Monday, January 27, 2014

The 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Leningrad

I was going to write a blog about Russian food, but I think taking a moment to acknowledge the significance of today is important. My next post will be a little more fun, I promise!

Today, Jan 27 2014, was the 70th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad. During the Great Patriotic War (WWII) German forces cut off the Soviet city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) from the rest of the country with intense bombing raids and tank roadblocks. The siege lasted for 872 days: from September 8 1941, until 27 January 1944. Estimates vary, but over a million civilians and soldiers died during the blockade- many of starvation.
For more details on the incredible and important history:

I spent the weekend with Roman in Kronstadt, very calm, quiet, and relaxing. I went ice skating outside for the first time and ate delicious homemade pirozhki and sirniki (don't worry, my next post will be food)! 

This morning Roman drove me back to the city center, and right on my street there was a large outdoor display set up as a temporary museum for the Siege/Blockade of Leningrad! (Have I mentioned I live in the best location ever??) We walked around the display for a while, very neat. There were lots of old vehicles from the blockade- trolleybuses, military trucks, even a fire truck! They also had a video screen playing a short film about the blockade, announcements from a loud speaker taken from actual public broadcasts that played during the blockade, posters and flyers set up like 1942 to create the atmosphere of the time, and a wall of one building was converted into a poster board with texts and pictures explaining Leningrad's role in WWII.

Anti-tank Device

I had read that at 7:00 there would be a candlelight procession down Nevsky Prospekt from the outdoor display near my apartment building to Palace Square. So later that night I put on my warmest (read: most American) clothes and ventured outside again. At this point it was snowing lightly, really beautiful as the sun had mostly set and the streetlamps and shop windows were really the only illumination- until I got to Nevsky. Of course, there were plenty of cars, but also hundreds of candles! I smelled them first, the pleasant burning scent, and then slowly noticed all the dots of flame twinkling across the crowd gathered on the sidewalk. I expected that stretch of Nevsky Prospekt to be closed down for the procession- the idea was 1,944 volunteers (the year the siege ended) would march to Palace Square, and there form a human sign spelling out "900 Days" (for the length of the blockade).

Streets were back to 1944

I waited in a crowd of people where I read the procession would start. A blockade-era trolleybus idled on the street, its loudspeaker played Soviet war songs and announcements. Exactly at 7:00PM the speakers blared "NOW, A MINUTE OF SILENCE". Nevsky Prospekt froze. Not just the people clearly involved, holding candles, but mothers pushing babies in strollers, people walking home from the grocery store, young children, as far as I could see there was barely any movement or speech. The trolleybus ticked off the sound of the famous Leningrad metronome (during the Blockade music was broadcast over the Leningrad radio 24/7. At rare times when music was not broadcast, a metronome was placed before the radio microphone to assure the people that the resistance was ongoing) for one minute, as we all let the weight of the anniversary really sink in. Abruptly, the trolleybus began to play music again and people scattered in all directions. Did I miss the parade? I stood in my spot for a moment, craning my neck up and down the street searching for any banners or flags. I wasn't even positive which direction Palace Square was in...but the people with the candles were surging to the right, so I tentatively followed them.

About five minutes later, I realized that I was, in fact, IN the procession. I'm still not sure if there was a more formal procession, but there were news cameras set up all along the route, interviewing people, and people hanging out of windows above us taking pictures. I embraced my new found membership and committed to march the 30 minutes to Palace Square. Even though I didn't have a candle, it was impossible not to feel a heaviness and solemnity being part of such an important remembrance. Every person over the age of 70 is a possible survivor, most of these people's parents or grandparents were in the blockade...and I am a lone American girl, a tourist, trying to adopt a city I have no right to call my own. Perhaps after today I've gotten a little closer to earning that right.

A stop on the route where people placed flowers and lit candles

The events at Palace Sqaure were wonderful. Unfortunately my camera died, but I am a better writer than photographer anyway! All the streetlights and windows were dark in the square, giving the effect of the blockaded city at night, cloaking itself from Nazi bombers. There was a semi-circle of antique military vehicles on the far side and several stages set up in the center. I watched a teen pop quintet sing about the beauty of "our Saint Petersburg, dear Leningrad" and a man sing "we're with you, the people of Leningrad/ we know what war means" (excellent song and lyrics). Then a loud siren sounded and the entire 100-foot side of a neoclassical 18th century building lit up with a projected short documentary about the blockade with video footage and pictures from the war. After the film, another parade entered. All the vehicles from the outdoor display near my apartment rolled into Palace Square! People were cheering and throwing roses into the truck beds; it was all very moving.

It was past 8 when I finally looked down at my watch and speed walked home for dinner. I hadn't noticed the cold much before, but it was -16 Celsius with a sharp wind and by the time I got inside my face was bright red and I could hardly feel my fingers and toes! Dinner was delicious, smoked red fish (my favorite) and tomato and avocado salad with black bread and beans. Since it was a prazdnik (holiday), of course we had to drink vodka as well! Then after dinner there were fireworks I watched from my window, perfect way to end an incredible day.

I learned so much about the Siege of Leningrad today and how even 70 years later it is still a deep part of the consciousness and identity of the people of the hero-city of Leningrad. I hope this little blog post recognized the event as it deserves and piques your interest to learn more about the Eastern front of World War II!

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