During the 900-day siege of Leningrad, the man initially charged with the city’s defence was one of Stalin’s old favourites, Kliment Voroshilov, born 4 February 1881. Rupert Colley summarises his efforts.
During the Second World War, the city Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was in the midst of a devastating 900-day blockade that lasted from September 1941 until January 1944. The German army had laid siege to the city, bombarded it and cut off all supplies in its attempt to ‘wipe it off the map’, as Hitler had ordered.
The men in charge of the defence of Leningrad were Andrey Zhdanov and 60-year-old Kliment Voroshilov, one of Stalin’s old favourites. During the Russian Civil War, Voroshilov, working closely with Stalin, had gained a reputation for his fierce defence of Tsaritsyn (renamed Stalingrad in 1925).
But Voroshilov’s military experience was stuck in the 1920s and ill-suited to the demands of the Second World War. His command of Soviet forces in the ‘Winter War’ against Finland (1939-1940) was disastrous. But Stalin realised that under the pressure of a siege, the people of Leningrad would question the regime and his leadership in particular. He needed a man of utter political reliability to instil in Leningrad the right political thinking. And Kliment Voroshilov was that man.
Voroshilov and Zhdanov were loyal supporters of the party and devoted to Stalin but, like everyone else, they feared him. Their fear of Stalin overrode all other considerations and directed strategy and policy. When, in July 1941, a convoy of trains carrying vital foodstuff was heading towards Leningrad, the two men, afraid that accepting the consignment might appear to the boss as defeatist, turned the convoy away, stating that the city lacked ‘sufficient warehouse space’. Their political self-preservation was more important than the welfare of their city.
Will there be an end to these losses?
Voroshilov was certainly brave and liked to rush around the front line brandishing his revolver under heavy German shelling but, despite his many years experience, he was unable to form any strategy that could stop or even reverse the German assault.
But whatever tactical acumen he lacked, Voroshilov made sure that soldiers, whether Red Army or volunteer, never did less than the utmost. Those that buckled under the strain faced execution: ‘If the coward and deserter thinks he will succeed in hiding from the people’s censure and anger,’ read one poster commissioned by Voroshilov, ‘he is mistaken. He will be cursed by his own mother, his name will be spoken with loathing by his own children… A bullet in the head – that is what such a scoundrel will get. For a dog – a dog’s death!’
But Stalin was losing patience with Voroshilov. In late September 1941, following the losses of vital strongholds outside the city, Stalin sent him a telegram demanding answers, ‘Will there be an end to these losses? Can we hope for some kind of improvement at the front?’
Up in smoke
Another lack of foresight on Voroshilov and Zhdanov’s part caused tragic consequences. They had been advised to disperse the city’s main food storage, the Badayev warehouses. Located in the south of the city, the warehouses were made of wood and situated next to one another. They stored virtually all the city’s food reserves. But despite the vulnerability of these old wooden warehouses, neither Voroshilov nor Zhdanov heeded the advice. On 8 September 1941, the Badayev warehouses were bombed with incendiaries. Three thousand tonnes of flour burned, thousands of tons of grain went up in smoke, meat frazzled, butter melted, sugar turned molten and seeped into the cellars. ‘The streets that night ran with melted chocolate,’ said one witness, ‘and the air was rich and sticky with the smell of burning sugar.’ Leningraders were furious that their leaders hadn’t thought to disperse the storage throughout the city. Thick smoke could be seen for miles and with it went the hopes of the city.
Stalin had had enough of Voroshilov’s incompetence. He dispatched one of his ablest generals, Georgi Zhukov, a bull-necked tough commander, to save the situation.
Zhukov’s first task was to hand Voroshilov an envelope. In it, Voroshilov received his instructions to return to Moscow immediately. Humiliated and probably very afraid, he did so. Whilst Hitler sacked his generals, Stalin had them shot.
Back in Moscow, in a showdown meeting, Stalin criticised Voroshilov for his handling of the defence of Leningrad. Uncharacteristically, Voroshilov responded by blaming Stalin for the purge of the Soviet military, and smashing a plate of roasted pig on the table. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, later wrote that he had never seen anyone stand up to Stalin as Voroshilov had. Voroshilov was lucky; accused of ‘serious mistakes made defending Leningrad’, he was dismissed to a post in the rear where he could do no harm, but… he was spared the executioner’s bullet.
Post-war, Voroshilov oversaw Hungary’s transition to a Soviet satellite and was appointed to various figurehead positions. He finally resigned from the Politburo in 1960 with a record eight ‘Order of Lenins’ to his name.
He died on 2 December 1969, aged 88.
Read more about the siege in The Siege of Leningrad: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press, only 99p / $1.60.
See also Stalin: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and The Russian Revolution: History In An Hour available also as downloadable audio.