Vera Inber – Leningrad Siege

Born 10 July 1890, Vera Inber was a Soviet poet and writer whose greatest legacy, Leningrad Diary, described daily the sufferings and deprivations suffered by the city during the 900-day siege of 1941 – 1944.

Vera Inber’s father, owner of a publishing house, was an older cousin to the future Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. As a nine-year-old, Trotsky lived in the Inber’s Odessa household at the time Vera was still a baby.

Inber worked as a journalist and lived in Paris and Switzerland before returning to the Soviet Union, first to Odessa and eventually settling in Moscow.

In 1941, with the outbreak of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, Inber joined the Communist Party. Together with her husband, Inber lived in Leningrad and recorded what she witnessed in a diary, published in 1946. In it, she wrote of the daily suffering of herself and people she saw around her. She described the hunger, the cold, and the struggle to survive. Inber, herself, came close to dying from starvation.

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Georgy Zhukov – a summary

Georgy Zhukov achieved fame as perhaps the most successful Soviet military commander of the Second World War. In the post-war Victory Parade in Moscow’s Red Square, Zhukov stole the show, inspecting the troops mounted on a white stallion. Adored by the public and respected by international opinion, Zhukov’s position was always going to be vulnerable given Stalin’s innate jealousy. Sure enough, in 1946, Zhukov, heavily criticised for being ‘politically unreliable’, was dismissed and dispatched to a position of diminished responsibility in Odessa. On arrival, he suffered a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of his ordeal.

Known for his uncompromising discipline, Georgy Zhukov placed strategic objective far above the safety of the men he put into battle. Yet, despite his toughness, he could be rendered a wreck by a single harsh word from Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. During the early days of the war, he was once reduced to tears by an angry Stalin and had to take the handkerchief offered by Vyacheslav Molotov.

Zhukov first saw action during the First World War, where, renowned for his bravery, he was twice decorated. He then fought with the Red Army against the Whites during the Russian Civil War of 1917-23 and quickly rose through the ranks. He survived Stalin’s great 1930s purge of the military to command an army during the Soviet-Japanese Border Wars of 1938-39.

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Karl Eliasberg – a summary

In August 1942, Karl Eliasberg conducted a symphony, Shostakovich’s Seventh, in what must rate as the most gruelling concert ever given – for it took place in the city of Leningrad, a city surrounded by Germans and in the midst of a devastating siege which was to last almost 900 days.

Throughout his life, Karl Eliasberg had to be content with second place. From 1937 to 1950 he was the musical director and conductor for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra (LRO), the city’s second orchestra behind the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, one of the top conductors of the Soviet era. Mravinsky, considered by Dmitry Shostakovich as his favourite conductor, staged the première of the composer’s fifth symphony. At the start of the Leningrad Siege, Mravinsky and the LPO were evacuated to Siberia where they were to play over 500 concerts and 200 radio broadcasts. Eliasberg and the LRO however were left in the city playing only the occasional concert until the performances ceased altogether.

The Leningrad Symphony

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Andrei Zhdanov

Born 26 February 1896, Andrei Zhdanov was typical of Joseph Stalin’s inner circle – mendacious, ruthless, indifferent to the fortunes of the ordinary citizen, but, answerable only to Stalin, utterly fearful lest he should ever fall out of favour. For this, in common with all members of the sycophant Politburo, Zhdanov put the interests of Stalin ahead of all else.

The Yugoslav writer, Milovan Djilas, described Zhdanov as ‘rather short, with a brownish clipped moustache, a high forehead, pointed noise and a sickly, red face’.

The ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’

Andrei ZhdanovSpeaking at the inaugural Union of Writers Congress in 1934, Zhdanov emphasised the need for Soviet writing to adhere to the strict guidelines of socialist realism, a form of realist art that depicted Stalin’s Soviet Union in a positive, utopian manner. From this, and under Stalin’s guidance, Zhdanov formulated a policy for the straitjacketing of the arts within the Soviet Union. The ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’ dictated that all forms of cultural expression, from science and philosophy to music and cinema, had to strictly adhere to state control and reject all forms of Western influence or ‘cosmopolitanism’.

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Kliment Voroshilov – Defender of Leningrad

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).

Utterly reliable 

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Battle of Stalingrad – a summary

On 2 February 1943, in what is considered the turning point of the Second World War in Europe, the final remnants of the German Sixth Army surrendered at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Stalin’s City

The city, originally called Tsaritsyn, was renamed Stalingrad, Stalin’s city, in April 1925, in recognition of Joseph Stalin‘s leading role in saving the city from the counterrevolutionary ‘Whites’ during the Russian Civil War. (The fact that Leon Trotsky was more instrumental in saving Tsaritsyn was quietly forgotten). Considered important because of its supply of oil, the symbolic significance of Stalingrad, bearing the name of the Soviet leader, soon outweighed its strategic importance.

Not One Step Back’

Friedrich von PaulusThe Germans started their attack on Stalingrad, Operation Blue, on 28 June 1942. Led by the Sixth Army, Germany’s largest wartime army commanded by General Friedrich Paulus (pictured), the Germans were fully expecting a total victory as they pushed the Soviet forces back.

The swift German advance alarmed Stalin so much, he issued his infamous ‘Not One Step Back’ directive of 28 July, ordering execution for the slightest sign of defeatism. Behind the Soviet frontlines roamed a second Soviet line ready to shoot any retreating ‘cowards’ or ‘traitors of the Motherland’. As Georgy Zhukov, one of Stalin’s top generals, said, ‘In the Red Army it takes a very brave man to be a coward’.

By 23 August, the German advance had reached the outskirts of Stalingrad and, with 600 planes, unleashed a devastating aerial bombardment. Entering the city, the Germans, along with their Axis comrades, comprising of Italians, Romanians and Hungarians, fought the Soviets street for street, house for house, sometimes room for room. This, as the Germans called it, was rat warfare, where a strategic stronghold changed sides so many times, people lost count, where the front lines were so close one could throw back a grenade before it exploded, where snipers took their toll on the enemy, and where a soldier’s life expectancy was three days – if lucky.

Stalin charged Zhukov to defend the city and formulate a plan to repulse the invader. (It’s worth noting here the difference between Stalin and Hitler as military leaders. After a series of blunders earlier in the war, Stalin, although he always like to take the credit, learnt to defer and listen to the experts, men like Zhukov. Hitler however always insisted he knew best and only canvassed the opinion of others if they agreed with him.)

StalingradOn 19 November 1942, the Soviet Red Army launched Zhukov’s meticulously-planned counteroffensive, attacking and sweeping in from two separate directions, a pincer movement. Within four days, the two-pronged Soviet attack had met in the middle and had totally encircled the beleaguered German forces. Their objective was achieved so quickly that the Soviet camera crews missed the moment, and battalions of soldiers had to re-enact the essential scenes for the benefit of the cameras.

The Soviets squeezed the 250,000 Germans and their Axis comrades tighter and tighter. As the feared Russian winter set in and temperatures dropped to the minus forties, starvation, frostbite, disease and suicide decimated the Germans. Medical facilities were, at best, crude.

Unshakeable confidence

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Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya – the execution of a teenage heroine

On 29 November 1941, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, aged 18, was executed by the Nazis.

Zoya KosmodemyanskayaThe Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and by late November had surrounded and laid siege to Leningrad and were bearing down on Moscow. The Soviet authorities were recruiting volunteers to break through the German lines and operate as partisan fighters in German-occupied areas. Their task, generally, was to cause as much disruption to the German advance. It was a dangerous assignment but one which 18-year-old Zoya readily volunteered for.

Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was born 13 September 1923 in the district of Tambov, about 300 miles southeast of Moscow. She was well-cultured and devoured the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin and loved the music of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, and was a member of the Soviet youth komsomol organisation. (Pictured below is Zoya’s komsomol membership card).


Having been accepted as a partisan, despite her tender age, Zoya was given the name ‘Tanya’. Handed a revolver and trained how to use it, she was assigned to a small group of partisans and given instructions. Their first task was to lay mines on the Volokolamsk highway, just behind German lines, about 80 miles west of Moscow. Excited and nervous, Zoya declared, ‘If we fall, let’s fall like heroes’. Another task involved laying spikes in the road but the more dangerous jobs were reserved for the young men. Zoya pleaded her case, stating, ‘Difficulties ought to be shared equally.’ Her commander, a man who went by the name of Boris, acquiesced.

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Hospital ship Armenia torpedoed by the Nazis

On the 7 November 1941, the Soviet hospital ship, the Armenia, was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazis. It was one of the worse maritime disasters in history. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers perished on a ship designed for not more than a thousand. A comparatively modest 1,514 died on the Titanic (1912) and 1,198 on the Lusitania (1915) yet the sinking of the Armenia on 7 November 1941 is all but lost to history.

Armenia shipSunk in the Black Sea, the exact location of the wreck is still a mystery and for years, the question remained – was a hospital ship, identified by a Red Cross, a legitimate target?

A stricken city

Designed for 980 passengers and crew, over seven times that number had surged onto the ship in the Crimean port of Yalta that fateful night of 7 November 1941. The reason was blind panic. The Nazi war machine, which had invaded the Soviet Union less than five months before, had overrun the Crimean peninsula and was bearing down on Yalta. People expected the city to fall within a matter of hours. The only possible means of escape for its stricken population was by sea – the roads outside the city having been sealed off by the Germans.

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The Leningrad Symphony – a summary

The Leningrad Symphony. Poised with his baton, the conductor pauses a moment. His orchestra, instruments at the ready, watch him. Somewhere in the audience, someone coughs. The conductor waits for absolute silence knowing that this is the biggest occasion of his life. Finally, he brings the baton down with a whoosh and starts the performance.

But this is no ordinary conductor, no ordinary orchestra and no ordinary audience. They were all on the verge of death, suffering from the advanced stages of starvation. To hold, let alone play, an instrument for over an hour took every ounce of their strength. But the music they played that night was proof of their spirit and that ultimately their city would survive.

The city was Leningrad; the music was Dmitry Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad, and on 9 August 1942, it saw its Leningrad premier at the height of the most devastating siege of modern times.

A year earlier, Dmitry Shostakovich (pictured), made a radio announcement in which he said, ‘An hour ago, I completed the score of two movements of my new, large symphonic work.’ This new work was his Seventh Symphony, later to be called the Leningrad.

The siege of Leningrad had just started; it was to last 872 days, or twenty-nine months. Hitler had declared his intention to ‘wipe the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth’. Over a million civilians and soldiers would die – the number of deaths in Leningrad exceeds those who died from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and constitutes the largest death toll ever recorded in a single city.

‘Now I am ready to take up arms’

The city authorities had tried to make Shostakovich leave but, loyal to the city, he stayed, working on his composition and volunteering for the People’s Army, stating, ‘Until now I have known only peaceful work. But now I am ready to take up arms.’ But his good intentions were dashed by the military – rejected because of his poor eyesight. But he was allowed instead to take his turn on fire warden duty. The American magazine, Time featured the composer on its cover, wearing a golden helmet and holding a fireman’s nozzle, with the caption, ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. Eventually, he was ordered to leave. On 1 October, with his wife and children and the manuscript of his score stuffed in his suitcase, he bid farewell to the city of his birth. While he was gone, his dog was eaten.

Evacuated to the town of Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), 900 miles south-east of Leningrad, Shostakovich worked feverishly on the symphony while producing short works to entertain the troops on the frontline, tunes with catchy titles, such as The Fearless Guards Regiment is on the Move. By the end of the year, the symphony was done. Dedicated to ‘our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory and to my native city of Leningrad’, it received its world première, broadcast to the nation, in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942, followed by a performance in Moscow three weeks later.

A microfilm of the score was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and flown to Teheran and from there to Europe, where conductors fought for the privilege of conducting the work. It was performed first in London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, then in New York on 19 July, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The symphony was an immediate hit and Shostakovich’s face appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world.

The Symphony Comes to Leningrad

Then came the decision to play the Leningrad Symphony in Leningrad itself. It would be, according to Andrey Zhdanov (pictured), Stalin’s man in Leningrad, good for the city’s morale. A Soviet plane, dodging the German guns, delivered the score to Zhdanov. The city’s principle orchestra, the Philharmonic, had already been evacuated out of the city but the reserve orchestra, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, was still available. Its conductor, 42-year-old Karl Eliasberg, was charged with reassembling his musicians. But of its 100 members, only 14 remained. The others had all died or been killed. Replacements had to be found. The call went out urging soldiers who could play an instrument to report for duty.

The score, complex and mammoth, was 75 minutes long and involved a 90-piece orchestra. Given the weakness of the musicians who had gathered for the first rehearsal in March 1942, Eliasberg knew the difficulty of the task that lay ahead. ‘Dear friends,’ he began, ‘we are weak but we must force ourselves to start work.’

And it was hard work – despite extra rations, many, especially the brass players, passed out with the effort of playing their instruments. Eliasberg was tough on his players – those who played badly or, worse, failed to turn up for the three-hour long rehearsals, were docked a bread ration. Through discipline and coaxing, Eliasberg got his skeletal orchestra to perform Shostakovich’s huge work. But only once during rehearsals did the orchestra have enough strength to play the whole work throughout – three days before the big day.

The date for the performance was fixed – 9 August 1942, the date set by the Nazis for a huge party in Leningrad’s Astoria hotel to celebrate their anticipated capture of the city. The invitations had already been printed. They were never sent out.

The Leningrad Première

The Philharmonic Hall was packed – people came in their finest clothes; city leaders and generals took their places. The musicians, despite the warm August temperature, wore coats and mittens – when the body is starving, it is continually cold. Outside, throughout the city, people gathered to listen at loudspeakers. Hours earlier, Leonid Govorov, Leningrad’s military commander since April 1942, ordered a barrage of artillery onto the German lines to ensure their silence for long enough time for the work to be performed without interruption. Loudspeakers, on full volume, pointed in the direction of the Germans – the city wanted the enemy to hear.

‘This performance,’ announced Eliasberg in a pre-recorded introduction, ‘is witness to our spirit, our courage and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!’ And the city listened, as did the Germans nearby. They listened as the city of Leningrad reasserted its moral self.

At the end – silence. Then came the applause, a thunderous applause that lasted over an hour. People cheered and cried. They knew they had witnessed a momentous occasion. It was, as Eliasberg described later, the moment ‘we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.’ Later, Eliasberg and his orchestra were invited to a reception hosted by Zhdanov where, laid out before them, was a huge banquet. They gorged themselves, only to be sick soon afterwards.

Years after the war, Eliasberg met some Germans who had been sitting encamped in their trenches outside the city. On hearing the music, they told the conductor, they had burst into tears, ‘Who are we bombing?’ they asked themselves, ‘We will never be able to take Leningrad because the people here are selfless.’

Rupert ColleyMBtE - NG

Read more about the siege in The Siege of Leningrad: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats only 99p / $1.99, and audio.

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