The Unmentionable Season of Death

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Two women collecting the remains of a dead horse for food, Leningrad, 1941

On June 22, 1941, news of the Nazi invasion prompted disbelief, immediately followed by outrage, across the Soviet Union. About 300,000 citizens from Leningrad joined the armed forces and another 128,000 the militia—the narodnoe opolchenie. These battalions of ill-armed cannon fodder were expected to slow German panzer divisions with little more than their bodies. They had no uniforms, no transport, no medical services. Only half of them had rifles. Soviet losses were appalling. In the “Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operations,” which lasted from July 10 to September 30, 1941, the Red Army and militias suffered 214,078 “irrecoverable losses” out of 517,000 men—a fatality rate of 41 percent.

General Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North had advanced out of East Prussia through the Soviet-occupied Baltic states. Apart from a sudden Soviet counterattack near Lake Ilmen, German progress was slowed only by the terrain of marshes and thick birchwoods. Almost half a million Leningrad civilians were sent out to dig over six hundred miles of earthworks and four hundred miles of anti-tank ditches. None of these precautions saved the city from its first great disaster.

On September 8, the day the Germans took the fortress town of Shlisselburg on the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, thus cutting off the railway line from Leningrad to Moscow, Luftwaffe bombers targeted the food depots in the south of the city. “Columns of thick smoke are rising high,” Vasily Churkin wrote in his diary, horrified by the implications. “It’s the Badaevskiye food depots burning. Fire is devouring the six months’ food supplies for the whole population of Leningrad.” The failure to disperse the stores had been a major error. Rations had to be dramatically reduced right from the start. In addition, little had been done to bring in firewood for the winter. But the greatest mistake was the failure to evacuate more civilians. Fewer than half a million Leningraders had been sent east before the railway line was cut.

More than two and a half million people, including 400,000 children, remained in Leningrad. Hitler decided that he did not want his troops to occupy the city. Instead the Wehrmacht would bombard it and seal it off and let the remaining residents starve and die of disease. Once reduced in population, the city would be demolished and the area handed over to Finland. Hitler wanted to eradicate the cradle of Bolshevism.

Stalin, refusing to believe that the Germans could have broken through so easily, suspected sabotage. He sent General Georgy Zhukov on a plane to Leningrad to take over responsibility for its defense, with instructions to adopt the most ruthless measures. Zhukov claimed that, on going straight to the Smolny Institute, he found the military council in a state of defeatism and drunkenness. Zhukov wasted…

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