Leningrad siege survivors feel future passed them by

January 27, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Fifty years ago today, the valiant people of Leningrad emerged, transformed, from 900 days of darkness and death. They were ordinary people made heroic by their simple refusal to give up.

By Jan. 27, 1944, when the German blockade of Leningrad was lifted, one and a half million people had died from starvation and illness, ravaged by cold, disease and nearly constant bombardment. Two and a half million somehow survived.

There were more Russian deaths in the siege of Leningrad than American deaths in all the wars the United States has ever fought.

The terror was constant. Some people lived only because they turned to cannibalism. Others made broth by boiling leather or ate wallpaper paste. They ate grass and dirt. They were all marked for life, and not surprisingly came to believe that out of such suffering would come a society that would protect them in return.

Today, the future they starved and died and fought for has passed them by. The history they served has proved forgetful if not ungrateful. They are the people left out of the new economy now under creation, the people who, like Nina Pomazkova, feel forgotten.

"Then we had more hope than now," she said. "The whole city worked together. Everyone tried to help each other."

"I was 16 when it began," Nina Pomazkova, now nearly 69, said yesterday. "We organized groups of defenders, and we stood on the rooftops throwing off firebombs as they landed. We worked in the hospitals, we cut wood, we did whatever we could.

"We had no food at all, only 125 grams of bread a day, and it wasn't even real bread. We burned all of our furniture trying to stay warm and near the end we were so weak we could barely carry a pot of water from the river to our houses. By the time I was 17, I looked like 40."

Tears springing to her eyes, Mrs. Pomazkova described watching people die on the streets from starvation. A truck would come along to collect them, piling them up like cords of wood, she said.

This should have been suffering enough for a lifetime. Instead, as these strong people grew old and defenseless and ready to rest, the society they had struggled for collapsed. They have been left impoverished, with little to gain from the talk of market economies and privatization. Their investment in the future, made so many years ago, has gone bankrupt.

She vividly remembers the day the siege was broken.

'Fireworks . . . in our hearts'

"Anyone who could still get on his feet was in the street, crying, kissing, full of happiness. We didn't have any fireworks, but we could feel them exploding in our hearts," she said.

After the war, Mrs. Pomazkova went to a technical college and later worked for the railroad, retiring as head of a building department.

She had saved 2,000 rubles, what she needed for a decent funeral. Her pension would keep her going until then. But inflation followed hard on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today those funeral savings amount to just over one dollar. Her pension of 50,000 rubles a month is just under $32. Now she works as a cleaning woman to survive.

"Now my hands are aching," she said, rubbing worn, swollen fingers together. "I never thought I would have to do this for a piece of bread."

Her husband, Anatoly, stood at her side, looking gray. His hair was gray, and even his skin looked dull and gray, as if from poor nutrition.

"We must be stronger than this war they're waging against us today," he said, feeling under attack by economic forces he doesn't fully understand. "We must withstand this psychological war."

About 400,000 survivors of the siege are still alive, and several thousand gathered at a southwestern Moscow Palace of Culture yesterday to remember what they had endured for the Great Patriotic War. Most don't object that the name St. Petersburg has been restored to their beloved city, but the name Leningrad was burned into their hearts -- and that was the name of the city under siege.

They heard bits of news recordings from the time, an army band stirred them with a bright march, a Bolshoi singer serenaded them. They held hands, and wept, and showed each other pictures of their grandchildren.

During a break, they sat in a cafeteria, unwrapping cakes they had brought from home and pouring tea from their own thermoses. Many could not afford the snacks for sale, even though coffee and a meat pie cost less than 25 cents.

"I was 13 at the beginning of the war," said Maxim Raikin, an actor who was in Leningrad with his older brother Arkady, who went on to become one of Russia's most famous comic actors.

'I can't leave a crumb'

"We were changed forever," he said. "We could never feel the same way about food again. To this day, I can be very full, but if someone puts something on my plate, I must eat it. I can't leave a crumb. This has marked us all."

The brothers' father died of hunger-related illness. Mr. Raikin remembers others dying when the blockade was finally lifted, and they ate. The food overwhelmed their weakened systems.

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