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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 no time in issuing orders to all commanders of the Leningrad Front: “Make it clear to all troops that all the families of those who surrender to the enemy will be shot.”

This went even further than any of Stalin’s decrees. Ironically, Stalin himself was liable to execution under this order, since his son Yakov Djugashvili was captured by the Germans. Stalin was not unduly worried by Zhukov’s decree. He approved of his pitilessness. When Moscow was threatened in November, Stalin was severely tempted to strip Leningrad of troops in order to save the capital. He had little sympathy for what he saw as a city of the intelligentsia who despised Muscovites and were suspiciously fond of Western Europe.

“The Time of Death” and “The Season of Death” were the names given to the worst period of the siege, from the winter of 1941 until the late spring of 1942. Soldiers in the Red Army received rations. Civilians, unless privileged in some way, were left to starve on a diet that could not sustain life. As with the Ukraine famine of 1932–1933, information about starvation was ruthlessly repressed for decades. It was not until the era of glasnost in the mid-1980s that the Ukraine famine and the starvation in Leningrad emerged from their smothering in propaganda.

Siege literature published in the Soviet era was distorted at least as much by self-censorship as by official prohibition. Some survivors, as many Red Army veterans did, revised their own experiences through the filter of what they read in official histories. A number avoided taboo subjects, such as cannibalism, for political reasons. Others could not face repeating the details of the city’s degradation. Even though the Party had initially encouraged the keeping of diaries, censorship was needed later to conceal the extent to which individual experiences contradicted its collective narrative of daily heroism. This took the form of very selective quotation and skirting around the central subject of starvation. Publishers and even “authors themselves,” Sergey Yarov explains in his introduction to Leningrad 1941–1942, “watered down the diaries and letters to try to make them conform to the official Soviet trope of ordeals engendering heroism, which was rewarded by victory.” The writer Lydia Ginzburg, he adds, was criticized by censors “for dwelling unduly on the issue of food.”


Hunger became an unmentionable subject. Between 1.6 and 2 million Soviet citizens died during the German blockade of Leningrad. These included around 800,000 civilians, approximately 40 percent of the pre-war population, almost the same number as the military losses. Some were killed by German bombs and shells; a large number died from disease, and most from starvation, yet these categories cannot be separated statistically. In The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad, Alexis Peri points out that the death toll was roughly equivalent to “the total number of American military who died in all wars between 1776 and 1975.”

Peri, in her fascinating and perceptive book, concentrates on 125 diaries kept by Leningraders throughout the blockade. As many of the diarists themselves recognized, their war was physically, symbolically, and psychologically an internal one. Starvation meant that their own bodies were desperately feeding off themselves, first the fat, then the muscle, and finally the internal organs. Their struggle to survive was not against the German enemy but against an unforgiving bureaucracy, thieving strangers and neighbors, and sometimes even family members unable to control themselves. The sense of isolation came from the geography of the besieged city, known as the “ring,” the “circle,” or the “island” because it was cut off from the “mainland” of the Soviet Union.

People wrote these diaries for many reasons. Some hoped to preserve their humanity and sanity in the face of moral annihilation and to make sense of the suffering and death around them. A number minutely recorded every resentment and slight as their relationships broke down. For some there was a need to testify. A diary also helped them escape the feeling of imprisonment. “To write about the circle is to break the circle,” wrote Ginzburg. Others saw themselves as modern-day Robinson Crusoes, a character admired then because he was seen to be starting a new society, almost as if he were a prototype of the New Soviet Person. One Leningrader even coined the term “Robinsonia.”

Isolation increased with the lack of outside news. Anyone who listened to a foreign radio station, when the electricity was working, risked execution. Cautious citizens did not dare mention the blockade or the siege. The correct phrase was “the battle” or “the defense” of Leningrad. Bulletins from the Soviet Information Bureau and reports in Leningradskaya Pravda revealed little, so rumors ran unchecked. With the darkness of a northern winter, an oppressive silence fell upon this frozen city of the dead. The dearth of information in itself seemed to contribute to the death rate. “Curiosity about tomorrow,” wrote Irina Zelenskaia, “is one of the stimuli sustaining me to live.”

The terrible effects of starvation destroyed identity. People could not be recognized by close relatives or, if they had not faced a mirror for some time, even by themselves. “I look like all those other devils,” wrote Aleksandra Borovikova, “I have become just bones and wrinkled skin.” A number of diarists noticed how a physical similarity developed between the sexes as breasts shriveled, arms wasted, and faces wrinkled. Men and women bundled themselves up against the cold in the same sort of clothes, with men sometimes wearing women’s fur coats and women wearing men’s trousers. Even so, men died more rapidly than women because their bodies stored less fat.

In a bizarre side effect, dystrophy made boys and girls begin to grow facial hair. The seventeen-year-old Elena Mukhina described herself as looking like an “old man.” This prompted a number of diarists to wonder who they really were. In the History Museum of St. Petersburg there is a sequence of identity card photographs of a young woman called Nina Petrova, who appears to age fifty years in just over sixteen months.

Medical interest in the process of starvation in Leningrad was intense, yet Soviet doctors do not appear to have discovered what the Germans found when the German Sixth Army was encircled at Stalingrad. On December 17, 1942, the army pathologist Dr. Hans Girgensohn was flown into the Kessel, or “cauldron,” as the Germans called it, to discover why unwounded soldiers were dying so rapidly. He carried out more than fifty autopsies and many interviews. Death from starvation, he observed, was undramatic. His study of the phenomenon of accelerated starvation showed that the combination of intense cold, stress, and exhaustion so upset the metabolism that the bodies of the victims had been able to absorb only half the calories and vitamins they had consumed. He pointed out that even though these soldiers received some food every day, they were still dying far more quickly than hunger-strikers in prison who took only water.


Almost all the diarists described how hard it was to stop themselves from thinking about food the entire time. The obsession became dangerous and disorienting. The medical student Zinaida Sedel’nikova wrote of “a stomach war.” “I never thought that a hungry stomach could dictate behavior so powerfully,” she wrote. People developed a more acute sense of smell and taste, a great disadvantage amid the squalor and the degraded food, with bread bulked out with sawdust. Their reflexes slowed, and muscle control was reduced due to Vitamin B deficiency. Their eyesight deteriorated and their legs weakened as they swelled, so it became increasingly hard to stand for endless hours in food lines or tow a child’s sled with the corpse of a family member to the cemetery or morgue.

Those privileged to receive a Category I ration card or enjoy access to a Communist Party canteen were far less likely to suffer. Only 15 percent of Party members died, as opposed to nearly 40 percent of the general population, and none of the nomenklatura died from starvation. At the other end of the scale, teenagers, who received the lowest official ration as “dependents,” were especially vulnerable. A Category III ration card was known as a smertnik, or death certificate. Children, on the other hand, were given priority with a butter ration. Malnutrition, and the stress within families over dividing up the food, could produce paranoia. Every crumb counted. Resentments mounted and could destroy marriages. Death was a relief to the sufferer and all too often to the rest of the family, which then had one less mouth to feed. Grief and guilt would come only once the famine was over and former emotions were restored.

The instinct of mothers to give part of their own share of food to their children had to be balanced against the fact that they were usually the ration collector, and if they fainted from hunger in the street, the rest of the family might die. Roles, however, were sometimes reversed, with quite young children trying to care for parents who had collapsed. Whole families as well as individuals died unnoticed in frozen apartments. One woman who searched for surviving children in apparently abandoned dwellings was shocked at their indifference. “A person would be lying in bed beside a dead family member, in a state of complete torpor,” she wrote.

Inevitably, there is a certain overlap in source material and information between Peri’s and Yarov’s books. But the late Professor Yarov, a native of Leningrad, develops a rather different approach to great effect, using wider sources. “This is a book,” he writes, “about the price that had to be paid in order to remain human in a time of inhumanity.” He takes up that fundamental question: Are our ideas of civilization and natural justice merely a thin veneer when put to the extreme test of starvation?

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Dmitry Shostakovich during the siege of Leningrad, 1941

Even within the family, the temptation to steal food could be overwhelming. The ration collectors might eat part of it on the way home and then claim that they had been short-changed at the store, or attacked and robbed. People would keep corpses in an apartment to take advantage of the deceased person’s ration card. Another uncomfortable truth was that those who played entirely by the rules were unlikely to live. One way to survive was to obtain work in the food distribution network or in catering. In orphanages the staff stole from the children. Workers in canteens never seemed to lose much weight, prompting their customers to count how many pieces of macaroni they could find in a bowl of watery soup. But it was dangerous for individuals to raise accusations against people with such power. The only time common outrage provoked collective action was against people who jumped a line outside a bakery.

Among the most despicable were those who stole ration cards, thus condemning the rightful owner to death, or those who snatched food from the hands of the old or infirm as they emerged from the store. Nobody went to the aid of these victims for fear of losing one’s place in line. There were cases of people setting off air raid sirens to reduce the number of people waiting ahead of them, or spreading rumors of unlimited food available at another store. People would step over anyone who collapsed in line, while those who fainted from hunger in the street were liable to have their ration card stolen.

Officials managing the evacuation from the city across Lake Ladoga used their position to extract bribes from people wanting to leave. In times of hunger, the possession of food has always been both an important currency and a form of exploitable power. Among the shuffling skeletons of Leningrad, Peri writes, conspicuously young women who had not suffered deprivation stood out. These included the “cafeteria girls” and the sarcastically named blokadnaia zhena, or “blockade wife.” This would be the mistress of some official or senior manager in the supply system who could provide her all the food needed to keep her attractive. She was the equivalent of the “campaign wife” in the Red Army, known as a PPZh (short for pokhodno-polevaya zhena, because it sounded like PPSh, the army’s standard submachinegun), who was usually an attractive young nurse or signaler appropriated by a senior officer against her will. One “blockade wife” who unwisely exposed her healthy flesh in a bania, or public bath, among the skeletal bodies was teased by a bony woman: “Hey, beauty—don’t come here, we might eat you!” She screamed and ran.

There was a sharp class divide between the few who maintained normal weight and the famished masses who suffered from swollen legs, infestations of lice, and purple blotches from scurvy. “Anyone who does not look starved is a scoundrel,” wrote Izrail Metter.

The true extent of cannibalism during the siege is very hard to assess, largely because lurid urban myths spread about neighbors murdering children to eat them. Some 1,700 people were arrested for the crime, but there is a marked moral difference between eating the carcass of a person who has already died and killing someone for his flesh. The authorities, however, firmly suppressed any mention of either crime since both clearly undermined the Party line that the resistance had been heroic.

Any idea of self-improvement toward the New Soviet Person was grotesque in the circumstances of Leningrad. Peri brings out this contradiction well. From 1937 on the individual was responsible for his own condition. Leningraders were supposedly New Soviet People “born in the fire of war,” according to the journalist Nikolai Tikhonov. But the notion of physical perfectibility was taken to a grotesque conclusion after the war when limbless veterans of the Red Army, known as “samovars,” were exiled from major cities and dumped out of sight by a shockingly ungrateful government.

Sergey Yarov is rightly fascinated by the minutiae of morality. In such conditions, a sense of right and wrong became much more acute. Already famished people who broke off part of their bread ration and gave it to a stranger in a worse state would be remembered warmly for their sacrifice. Those on a Category I ration who hoarded food for an emergency when those around them were dying would be seen as unforgivably selfish. This clearly became an insane obsession: a number of people starved to death because they didn’t dare touch their miserly reserves. The worst crime in the eyes of almost everyone was to steal food from children.

Yarov develops his examples under such headings as “The concept of honesty,” “Charity,” “Attitudes to theft,” and “The shifting boundaries of ethics.” He looks at moral choices, moral imperatives, and moral blindness. Certain ethical dilemmas arose frequently. Was it, for instance, worth wasting food on somebody who was going to die anyway? Yarov is particularly good on how standards shifted. “A part was played also by the ‘collective’ nature of the ordeal people were experiencing,” he writes. “It was difficult to be the first to decide to behave immorally, but once that was being done by other citizens, immoral acts did not seem so terrible.”

Several diarists were struck that, amid the grandeur of former St. Petersburg, they had been thrown back to a primitive state. “We are like cave dwellers waiting to see the sun,” wrote Dima Afanas’ev, a sixth-grader. In her new book, Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster, Polina Barskova uses source material similar to Peri’s and Yarov’s, but her purpose is to “assess how people subjected to catastrophic events relate to their cultural and physical environment.” Barskova has also edited Written in the Dark, a collection of poems by five writers who experienced the siege. One poem by Pavel Zaltsman describes the “canteen girls”:

In heels and pilfered silks,
In the basement kitchens,
Stirring pots and cooking meals,
Stand the most vile creatures.

And these creatures paint their lips
Over cow’s tongue gathered,
As, abundantly, the milk
Fills their breasts, unwithered.

Gennady Gor, a science fiction writer and art historian, astonished those who had known him with the savagery of his siege poems when they were discovered after his death:

I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter
A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at boredom
At how slowly this human was eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was for nothing,
I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.

Amid the horrors and heartlessness, as in all the most appalling episodes of World War II, the stories of self-sacrifice and unpredictable compassion from strangers just manage to save the reader from complete despair at the human race. A Red Army officer took pity on a schoolgirl, G.N. Ignatova. “He took me to the army commanders’ dining room and gave me his meal,” she recounted. “He sat there, crying. Later I was told two of his children were in [German] occupied territory.”