Siege survival, a year at a time

SUN JOURNAL

Leningrad: Numbers of those who lived through the 900-day nightmare are dwindling, as are their prospects in post-Soviet Russia. But the memories live on unabated.

April 26, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - They walked stiffly from the subway several blocks away, then climbed with effort to a second-floor auditorium, gathering together yesterday to remind the world once more of what they had learned from the hunger and terror of a 900-day siege that ended 57 years ago.

"First of all, the lesson of courage," said Vladimir Yurchik, 74, "the ability of the human spirit to resist, the ability of people to survive in such unbearable, hard conditions. That was Leningrad, and it must not be forgotten."

Survivors of the World War II siege of Leningrad met yesterday, as they do every year, to remember the day they began bearing the unbearable: Sept. 8, 1941.

The German army surrounded the city that day, and the blockade was not broken until Jan. 27, 1944.

By the end, 1.5 million people had died from starvation, cold, disease and unrelenting bombardment. More Russians died there than the number of Americans in all of the wars fought by the United States.

These survivors, about 100 people mostly in their 70s, were children then. They still call themselves the Children of the Blockade, and they held their reunion in advance of the May 9 holiday marking the end of World War II.

"I was 12," says Tatyana A. Nikolayeva, now 72. "My mother was working at a machine factory. My job was to get our bread.

"I remember going out when it was very dark. I saw the dead body of a man. On the way back, I saw only a skeleton. His flesh had been cut away. Even now, when I visit the city and pass that place, I remember the smell. I still remember the smell of human flesh."

Some survived by eating dirt and grass. They made broth by boiling leather. They ate wallpaper paste. They stayed alive eating rations of 125 grams of bread a day - no more than a thick slice of bread, the wheat often supplemented with cellulose.

The well-off, they say, died first. The poor knew how to survive.

"Then, it was easier to die than to live," says Ludvig Simonov, 73. "Many people didn't want to live."

Simonov, an artist, made paintings of blockade scenes when he grew up. His work shows the utter misery of freezing, hungry people. More than anything, he would like the world to see his work.

"You should see them in America," he says, "so you can remember, too."

Virtually the entire population was mobilized to build antitank fortifications, but the city's supply lines were cut off. Supplies occasionally reached the city by sled during the winter, or by barge in summer. But the city was threatened by slow starvation.

Musa Vyoshko, her bosom covered with medals commemorating Leningrad, remembered standing in line for bread at age 13.

"I was very thin, but with rosy cheeks," she says. "There were two men, very hungry, but with crazy eyes. They followed me. I hurried. I ran into an apartment, running up steps two at a time.

"There was no one there, only dead bodies. I ran out a back door, escaping past more dead bodies. When I came home, I was white as death. At night, sometimes, I still have terrible dreams about it.

"You know, they wanted to eat me."

She remembers crowds killing an elephant in the zoo. "There were no cats, no mice, no dogs in the city," she says. "Everything was eaten. And furniture was burned for warmth."

Seven years ago, when they reunited on the 50th anniversary of the siege of Leningrad - which 10 years ago was renamed St. Petersburg - many of the survivors were disappointed in what their years of suffering had wrought.

Instead of finding themselves the inheritors of a great nation, cared for and respected by later, grateful generations, they lived fearfully in the upheavals that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Prices were rising and pensions falling.

The "blokadniki," as they are known, were sure they had been left to die, forgotten.

"People believed the blockade would end," an actor named Maxim Raiken, who has since died, said at that earlier reunion. "They believed in the future. And now there's no future."

Perhaps it was the time of year, but yesterday's gathering was different, tinged in hope instead of despair. Earlier this week, buds began swelling on trees, and the air bore a faint, fresh scent. The next day, green leaves had unfurled: nature's survivors have adapted to the short season and grow at an astounding pace here.

"Maybe I didn't realize it before," Nikolayeva says, "but I think surviving the blockade gave me positive energy. Yes, there's a future. Yes, I'm an optimist. Just look at my face."

They believed in themselves and their country, Yurchik says. "I still believe in the future," he says. During an afternoon of music, reminiscence and film clips portraying victory, Vsevolod V. Kasyanov, president of the Children of the Blockade Association, made an emotional appeal through a letter he was sending to President Vladimir V. Putin.

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