans had cut off all the roads and railways, communication lines. Except for the consciousness of the people themselves, the city had reverted to the Stone Age.
Zhdanov lobbied for more assistance from the central authorities. And assistance was forthcoming: the life-saving ice-truck routes over frozen Lake Ladoga. The trucks ran day and night, even when the drivers were subjected to aerial bombings and artillery shellings. “The Road of Life – the Road of Heroes” wrote Soviet writer Alexander Fadeev. A total of 1.6 million tons of product was delivered on this route. This allowed the daily ration of bread to be raised in February 1942: For industrial workers 500 grams per day; for white-collar workers 400; for children 300. In addition to bread, some meat was now available again, by coupon; as well as modest rations of sugar and oil. But in addition to bringing food in, the trucks served another purpose: taking people out of the dying city. Almost half a million people were evacuated on these ice trucks.
[Next: Spring Arrives. To be continued…..]