YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

New Facts Point Up Horror of Nazi Siege of Leningrad : Warfare: The 900-day blockade was lifted 50 years ago today. Archival materials confirm cannibalism.


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — First they burned the kitchen shelves, then the kitchen table. They burned the wardrobe, and it kept them warm for 22 days. Finally Alexandra Dyen and her son, Vladimir, had nothing left but the family library.

"I burned the German classics, and after that it was Shakespeare," Vladimir remembered. "I also burned Pushkin. I don't remember whose edition it was, I think the Marks edition in blue and gold. And into the fire went that well-known multivolume edition of Tolstoy's works--the books with the gray-green covers and metal medallions in the corner."

That was in 1941 during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then called), one of history's greatest and most gruesome tragedies. Nazi armies encircled Leningrad for nearly three years. Though the Germans bombed it almost every day, their chief weapon was hunger. German scientists carefully calculated rates of starvation and predicted that Leningrad would eat itself within weeks.

Leningraders did resort to cannibalism, but ultimately they proved the Germans wrong--at horrible cost.

Three million people endured the 900-day blockade, which was lifted 50 years ago today. A million or more died, mostly civilians felled by hunger and cold. That's 10 times the number of deaths caused by the bombing of Hiroshima, and about equal to all American casualties in all U.S. wars combined.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 28, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. war deaths--A story in Thursday's editions on the World War II siege of Leningrad should have said that the number of people believed to have died during the Nazi blockade of the city is about equal to the number of American military deaths, on and off the battlefield, in all U.S. wars.

For decades, details of the blockade have been little known in the West. Stalin suppressed the facts of the siege and twisted its history. Until glasnost , the most serious challenge to his version was put forth by New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury, who spent 25 years researching and writing "The 900 Days," a book historians consider the best account in any language.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Leningrad--which the city plans to celebrate lustily, with fireworks and a rare visit by President Boris N. Yeltsin--a Russian-language version of Salisbury's book appeared on St. Petersburg's streets two weeks ago, six months after Salisbury's death.

New findings from the Communist Party archives that were opened in 1992 confirm Salisbury's contention, widely criticized by leaders of the Soviet era, that murderous gangs roamed wartime Leningrad's streets, killing for ration cards or human meat.

Paintings, drawings and diaries, some released only this month, show that cannibalism was so much a fact of everyday life that parents feared their children would be eaten if allowed out after dark. New documents show that the city police created an entire division to fight cannibals, and some 260 Leningraders were convicted of and jailed for the crime.

Other new finds include the records of thousands of blockade-era autopsies.

"Not only are they of great interest to history, they are interesting to science in general," said Dr. Robert Sprinkle of Duke University, part of an interdisciplinary Russian-American team studying the finds, which contain an unprecedented wealth of scientific information on hunger and hunger-related diseases. "There have been many famines, but they haven't occurred in cities where order has been maintained and careful records kept," Dr. Sprinkle said.

The basic facts of the blockade have been public record for decades.

The official daily ration was 125 grams of bread, about the weight of a bar of soap. Leningraders supplemented it with anything they could: as historians Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin wrote in their account of the siege--"with everything from the birdseed to the canary itself."

They scraped wallpaper down and ate the paste, which was supposedly made from potatoes. They extracted the same paste from bookbindings, or drank it straight from the glue jar. They boiled leather belts and briefcases to make an edible jelly, and plucked and pickled grasses and weeds.

They ate cats and dogs, petroleum jelly and lipstick, spices and medicines, fur coats and leather caps. Some made face-powder pancakes; others munched grimy crystallized sugar, dug out from under the sugar warehouses leveled by German firebombs.

Historians have recorded 22 different dishes made out of pigskin and have collected menus from military factory cafeterias where choices ranged from fern-leaf soup to puree of nettles and milk-curd pancakes.

Scientists at the Vitamin Institute developed diet supplements by extracting Vitamin C from pine needles. They swept attics and ventilation shafts at tobacco factories for tobacco dust, which contains Vitamin B.

At the laboratory where Zinaida Ignatovich worked, bacteria were cultivated for study in a medium with a meat-broth base.

"We had a large stock (of this medium). It saved many of our staff," Ignatovich said, in an account related by Granin and Adamovich. "I used to extract a glassful when I arrived at work, then all the staff would sit around and I would give them each a tablespoonful."

Los Angeles Times Articles