Sometimes I marvel at where I am and the events that led me to it. I can trace the events that led me to Russia all the way back to my primary school librarian, who, little knowing the seed she was planting, presented me with a book about the siege in Leningrad during World War II. 17 years after reading “Shurik” for the first time, I finally found myself in St. Petersburg.
“Shurik” is the story of a war nurse who finds an orphan boy in the rubble of his apartment building and how they survived the war. During the siege of the city, 1,500,000 civilians lost their lives to bombardment and starvation, and remains the largest loss of life and destruction in a modern city.
My journey to re-discover this part of history began in an incredible way. I attended the Lutheran church on Nevskiy Prospekt (the most famous Russian street) and made the acquaintance of a woman named Victoria. The church services are given in German and then translated into Russian, so when I greeted people I greeted them in German. I first met her daughter, Vera, who rushed to introduce me to her mother because she loved speaking the German language. Victoria had survived the siege of Leningrad as a teenager, and then escaped with her family to Germany, where they survived the Dresden bombing in 1945. The three of us sat down to coffee in a Finnish church and I sat entranced and begged for stories and remembrances. She told me about the lack of electricity and firewood, and how on one occasion she stole an oak door and carried it home so they’d have fuel to burn to survive the brutal winter.
Every year Russia has a holiday to celebrate the end of the war, and for St. Petersburg (the former Leningrad), that holiday has an even more special meaning. The end of the war meant that their city was free again, and that the starving occupants would finally get food brought in from ‘the mainland’. Victory Day started in the morning with a military parade in Palace Square in front of the Hermitage. The streets were closed to traffic but filled with a flowing mass of people trying to find a place to witness the festivities. I was buried at least 10 layers back in the crowd and was not able to see a thing except for the two times when a jolly old Russian man obligingly hoisted me above the crowd so I could have a glimpse. After the parade was over, everyone swarmed onto the square and presented veterans and survivors with red carnations. The sight of children rushing up to thank the heroes of their country with flowers had me in tears throughout the day. Next there was a canon salute fired from Peter and Paul Fortress across the Neva. Later in the afternoon a parade wound it’s way down Nevskiy Prospekt with all of the remaining veterans and survivors of the war. Most of them can’t walk anymore, so they’re carried past on army trucks as people constantly broke the parade ranks and ran to give them flowers. The final event of the day was fireworks over the Neva River. The river was filled with boats and the streets along the canals were a flowing black line of people.
I saved the final two destinations of my Leningrad history tour for Mom’s arrival in May. She also read ‘Shurik’ before coming over, and she was as eager as I was to see the city and learn the history. Together with my Russian family, we made the train journey north of the city to Lake Ladoga. During the war, they made hundreds of roads across the ice in order to bring food and supplies into the city. They were even able to build a railroad and devised a way to make a floating track that enabled them to use the train even during the summer months. We were able to see some of the tanks and cars that were used, and we also enjoyed the museum.
A few days later Mom and I went to the Piskariovskoye Cemetery, a large tract of land that was donated to the city to bury the countless and nameless victims of the siege. A museum housed the ‘Tatiana letters’; letters that were written by a small girl documenting the date and death of her family members, with a final entry reading, “Now there is only Tanya.” We could also see the food ration coupons and a piece of bread cut to the size that were given out to a grown man for a day. It was smaller than my hand. They had a video showing photographs from the war, and then they morphed into present day St. Petersburg. It was chilling to see the sights I now know so well when I saw the destruction from 60 years ago. The grounds of the cemetery are seemingly endless plots of large mounds, each identified only by the mound number and the year. If it was labeled 122 and 1943, it meant it was the 122nd mass grave from that year.
I am so glad to have been able to witness the legacy and survival in this beautiful city.