By Peter Spinella, DPA/Moscow
They ate nothing,” Marina Kulagina recalled, telling the story of her mother who survived the years-long Siege of Leningrad in its entirety.
Seven of her mother Valentina Grigoryeva’s eight siblings and their father, Kulagina’s grandfather, died in the mass starvation of the blockaded city.
Natalia Khatuntseva, now 86, told a similar story.
She was a young girl when Nazi and Finnish forces surrounded the city of her birth.
Her father succumbed to malnutrition within half a year of the siege.
“He was working in a university and received additional rations, but he was bringing all of it to me and my mother,” Khatuntseva said. “I still feel guilty about it.”
Sunday marks 75 years since the Axis blockade of what is now Russia’s second-largest city, St Petersburg, was lifted as the tide of World War II turned in the Allies’ favour.
“The biggest risk was malnutrition,” Khatuntseva said.
“Shelling and bomb raids, albeit scary, never threatened my family in comparison with the food shortage.”
Supplies were brought by aircraft and across the often bombarded Lake Ladoga, east of the city, including when it was frozen over.
The perilous route, also used to evacuate civilians, was called the Road of Life.
“Starvation is terrifying,” Kulagina said. After the siege, “there were completely no pets left.”
Ivan Kurilla, a history professor at the European University in St Petersburg, described the siege as “one of the worst tragedies of humankind in the last century.”
“People starved, died of hunger, and there were awful stories about eating corpses and cannibalism,” he said.
Khatuntseva said there was a predominant belief that “Leningrad is taking its last stand. There will be no surrender.”
More than half a million civilians died during the siege of two and a half years as the former capital of the Russian Empire held fast against the threat of invasion.
“They believed in victory,” Kulagina said.
The Soviet Union suffered more than 20mn casualties during the war.
The Allied victory in 1945 is an enduring source of national pride in Russia.
In all, 87% of Russians take pride in the victory after three-quarters of a century, Russia’s largest independent pollster,
Levade Centre, said last week, presenting the results of a nationwide survey.
The victory serves as a unifying ideology in post-Soviet Russia, said Alexander Latyshev, a historian who provided the memoir from his grandmother, Khatuntseva.
Politicians cite the victory when addressing current hardships.
They say, “Our grandparents won the war, so now you have to ‘fill in the blank’ and be patient,” according to Latyshev.
The horrors of the war are to some extent glossed over, he said.
“Discussions about real casualties, the cost of the war and the role of Nazi collaborators are tabooed ‘to not upset the veterans.’”
Kurilla agreed that the Allied victory continues to evoke a considerable sense of pride in Russia.
“I feel pride for the ancestors who were on the right side in the bloodiest war in human history,” Kurilla said.
They “defeated Nazism in alliance with democratic countries — and with great sacrifice.”
“Many talented people died,” Kurilla said.
“My country could be very different if those people had lived their whole lives. This is a big sorrow about that war.”
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