How culture saved Leningrad during the Siege
27 September, 2017
The blockade was both unique in the scale of suffering and resilience exhibited. We can never imagine what it would have taken to survive 900 days (including 3 Russian winters), on rations lower than those in the Nazi concentration camps of the same period. So how did the jewel of Imperial Russia survive the siege? In a word: Culture.
Firstly, culture was protected.
In the build up to the Nazi attack the preparations undertaken to safeguard the culture of the city were extensive. The most valuable train in human history, packed with half a million items from the Hermitage was sent to the Urals, the Leningraders who packed it not knowing whether it would ever return. Monuments were covered in camouflage canvases to avoid detection from Nazi bombers, each canvas hand-painted by the citizens of the city.
The Bronze Horseman was covered with sand and wooden planks to protect it from artillery fire, dually respecting the myth that ‘as long as it remained in it’s place the city had nothing to fear’. This active engagement to protect cultural works represented a safeguarding of ideology. It is important to remember that Hitler was waging an ‘ideological war’. He wasn’t merely seeking to expand territory but also to exterminate people of a different race; their values and indeed their culture. If Leningrad’s ideology survived, so too would the people.
Secondly, culture was created.
In spite of the circumstances, Leningraders persevered. The most significant example of resolve through culture is often attributed to the performance of Shostakovich’s symphony No. 7, on 9th August 1942, rumoured to have been the day that Hitler had chosen to celebrate the fall of the city. One particular recollection of the performance notes an oboist, who when looking out into the audience could not distinguish the men from the women, such were the damaging effects of life under siege. To this day the performance is revered and has become an emblem of Leningraders’ tenacity and refusal to give in despite the circumstances.
Thirdly, culture remembers.
Often simply having a means to occupy oneself, through the writing of diaries for example, ensured the survival of many Leningraders. Literature was consumed, sometimes literally, as reading, writing and merely fulfilling everyday tasks became an expression of resolve despite the ongoing starvation. Leningraders’ refusal to give up that which was normal was their greatest show of strength. Nowadays these diaries offer us a unique insight into the mind-set of those Leningraders, not just preserving life at the time but now preserving their memory too.
If you’re interested in reading first hand accounts of this defining moment in St Petersburg’s history, I’d thoroughly recommend reading Alexis Peri’s The War Within. It’s a collection of diaries which portrays life with brutal and uncensored accuracy. An aspect which I found most shocking was that you can read of some residents who welcomed the prospect of war as a change from a life categorised by Stalin’s ‘Terror’.
It is no secret that Russians live and breathe their cultural heritage. If you want to understand the Russian psyche you must first read Pushkin… and then Dostoevsky, Gogol and Lermontov for good measure. Yet where the Siege of Leningrad was concerned, it may have been this affection for culture which actually saved the city; safeguarded their values and offered a means for survival.