The City of Peter ( part 3)

Meanwhile, the “Road of life” had become two- way and it was operating at full speed. In March, for the first time from the siege’s beginning, Leningrad had food reserves. In other words, in March, the city consumed less than  it had in its warehouses.
In the same time, many people were leaving the city and reaching the other bank of the lake. But not always that trip was a trip without unexpected difficulties. Sometimes, something did not work from the beginning; other times, a mechanical breakdown, a bureaucratic misunderstanding, a delay, a snow or wind storm, caused  mix-up and problems in the places of the arrival. People did not know when and where the trains would have left from. Those who arrived in the evening on the free bank of the lake, had to find a shelter to escape the polar cold of the winter months and not always they succeeded. However, even if amidst the mix-up caused by the heavy traffic along the tracks drawn on the lake, more than a half million people were transported in surer places.
Coming from the besieged Leningrad, someone was astonished to see, on the eastern bank of Ladoga, live animals in the fields and in the courtyards of the houses.
Overcoming the winter, that winter, was very hard. Those who succeeded, were in the first lukewarm  suns of the spring, reduced skin and bone, weakened, exhausted. A man had brought a scale in Market Square and he did a roaring trade: every inhabitant of Leningrad wanted to know how much he had grown skinny  during the winter.
Spring brought new problems. The city was dirty: it needed to be cleaned. To avoid epidemics, of course, but also for taking away from the survivors’ sight the corpses along the streets and for taking away from the hospitals, from the abodes, from the canteens, the human excrement.
People stank. During the winter, the most part of population neither had washed itself, if not seldom, nor had washed their clothes. Some laundries and public baths were opened; the military engineers made the mines explode again; clean-squads were formed. In the late April the ice of Ladoga melted down, but the “Road of Life” continued to work. Long rows of barges shuttled between the city and the lake’s eastern bank; the port facilities were enlarged and bettered; food, ammunition, flour, civilians and soldiers were moving from a bank to the other bank of Ladoga, continuously.
Little by little, the city was coming back to the life.  In the Leningrad’s streets there were no “cannibals” anymore, but soldiers on march toward the front; the “Hard Bone” was still withstanding and the Soviet flag had been not  hauled down: the fields, the meadows, the edges of the ditches were sowed with potatoes and cabbages. Accurate descriptions of the wild plants which could contain the C vitamin, the anti-scurvy vitamin, were publicized. On the lips of the young women you could see a shadow of  lipstick. In the streets there were very few corpses; the trams were circulating again. The queues in front of the bakeries, however, was very long and the bombings were daily.
Shortly thereafter, at the beginning of the streets would be appeared the notices: “In case of bombing, this is the most dangerous side.”
When the blockade was lifted, a foreign  journalist asked to writer Vera Ketliskaia and to some friends of her: ” I do not want know what had kept you in life, I want to know how you were able to live.”
Right, how?


In Russian language, “govoriat”(Говорят) means ” to speak”, “to chat”. General Leonid Alexàndrovic Govorov did not honour the etymology of his own surname: he spoke few, chatted less. When, watching below from the plane which was transporting him to Leningrad, he was heard to exclaim: ” Good job, boys!” referring to Leningrad’s defenders, those who were with him were amazed.
Govorov was an artillery officer, hero , in 1941, of the Moscow defence: now he was coming to assume the command of Leningrad Front. Few people knew him, in the city of Peter. Only an officer, Odintzov — at that time colonel, later general — remembered him: Govorov  had been his teacher at the Artillery Academy. He was very capable, Odintzov said. And he confirmed: Govorov did not like to chat. And, strange case, he was not even a member of the Communist Party.
He summoned Leningrad’s officers. General Boris V. Bycewskij, the brave and capable Engineering’s officer, one of the authors of the city’s defence, reported to him a worse outline of the situation: a lot of trenches had been uncovered, a lot of bunkers had been destroyed and those who had to  repair them worked slowly and badly. Govorov looked up to the sky, slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed: ” Shirkers!”
Bycevskij took this exclamation badly. He took, then, the defence of those undernourished workers and concluded with these words: ” Do you know, comrade General, that here people is dying by starvation? Do you know what is the dystrophy?” Govorov looked at him again and, calmly, as if he had not understood, answered: ” You are tense, comrade General. Go for a ride and come back in a half hour: here there are a lot of things to do!”
Bycewskij knew , afterwards,  that ” Shirkers” was a typical Govorov’s stock phrase. Accustomed to address indignantly this word to the young sons of the rich Russian families to whom he had taught in his youth, Govorov had conserved the wont to use, sometimes, that exclamation. Often with more than a reason, but, sometimes, as in this case, also without any reason.

On the other bank of the Neva river, the Soviets held  a bridgehead. It was expensive and useless under a military point of view. But, psychologically, it was not useless and when Govorov decided to dismantle it , someone felt himself betrayed.
Dismantled that bridgehead and brought the soldiers behind the river, another issue remained: that one of the bombings. The script was always the same: the Germans opened fire with their artillery, the Soviets countered. Govorov turned the situation: from now on, we open fire first. On August 9, the General Ferch’s guns would have wanted to open fire towards the Leningrad’s theatre where the Shostakovich’s 7th  symphony was performed: they were hit one after the other, before they could fire a shot.

In April, in Moscow,  a summit  at high level had taken place. On that occasion, General Chozin, commander in chief of the Volkhov and Leningrad’s fronts, had proposed to join the two fronts( i.e. the two Soviet Army Groups) to try to break the iron circle around the city. General Meretzkov, commander of Volkhov’s front, had criticized that plan: in response, he had been removed and sent to command an Army, the XVI. He was recalled in command  soon afterwards, in June, when, because of the absurd decision to join the two fronts, the Second Soviet Assault Army had been encircled by the Germans. Meretzkov had to free it, even  at the cost, as Stalin himself told him, to abandon its equipment and heavy artillery.
Meretzkov did everything in his power. He was able to open a narrow corridor and  to keep it open for some hour. Through that corridor, part of the Second Army was able to escape; then that way of escape was closed definitively by the Germans and Meretzkov was compelled to give up. At a certain moment, the voice of his death spread. Stalin looked for him two days on phone, without finding him. Meretzkov answered on the third day: two cars of his had been destroyed under him by German artillery and he was lucky to be alive.
In short, for the Soviets the things were going wrong under a military point of view. The red flag was still flying over the Hard Bone‘s walls in Schlissenburg, but elsewhere there was no much to be cheerful. The Germans were advancing towards the Volga River and Stalingrad; Sevastopol had fallen; the armoured units of Marshal List were heading towards Caucasus and the Baku’s oil fields; the new Field Marshal von Manstein had left Crimea Peninsula and was advancing towards the city of Peter in order to give it the coup de grace. In short, the cards, the winning cards, seemed  they had come back in Hitler’s hand.

In that spring offensive, Leningrad put at stake its freedom , other ones their credibility. General Vlasov, for instance. Hero of the Moscow’s battle like Govorov, at Leningrad he made a mess, lost the control of the situation,  suffered a heavy defeat at the head of the II Army and, at last, he went over the enemy. A dirty story, never completely clarified, both about political aspects and military aspects, also because of the long silence which the Soviet authorities made fall over the whole situation. Vlasov was  blamed  for the Second Army’s defeat. The truth was different: the Germans’ military power was, in those moments, at the highest level and the Soviets had no sufficient forces to face it.
Govorov neither looked for any excuses nor blamed anyone. He studied the situation, learned from the mistakes and began to draw plans, to formulate hypothesis, to gather information. Soon, he was sure, the moment to put them in practice would come. For the time, he stored them part in his mind, part into the strong-box of his office.

The lightning of the spark.

Meanwhile the winter, the second winter of the siege, was coming. This time the city knew how facing it. Many inhabitants had been evacuated and, thanks to the Alexeij Kosighin’s ( future URSS’ prime minister) good job,  the traffic through the Ladoga Lake did not stop. In comparison with the terrible previous winter, in Leningrad there was few population: two inhabitants in  three were dead or had been evacuated.
Food supplies arrived regularly and the daily rations were increased to 400-500 grams of bread pro person. Finding meat, peas, or dry beans , however, was difficult. A huge oil pipeline had been placed under Ladoga’s waters. Through this pipeline ,the oil which was necessary to make work the tanks  and the electric centrals was arriving in the city. Another submarine rope placed on the bottom of the lake linked Leningrad with the electric central of Volchov. In Market   Square the “cannibals” were completely disappeared and, generally, things were working better. All the survivors of the terrible winter 1941 were decorated. But the question was always the same: when will the blockade be listed?

At the Soviet General Headquarter, located in the Smolnji Institute,  the 25th  anniversary of the October Revolution was being celebrated. The chandeliers were  on and the news was good: Rommel had been stopped in Africa, Paulus was making no progress at Stalingrad. In the midst of the celebrations, General Govorov was called on the phone. It was Stalin. ” Put in action the exercise n. 5″ was his laconic communication. Govorov knew its meaning:  this time the Russians would have attacked.
After that phone call, Govorov worked night and day. He developed the ideas born after the failure of the Spring offensive, analyzed maps and graphics, consulted his staff and sent to Moscow, on November 17th , a draft of his plan, to which another more  detailed version followed on November 22nd . Iskra, “the spark” was about to set off.
The artillery fire made understand to the inhabitants of Leningrad that something was in the air. To them, the soviet guns seemed to shoot at random and without any reason. But there was a reason: that fire’s scattering had to confuse the Germans and had to avoid that they would individuate exactly the attacking point chosen by Govorov . Inside the city, moreover, there were few movements of troops and never along the same roads.
One day someone saw, by chance, an armoured tank, a T34 tank, trying to cross the iced Neva. That tank had sunk into the chilly water and the driver had been fished up in extremis. More than the awarded medal , the young tank-driver had appreciated the little glass of vodka offered to him after the fishing up. For whom  had  that performance been performed ? And, above all, why?
Because the armoured tanks, non only the T34s, but also the sixty tons KVs would have to cross in safety the Neva River, that’s why. Govorov did not want to make blunders. He could not. Marshal Voroscilov , sent from Moscow to Leningrad as “observer”, had not appreciated that attempt and had blamed, in pure Stalinian style, the author, General Bicevskji.  However, Govorov, more practical, neglecting the Voroscilov’s outburst of rage, had told Bicevskji to continue his job.
Stalin had set the offensive’s beginning on December 8th ; Govorov asked and obtained a postponement to January 12th , when the Neva’s ice would be solid enough for supporting the armoured tanks, also the gigantic KV. And on January 12th 1943, around nine a.m. , the spark became a lightning. Followed by a big thunder.
After a heavy artillery fire, the Soviets of the Leningrad Front crossed, in two stages, the icy Neva  between Nevskaja Dubrovka and Schlisselburg and began to make pressure on the Germans. In the same time, from Volkhov, always preceded by guns and Kathusas fire, General Meretzkov moved from Sinjavino sector towards west to close the pincer. German General Linderman had told his soldiers: be ready to fight a heavy struggle; the Soviets will never abandon Leningrad. For them, Leningrad is like Moscow or Stalingrad. He had not been wrong.
Day after day, the distance between the two Soviet Fronts was decreasing; day after day, despite the orders of the von Leeb’s substitute, von Kueckler, in order to avoid yielding ground, the contrary was happening. On January 18th, after having repulsed the nth German counterattack, the new Marshal Govorov’s  and Maretzkov’s troops joined at around eight kilometres south-east of Schlissenburg. At 11 p.m. , with a solemn voice, the radio Moscow’s announcer read the official release: ” The troops of Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts are joined, breaking the Lenigrad’s blockade”.

Convoy n. 719, engine driver Fedorov“.

Now the red flag was fluttering everywhere, not only on the “Hard Bone” where it had fluttered for more than five hundred days of blockade. Along the streets of Leningrad the red flags were blooming; the young girls kissed and embraced the soldiers; the first supply train, the convoy n. 719 driven by the engine driver Fedorov, passed through the narrow corridor opened by the Soviet Armies, had arrived to Leningrad. The city was not isolated any more.
Were there any reason to celebrate? Thousands, but the hills of Sinjavino were still in German hands and , from there and from the surrounding areas, the German guns controlled that corridor–soon renamed ” Death Corridor”– and shot against the trains, the rails, the strongholds. The siege had been lifted, but the situation was still very difficult. If the Soviets had been not very alert, if the Germans would have launched a powerful offensive, perhaps that corridor would be closed. And the Soviets would have been compelled to begin once more.
It did not happen. The Soviets did not let their guard down and , though during a sole month the rails were tore off more than thirty times a day every day, the trains continued to pass through. The Germans, then, picked up the city. Leningrad was submitted to very violent artillery bombardment. The poet Vera Imber lost partly her hearing and she was assailed by the terror to go out in the open spaces; at the beginning of the streets,  white and blue writings appeared: “During artillery bombardment this side of the street is especially dangerous.”
The food rations were further increased. The first American aids arrived: sugar and butter. The inhabitants of Leningrad were glad , even if – they pointed out- the Russian sugar was  sweeter and the butter tastier. A lot of people wished to have a kitten and not for eating it, this time. There were a lot of them for sale on the stands of the market: every kitten cost five hundred roubles. On the stairs of Saint Nicholas cathedral the pigeons had returned; the sledges did not carry corpses anymore, but firewood. A soccer championship was played, too: Dynamo team won it hands down.
The bombs were always dropping, but the climate had changed. Now people were looking forward. They were thinking how to rebuild the city, what  to build, what to restore or to leave how it was, in order to remember for ever what had happened in Leningrad. The architects got to work. The poets also got to work. And the writers. Many authors wrote poems, romances, stories about the Leningrad’s siege. A lot of them were never printed: the censorship did not allow it. The normality was about to come back in Leningrad, ma with the normality also the censorship was coming back. Stronger than ever.
Also the people’s behaviour changed. The artists’ behaviour , surely. Vera Imber, now, was not sparing critics to her colleague Olga Bergholtz, author, in her opinion, of old and ugly poems. Many people began to consider the Germans a nuisance more than a threat. “It is time they go away”, was the thought of the most part of the Leningrad’s population.
The city of Peter wanted to come back to live.

Flares in the sky over Leningrad.

To expel the Germans, the Soviets had prepared two offensives. The first- called Neva one– would have sprung into action in the case ( improbable) that the Germans would leave Leningrad or would withdraw. The latter, more probable and for this reason more developed by Govorov and his Staff, had been called Neva two and it consisted of a pincer attack along three directions: Oranienburg, the Pulkovo heights, Nòvgorod.
Nothing was left to the chance. The Baltic Fleet, steaming by night, carried to Oranienburg thousands of men, tens of cannons, hundreds of horses and about a sixty of armoured tanks; the artillery was strengthened by the deadly rockets launcher Katusha; the air cover was granted; the partisans increased their missions beyond the enemy lines; many German bunkers were razed to the ground by the Soviet long range guns; the command of the Soviet Armies was committed to experienced generals. But everyone was tense: many things depended from the outcome of that offensive.
The soviet attack started on January 14th, the eight hundred and sixty seventh(867th)  day from the falling of Mga and from the siege’s beginning. On the terrain there was a thick mist. The only to be glad of it were the Bicewkij’s engineers, busy to open corridors through the mined fields.
Preceded by a heavy artillery fire, the soviet divisions advanced along the three planned directions, running into a fierce resistance, but making significant progress. Then, on January 16th, there was a short period of thaw and the snow turned into rain. The operations slowed down. They restarted some day after, on 19th, when it froze  again.
In Leningrad people were on tenterhooks. From the front was arriving vague, imprecise, news. Then, on January 27th , at eight p.m., thousands of white, red and blue flares blew up in the sky over Leningrad. Those multicolour flares shot by hundreds of cannons had only a meaning: pursued by the Red Army, the Germans were leaving Leningrad. Mindful of the Puskin’s exhortation, the city of Peter had withstood: now it was finally free.


After the war, Leningrad returned to be, for a short time, what it was before: rich in initiatives and fervent of life. A museum of the siege—a kind of Memorial– was opened. Its more significant  object was a small scale on the arms of which had been put some very small weights and 125 grams of bread ; ambitious projects about the building of the city were prepared. Many intellectuals of Leningrad had a dream: by starting from the city of Peter a new humanism could have spread through  the whole Europe.
But things went in other way. The city of Peter found itself, overnight, involved in a complicate political affair. Zdanov, recalled in Moscow in April 1944, was the object of this affaire. Passed the first, terrible moments of the siege, during which his position inside the Party  had become weaker, Zdanov had climbed back again to the top.
He did not stay at the top for a long time. He died in 1948, perhaps poisoned, perhaps because of a hearth attack and Leningrad fell, as well as during the Kirov’s times, into a period of terror. The arrests, the destitutions, the summary executions and the deportations became the rule. The most slanderous accuses were invented : betrayal, connivance with the invaders,  defection from USSR.  Many people paid and nobody knew ever the reason why. In Moscow a sordid struggle for the power was being fought. In this struggle, the chief of the secret police, Beria, and the rising star of the CP of USSR, Malenkov had an important role: Leningrad was the pivot of this struggle. Or a pretext, if we want.
The famous poet Anna Achmatova and other intellectuals  were banished; the museum of the nine hundred days was closed and its director, a Major of the Red Army, was sent in Siberia; the censorship threatened with ferocity novels, tales and poems written about those appalling days; even the warnings to walk on the opposite side of the street in case of bombardment were erased from the Leningrad’s streets. They were revived in 1957.
At Leningrad, during the siege, more than a million and half people died. Ten times more than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet authorities spoke for  a long time of six hundred thousand casualties. Why? This is a  possible explication: Stalin feared a fall of his own popularity and, in particular, he feared to be morally compelled to explain to the Country his mistakes which had caused so many casualties.  This is, perhaps,  the reason why he was for a long time silent. But was the silence  sufficient to hide the truth?

Today Leningrad has taken again its ancient name of Saint Petersburg. Every year, on May 9, in the whole Russia , the anniversary of the surrender of the Germans is celebrated. Every year, on May 9, the Saint Petersburg’s name is again Leningrad. During a day, during a sole day, it is again the city of cold and starvation, of bravery and heroism, of desperation and valour.
So that  no one be forgotten, nothing be forgotten.


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