Death by Starvation of a Million Civilians of Leningrad


As Germany waged war on the USSR, its Army Group North achieved its objectives of the Baltic Offensive by occupying the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia even despite the stiff resistance from the Red Army and its several unsuccessful counter-offensives such as the Battle of Raseiniai. Germans planned to overrun and destroy Leningrad, which Hitler planned to be leveled by Luftwaffe. This Germans failed to achieve: they managed to besiege Leningrad, cutting it off from supplies of food and materiel, but the city withstood the blockade, which had lasted for almost 900 days before it was lifted as a result of the Red Army Leningrad-Novgorod strategic offensive operation. The siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg before 1914 and after 1991) lasted from September-8 1941 until January-27, 1944 and caused the largest loss of life ever known in a modern city.[1] 


The main cause of death was starvation. About 1.2 million civilians perished in the city between September 1941 and November 1943, and about 1.4 million people, mainly women and children, were evacuated from the besieged city by the Soviet Army and Navy in the first two years of the blockade. [2] [3]  Historians habitually blame the usual suspect – Hitler – for these deaths, although Stalin’s henchmen bear their indirect share of blame for the massive losses.

Soviet authorities, as bureaucracies everywhere, demonstrated stupidity verging on treason: they kept the city’s food supplies in several large warehouses, instead of hedging their bets by dispersing the food throughout the city. As a result of massive German bombings in August, September and October 1941, all main food warehouses were directly hit. They burned to ashes in massive fires. Most of the Text Box:  
Silhouetted against the Leningrad’s night sky is the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.  The weapon is the Quad M, a special mounting of four of the 
7.62 X 54-mm Maxim machine guns, a staple AA weapon in besieged Leningrad. 
City’s stored food reserves, such as grains, flour, sugar, and canned foods went up in smoke. Thus, “On 6 September the Luftwaffe dropped thousands of incendiary bombs on the Badayev warehouses, a two-hectare site of wooden buildings that held much of the city's remaining food supplies; the next morning the whole city was suffused with the smell of burning meat, flour, lard and sugar.[4] 

The fires continued all over the city, as the German aviation and artillery bombarded Leningrad for many months in 1941-43.  Why the defenders of the island of Malta, separated from their food supplies by thousands of nautical miles were in a good shape, while inhabitants of Leningrad, some 50 km from the “Main Land” Russia, were dropping down like flies is a simple question: Stalin’s meetings with the military and political leaders of the Soviet Russia would end daily in a supper adequately stocked with caviar, sausage, chilled vodka and Narzan mineral water. Several hundred thousand of civilians who were saved, were saved mostly on the initiative of the Red Army and Leningrad’s middle-level commanders.

When in 1944 the Red Army put an end to the Siege, many of the middle-level leaders in Leningrad were arrested, on Stalin’s orders, and sent to Soviet Gulag, for failure to consult with Moscow more often, convenient scapegoats for a systemic failure in leadership. (There’s a Russian proverb, “The fish rot begins in the head.”)

Economic destruction and human losses in Leningrad on both sides exceeded those of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Moscow, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the bombing of Tokio. The siege of Leningrad is the most lethal siege in world history, and some historians speak of the siege operations in terms of genocide, as a “racially motivated starvation policy” that became an integral part of the unprecedented German war of extermination against populations of the Soviet Union generally.[5] [6]  The Soviet leaders were awfully instrumental in enabling the Nazis to wipe out the city’s food supplies, keeping them in 3 major warehouses, which Luftwaffe dutifully burned to ashes.

The 872 days of the siege caused unparalleled famine in Leningrad region, disruption of water and energy utilities. Just Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery alone holds the graves of half a million civilian victims of the siege. From November 1941 through February 1942 the only food distributed through the ration cards to the citizens was 125 grams of bread per worker, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible additives. For about two weeks at the beginning of January 1942, this food was available only to workers and military personnel, none provided to their dependents. In extreme temperatures (down to −30 °C) and city transportation being entirely out of service, the distance of a few kilometers to the food distributing kiosks proved murderous for many citizens of Leningrad. As Nikolai Markevich, a correspondent for the Red Fleet and Komsomolskaya Pravda newspapers (who was later killed in an airplane crash near Velikye Luki), noted in his Leningrad diary for January 24, 1942:

“…Almost the only form of transport is sleds, carrying corpses in plain coffins, covered with rags or half clothed. Daily six to eight thousand die. The city is dying as it has lived for the last half year – clenching its teeth.[7]

“People began to eat whatever they could find: first their pets, then the rats, and then wallpaper and even the plaster from the walls. Eventually they even turned to eating sawdust. They huddled together at night for warmth.[8]” There were some post-war accounts of cannibalism, which reportedly appeared in the winter of 1941–1942, after all pets, birds, rats and roaches were eaten by survivors.[9] Police units were instructed to combat cannibalism. Emaciated people often died on the streets, and citizens shortly became accustomed to the look of death, both from starvation and German shells.

<<              Where people died in the street, there was a scramble for their ration card. ‘If this happened, there was an immediate scrabbling for the dead one's ration card - not because anyone wanted to steal it but because everyone realised that a ration card handed in to the authorities meant an infinitesimal portion more food for all. Such were the indignities we suffered…

I watched my father and mother die - I knew perfectly well they were starving. But I wanted their bread more than I wanted them to stay alive. And they knew that about me too. That's what I remember about the blockade: that feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.[10]     >>

The question as to why Soviets did not surrender the city is a non sequitur:  It would have severed the “main land” Russia from the military and food supplies coming from Allies through the ports of Murmansk and Archangel; These supplies can be described by a Russian proverb that goes, “We don’t value what we have, but we sure do cry about it, when it’s lost.” Stalin did not wish to cry.

Siege of Leningrad, Soviet UnionThe ports remained an important source of military supplies while Russia was relocating its military industries to the Urals and jump-starting production of tanks, artillery and airplanes there. The loss of Leningrad would have freed the German armies group “North” to attack Moscow. In a chain reaction of the horrendous military defeats sustained by the Red Army in 1941, the loss of Leningrad would have spelled a terrible catastrophe, from which Stalinism might have not recovered easily.  So, the Read Army and Leningrad’s People’s Militia (Russian: Народное Ополчение) defended the city to the last man standing. Their lives depended on it.

The Soviet Baltic Fleet, that otherwise was not particularly effective, got a chance for its share of glory: the warships’ 305-mm, 180-mm, and 130-mm cannons, along with the big guns of the Scientific Research Institute of Naval Artillery (which included guns as big as 406-mm in caliber) had their way with advancing German panzer and mechanized columns, while Luftwaffe suffered heavy losses attempting to retaliate by unsuccessfully bombing the heavily armed and defended warships. 

Text Box:  

Leningrad under continuous shelling
It is easier to ask why the Soviets did not supply Leningrad better than they did, or did not break the blockade sooner. The answer is they could not. They tried and failed: the attempt by the Soviet 2nd Shock Army to hit the Germans from the rear in the spring of 1942 drowned in the swamps of Novgorod, it was surrounded by Germans and defeated; it was a shocking logistical, strategic and political failure, indeed. It gave rise to a new phenomenon, General Vlasov. Taken prisoner after his defeat, Lieutenant General Andrey Vlasov cooperated with Nazis and tried to organize Russian Liberation Army, known as ROA (Russian: Русская Освободительная Армия, pronounced as Russkaya Osvoboditel'naya Armiya). Vlasov’s ostensible goal was to overthrow Stalinism and to create an independent Russian state with a democratic system of government. Nazi leadership saw his goals of independent Russia as a pipe dream at best, but did not mind using him for propagandistic purposes. He formed three divisions: 1st was battle-ready, 2nd was being formed; the 3d existed only on paper, overall – about 45,000 men with tanks and aircraft and a dream to surrender to the Western Allies. His army’s 1st division was used in combat against the Red Army for the first time on February 11, 1945, on the river Oder, but was overwhelmed in 3 days and forced to retreat to Prague. As Nazi SS forces were ordered to annihilate the Prague uprising and destroy the ancient city, Vlasov’s army turned their weapons against Germans on May 6, 1945 to save the capital of “a brotherly Slav nation.” About 300 of ROA soldiers died in clashes with SS troops in Prague. As the uprising turned finally victorious, its communist leaders turned against ROA. Soviet Army entered Prague on May 8th, 1945. Vlasov retreated westward and surrendered his troops to allies, but they were extradited to the USSR to stand trial for treason. 

Text Box:  

Straight from the assembly line of the Kirov Plant to the front:
a column of SU-122 self-propelled howitzers rolls past the 
Triumph Arch -- symbol of Russia’s past victories. By 1944 
such political symbolism was justified, as some of these heavy 
guns ultimately rolled into Berlin.
In 1942-43 the war turned into an endless nightmare for both sides, each suffering colossal casualties. But by 1944 not only did the Soviets amass decisive air and artillery superiority, but regained their former ability and skill in ground warfare and became a formidable, experienced, unstoppable force. As a result of the 1944 spring offensive to crush the long-term, deep defenses of the German 18th Army, German defense fell much faster than anyone expected, especially the German high command. Thus, the lightning-fast 1944 Soviet campaign of offensives began; the 1944 Soviet victories over German armies were a complete reversal of 1941, only on a much grander, international scale.

Until recently, in their coverage of the Siege of Leningrad, historians have been obscuring a fact, still little known today – that among those who saved the city of Leningrad was… baron Carl von Mannerheim (1867–1951), the Commander-in-Chief of Finland's armed forces during WW-II. Yes, it was not only the heroism of the city’s defenders, but… the wisdom of its alleged archenemy.

Finland, with its experienced, well-trained army, was Germany’s de facto ally. Baron Carl von Mannerheim was trained and made a career in the Russian Imperial army, rising to lieutenant general, and was decorated with the Cross of St. George, the highest medal. He held a prominent place in the ceremonies for coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and probably remained a loyal Russian Imperial Officer deep at heart till the day he died. In any respect, this 75-year-old patriarchal gentleman was not only a highly skilled and brave soldier, but also a wise and – I daresay – kind man, which quality – given the time and place – he had to mostly conceal; he showed respect for human life, humane treatment of POW’s, astute political wisdom and an uncanny historic foresight. He was, perhaps, one of a few examples of what true nobility in the face of adversity is and should be.

Text Box:  
Soviet War-time poster: To the 
Collective Farmers – from the Frontline soldiers – THANK YOU. 

When Hitler arrived, unannounced and uninvited, for an unofficial visit on the occasion of von Mannerheim’s 75th birthday, the two had an uneasy dinner conversation. The Finns secretly recorded the conversation, in which Hitler admitted that he grossly underestimated the Soviets’ military might and ability to regroup. Hitler looked especially short in statue next to Von Mannerheim, very tall and aristocratic in manner, and seem to have felt like a corporal next to a Marshal, which he in fact was. Mannerheim’s aristocratic manners kept Hitler on edge. Hitler, a vegetarian, non-drinker and non-smoker known for his atrocious table manners, seem to be a bit uncomfortable.[11]. In the course of an animated conversation denouncing the common enemy, the Soviets, just as Hitler was about to embark in earnest on making military demands on Finland, the old gentlemen lit up a cigar and exhaled a huge cloud of smoke. He knew that nobody was permitted to smoke in Furher’s presence. A few moments later the Furher was gone, back on his plane to Berlin.

Mindful of the Russia’s colossal might and resolve, which Hitler fatally underestimated, Mannerheim was able to maneuver politically between the USSR and Germany for the future of Finland, in which the small Northern nation would remain independent, democratic and neutral. The Finnish army had demonstrated excellent military qualities when fighting against the juggernaut of the Red Army’s “winter offensive” of 1939-40, and despite massive losses of territory, in September of 1941 had no trouble throwing the Soviet 23d Army right back to the old borders of Finland. There the Finns suddenly stopped. Unlike Germans, they ceased any military activity until 1944, except digging in; In the first place, the Soviets launched their 1939-40 Winter Offensive on Finland out of fear that Leningrad was in peril, being just 20 miles from the border, should Germany attack as Hitler had planned in Mein Kampf. Now Finland was showing the Soviets that their fear was… somewhat, let’s say, unfounded, while putting on a show for Hitler that Finns cooperated. Except reinforcing their positions, Finns did little, despite Hitler’s throwing foam-at-the-mouth tantrums, demanding that they attack Leningrad and other strategic targets, easily within their reach. 

Finns could have cut or at least attacked the railroad to Murmansk and Archangel, Russia’s Arctic port cities  through which food and materiel were coming from the Allies in the course of the Battle for the Atlantic. They could have taken over the “road of life” to Leningrad, crossing over the ice of the Ladoga Lake, but they made no such attempts to launch a major offensive, nor did they impose a real blockade on Leningrad on their side of the front. Germans couldn’t do much about it either, as the well-trained, loyal and disciplined Finnish army was in a better shape than German and independent Finland had to be respected. The lack of cooperation from Finland meant that the German troops could not launch an offensive on the city of Leningrad from the Finn-occupied north. The Finns held on to the territory immediately north of the city until summer 1944.

Text Box:  

Baron Carl von Mannerheim, Marshal of
 Finland, Commander of Finland’s armed 
forces during WW-II, 6th President of
 Finland from 4-August- 1944 through 

Despite the SS and Gestapo presence in Helsinki, Finland refused extraditions of any Jews, whether Finnish, or illegally present refuges from the Baltic states, or Soviet POW’s.[12] A rather large percentage of a small Jewish community of Finland served in the Finnish army to demonstrate their gratitude, even if dismayed by being allied with Hitler. Three of them were awarded the German Iron Cross for bravery, and all three refused to accept it in a manner exemplified by Captain Salomon Klass. A Finnish battalion commanded by Capt. Klass saved a German company that had been surrounded by Soviet forces. When two days later, the German colonel and other officers came to award him the Iron Cross, he remained seated, telling them contemptuously that as an officer and a Jew he refused the Nazi medal. The German officers repeated the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute, clicked their heels and left with their Aryan pride.

Actions speak louder than words, and in time Soviets discerned the Finnish message, “we just want back our land,” and “don’t attack us, and we won’t let Germans attack you from our territory.” Stalin, the old criminal from Tbilisi, must be given credit for remembering old favors: in 1944 he acknowledged von Mannerheim’s non-aggression with a nod – except for annexing Karelian lands, Soviets left Finland well enough alone; Finland not only retained independence, but remained unoccupied and democratic throughout the post-war and “cold war” period, while Germany and its other former allies were crushed in a 9-months’ period that followed, their armies pulverized or taken prisoner. One of the reasons Finland, despite being close to Leningrad, was left independent, was Stalin's gradually developed respect for an old enemy, perhaps even secret admiration for the fine old gentleman, a tough opponent fighting for self-determination of his tiny country. Stalin told a Finnish delegation in Moscow in 1947 in confidence that the Finns owed much to their old Marshal. Thanks to him Finland was not occupied.[13]



All rights reserved ● Copyright © 2011, Eric Ross, Ph.D.




[1] Baryshnikov, N.I. (2003), Блокада Ленинграда и Финляндия 1941–44 (Finland and the Siege of Leningrad), Институт Йохана Бекмана

[2] The World War II. Desk Reference. Eisenhower Center director Douglas Brinkley. Editor Mickael E. Haskey. Grand Central Press, 2004. p. 210

[3] Wykes, Alan (1972), The Siege of Leningrad, Ballantines Illustrated History of WWII; pp 9-21

[4] THE FALL OF HITLER'S FORTRESS CITY. The Battle for Königsberg, 1945; by ISABEL DENNY Greenhill Books, London MBI Publishing, St Paul; ISBN: 978-1-85367-705-2, 2007. P.121.


[5] Barber, John; Dzeniskevich, Andrei (2005), Life and Death in Besieged Leningrad, 1941–44, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, ISBN 1-4039-0142-2;

[6] Ganzenmüller, Jörg (2005), Das belagerte Leningrad 1941-1944, Ferdinand Schöningh Verlag, Paderborn, ISBN 350672889X

[7] The 900 days: the siege of Leningrad By Harrison E. Salisbury. ISBN 0-306-81298-3. Da Capo Press. 2003; P. 446.

[8] Isabel Denny; Id, p. 121.

[9] Anthropology of East Europe Review. Vol. 13, No. 2 Autumn, 1995; Special Issue: Culture and Society in the Former Soviet Union. BUILDING THE BLOCKADE: NEW TRUTHS IN SURVIVAL NARRATIVES FROM LENINGRAD by Jennifer Dickinson, University of Michigan.


[10] Quoted from;

The original quotation is probably from: Tikhonov, Nikolai, et al. Heroic Leningrad. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1945. (I was not able to obtain the book to confirm the quotation.)

[11] VISITORS WITH SWASTIKAS. St. Petersburg Times. June 1, 2004 (Issue # 973)


[12] Hannu Rautkallio, ‘Cast into the Lion’s Den’, Journal of Contemporary History 29, 1994.

[13] Meri, Veijo: "Suomen marsalka C. G. Mannerheim" (1990) p. 397.