Mark Solonin: The Siege of Leningrad – Facts and Questions 
Mark Solonin

by Mark Solonin 

An extract from: Kak Sovietsky Soyuz Pobedil v  Vojne [How did the Soviet Union Manage to Win in WW2], published in Russian by Yauza Publishers, Moscow, 2019, 260 pp. ISBN 978-5-00155-012-9, also available on the author’s website.

This translation by (c) David Loutit is also available for download at the end of this webpage.


Problems with the Siege of Leningrad: An introduction to the translation

We have all been brought up with mental images of key events of the Second World War and readily understand that many of these have been somewhat mythologised.

The Battle of Britain was tougher and rougher than ‘…never has so much been owed by so many…” Fewer people than ought to know that the magnificent men in their flying machines included 2,048 Poles of the various squadrons of the Polish Air Force who gave their lives in that and other battles fought from UK soil. 

Other obvious examples are Alfred and the burnt cakes, King Charles and the oak tree in Boscobel wood, Nelson and his telescope , etc etc… The myth is good but the true facts are better; that is why we have historians.

All countries have their national stories, many of them about the high and low points of their wars. They become part of the national story, magnifying the ‘good’ parts and minimising the ‘bad’ or ‘sad’… This is generally a force for good and enhances national morale.

However, that is only the case when the core is true, as it generally is in countries where freedom of conscience, thought, and speech reign, making it impossible or difficult to generate national stories that are outright lies.

But what about authoritarian and totalitarian countries? Naturally, it turns out that their national myths are generally bunkum.

And this, of course, is particularly the case for the USSR/Russia, a country where to lie is to be a patriot, from Potemkin villages, to the Golodomor, to the Gulag, and on to Bucha in Ukraine today.

The essay I am inviting you to read is by Russian historian Mark Solonin, who almost single-handedly (or rather double-handedly along with his historian colleague Viktor Suvorov) has comprehensively reviewed and revised the history of the Second Word War as imparted by Soviet and Russian schools. These stories have also been partially absorbed by us in the West, I think due to the fact that the 1930s were riddled with leftists who did their level best to remain blinkered about what was happening in the Land of Communism and that the post-war generations were too embarrassed by having the USSR as our ally in WW2 and thus deeply reluctant to let the horrors unleashed by Stalin from the 1930s onwards sully us (in particular the behaviour of the Red Army towards the end of the war).

One such Soviet myth, concealing a horror with which we would not like to be associated and the blame for which is all to easy to heap falsely on the Germans, is the so-called siege of Leningrad, in which between 600,000 and 1.5 million people died of starvation.

It is easier to write an account in which truths are embellished than it is to fabricate a myth, the purpose of which is to conceal truth. The Soviets were not particularly good at it, probably because their contempt for people in general was so great that they did not see the need to do the job well: “и так схавают” [“they’ll swallow it like that”], is the phrase generally used in Russia.

Thus it is that the Soviet myth of the “siege” of Leningrad is littered with inconsistencies and total incompatibilities that just beg anyone who cares to do so to pay attention and to raise questions.

The Soviet task was to create a myth of [compulsory element #1] evil Germans besieging a major military-industrial centre and in the process starving a million people to death in a Soviet city where [compulsory element #2] the brave workers continue to the bitter end to produce masses of war materials for the Soviet’s Union war while of course [compulsory element #3] truly caring for the citizenry and evacuating as many women and children as possible.

The tale therefore goes:

“Despite growing difficulties, in the second half of 1941, the city’s factories produced 713 tanks, 480 armoured vehicles, 58 armoured trains, over 5,000 artillery pieces and anti-tank guns, about 10,000 mortars, over 3,000,000 shells, over 80,000 rockets and bombs…” [Source: Dzeniskevich A.R., Kovalchuk B.M, Sobolev G.L, Tsamutali A.n., Shishkin V.A, Nepokrenniy Leningrad (Unbowed Leningrad), Nauka Publishers, Leningrad 1970]

NB: The raw materials for this production were brought into Leningrad from other parts of the USSR outwith the blockade. There are no iron ore mines in Leningrad.

“It should be noted that the City Defence Committee decreed that 50% of the city’s output of military goods should be sent for use in other sections of the Soviet-German Front” [Source: Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Fund 217, List 1258, Doc. 8, p. 15]

NB: This makes it abundantly clear that outbound transport was available too.

“The scale of the evacuation dropped dramatically in the autumn and winter of 1941. Only 104,711 people, including 36,783 citizens of Leningrad, were carried by air or on waterborne transport to the Mainland. Mass evacuations were renewed on 22 January 1942 across the ice of Lake Ladoga _ the Road of Life. No fewer than 500,000 of the blockaded citizenry were to be transported. The travel was in several stages: train from Leningrad to Lake Ladoga […], then vehicles across the lake to the evacuation points on the East Bank […], and finally further into the country by rail again. The speed of the evacuation rose consistently. While only a little over 11,000 were carried across the Lake in January 1942, in February it was 117,500, and 222,000 in March. A total of 554,186 people were thus evacuated by 15 April.” [Source:  https://evacuation.spbarchives.ru/history]

NB: We now know that not only was transport to and from Leningrad available but that capacity was plentiful.

With the above in mind, it is clear that Leningrad was subject to a very strange “siege” indeed — a siege or blockade during which industrially large quantities of goods and people were constantly moved to and from it. That Leningrad was blockaded is a myth.

Once a lie is found in a story, there is a likelihood that it will contain others. It also make one ask questions, the most important of which is: given the fact that there was transport aplenty, why was no food brought in to feed the starving? What really happened?

The following essay by Mark Solonin analyses these and other facts about the ‘siege’ of Leningrad. In the process, he rips the myth of a siege to shreds and begins to provide answers to many of the questions that arise.

David Loutit, December 2022



A Note on the Text 

This text is an essay of Russian historian Mark Solonin’s that was included in the book Kak Sovietsky Soyuz Pobedil v  Vojne (How did the Soviet Union Manage to Win in WW2), which was published in Russian by Yauza Publishers, Moscow,  in 2019. That publishing house called this style of historiography, very rightly in my view, “documentary literature”. 

Mark Solonin is the author of several best-selling books that freshly analyse the history of the Second World War. As a  result, he now finds himself obliged for his personal safety to live in exile from Putin’s Russia. His only other works  available in English are his eye-opening The Spring Victory: Stalin’s Glossed over Crime (ISBN 9798519589222), about  the Red Army’s advance through Prussia and Eastern Europe at the end of WW2, and Two Essays: Coming up from  Behind and If World Domination is the aim, then Strike First! (ISBN 9798494370945). 

Russian historians have not yet been influenced by the (in my view insufferable) shift in academia away from writing  expert opinion to a new evidence-based style of writing in which every other sentence has to be justified by a  reference. The Russian historian is an auteur and he expects to win his readers’ confidence by the intelligence of his arguments and not by reference to the writings of others; if a reader does not like the argument, then let him try to  prove the expert wrong. 

It is refreshing to see history written in this way nowadays. At this moment, when Russia is fighting a war of aggression  in Ukraine, it seems particularly useful to be reminded of the ways in which the Soviet Union/Russia wage war. 

David Loutit, November 2022 


The Siege of Leningrad – Facts and Questions

by Mark Solonin

1. Basic Facts and Figures 

“It is often said that the victors are not judged, that they cannot be criticised, and that they should not be subject to  verification. That is not the case. Victors can and should be be judged, and one can and should scrutinise and  criticise them. To do this is useful, even for the victor himself.” 

Comrade Stalin came out with this wonderful statement on 9 February 1946 at a constituency meeting in  Moscow’s Stalin District. His word being our command, this essay will examine and consider the overall  picture, and the trends within it, of one of the most tragic moments in our country’s history – the mass deaths  from starvation of the citizens of Leningrad in 1941-42. 

At the opening of the Second World War, Leningrad had a population of 3,190,000, or a little under 2% of the  total population of the USSR within its 1939 borders. The city was home (in Comrade Stalin’s estimation) to  “30-35% of our country’s defence industries”. Pre-war Leningrad was an important centre for the production  of tanks and radiolectronics. Shipbuilding was another massive industry. The city was also a major maritime  and railway hub, and the home base of the Baltic Fleet (although Tallinn was officially declared its main base  after July 1940). A great many research & development and design bureaus were concentrated in the city. 

Come the summer and autumn of 1941, Leningrad’s population numbers started to change. Over 150,000  men were called up into the army (and/or the peoples’ militia). No fewer than 500,000 people were  evacuated from the city prior to 27 August thanks to rail links with the ‘mainland’ remaining operative until  then. This number included 220,000 children, 164,000 workers of evacuated enterprises, and 105,000 others [1]. Unfortunately, the process also happened in reverse: a flood of refugees (108,000 by the official  count) came in from the Baltic region and the Pskov and Novgorod districts as the Germans advanced and  occupied them. 

Given the chaos of war, we have come, for estimation purposes, to consider the most reliable source of  population count to be the number of ration cards issued – the ration was the difference between life and  death, and no-one, except perhaps a tiny number of spies, was going to willingly refrain from registering for rations. This provides us with 2,540,000 as the total civilian population left (or abandoned) in the encircled  city. The numbers serving on the Leningrad Front and in the Baltic Fleet within the encirclement varied  constantly. However, if one looks at the quantity of food allocated to these services and divides that by the  standard military allocation per person, we can estimate 350,000 as the total number of men in those forces. 

Our total count therefore adds up to 2,900,000, which we can safely round up to three million. 

How much food does a person need per day? If we go by the standards and habits of today, when obesity is  a worldwide problem, one’s daily intake of food should consist in the main of vegetables, fruit, and low-fat  yoghurt. In the case of such a diet, a person would need 2 kilograms of these foodstuffs per day. If one  considers the typical diet in Russia in the first half of the 20th century – bread, milk, grain porridges, potatoes,  and small portions of pork fat, meat, or fish, then such a diet would weigh in at 1-1.5 kilograms per day. Eight  hundred grams of bread (two modern baguettes) are enough to satisfy the human organism’s bare minimum  needs. It is no coincidence that that precisely was the workers’ (i.e. most generous) ration in wartime USSR.  Such a ration would leave a person living in a state of hunger and malnutrition; on the other hand, there was  no question of him dying of starvation. 

It takes 540 grams of flour to bake 800 grams of good bread (not the abominable mix of millcake, bran, flour dust, and sawdust which Leningraders got in 1941). Such ‘war bread’ only needs 500 grams. It is therefore easy to calculate that 1,500 tonnes of flour per day would be required to feed the 3 million people in Leningrad. This figure is critical and should be born in mind as we continue. 

On the eve of the war, the Leningrad Territorial Directorate for State Material Supplies had in its warehouses 146,000 tonnes of ‘forage’ (flour, grain, and oats). That alone was enough to supply the men of the Leningrad front and the civilian population with bread for three months of total blockade – with nothing coming in from  the ‘mainland’. However, Leningrad’s TerDirStatMatSup (to use a favourite form of Soviet abbreviation) held  a greater variety of supplies than that. It also had 37,000 tonnes of sugar, which, although we may today consider it to be harmful, is rich in calories and easily absorbed, a matter of vital importance when it comes  to rescuing the starving. There was more, too. In addition to flour and grain to a value of 30,500,000 roubles, and sugar worth 43 million roubles, the stores also held “foodstuffs (tinned foods, oil, meat, makhorka tobacco, and hard tack) valued at 195,000,000 roubles in total. 

In his written report (dated 5 January 1942 and protectively marked top secret), the head of this Directorate, Comrade Gorchakov does not provide the individual weights or types of ‘foodstuffs’ about which he is  communicating. However, if we reckon a ratio of 1:10 as the difference between the value of flour and the  highly calorific foodstuffs, we can estimate that he is referring to 15,000 tonnes of food. The state warehouses can therefore be presumed to have been holding enough food to feed the besieged city for 4-5 months, or longer – up to half a year or more – if very strict rationing were to be applied.  

That is how ‘little’ was held in reserve at the start of the war. Mountains more food could have been  transported to the city in the two and half months prior to the siege. Rail transport capacity can be seen from the following figures [2]: on 29 August (by a stroke of fate, just one day before the Germans occupied the railway station at the settlement of Mga, thus cutting off the last rail link between Leningrad and the ‘mainland’), a special commission of the City Committee for Defence finalised a new plan for the evacuation of Leningrad  factories, according to which 12,313 railway wagons would carry the equipment in just 10 days. Which is why the following day – 30 August – Leningrad’s marshalling yards were filled with 2,200 railway wagons loaded with industrial machinery. Which is also why we can tell that the city’s freight railway was capable of handling 40,000 tonnes of goods. 

Goods, however, were not being brought into the city; they were being taken out of it. The TerDirStatMatSup report mentioned above goes on to say: “All the forage held in the Directorate’s warehouse was reserved and partially evacuated during the first three months of the war… The accumulated reserves and current stock could have satisfied requirements for longer if the distribution of food, supplies, and heating fuel had been severely rationed from the very start of military operations and if the evacuation from Leningrad of some of the reserves had not been put off.” 

As a result on 26 September, after the minutest inventory was made of both the States Reserves and other stocks(!), it was found that within the blockade area there were only 36,000 tonnes of forage (including bran, millcake, and grist). Of proper flour, there was only 20,000 tonnes, a quantity sufficient for two weeks, or at maximum 3 months if hunger rations were applied. 

This was the first knell of the bell of death. Lest its echo reach future generations, the myth of the Great Fire was carefully seeded and then puffed up out of all proportions. According to this myth, the food in the Badayev warehouses was totally destroyed in a fire caused by a bombing raid. Both the fire and the bombing raid were real: precious food reserves were kept in too small an area in wooden warehouses. Three thousand tonnes of flour and 2,500 tonnes of sugar were burnt. The sugar melted and turned into caramel, which was later processed and used. However, the amount of sugar spoilt did not exceed 700 tonnes. Thus, along with the flour, the total amount lost would have been enough to supply the town for no more than three or four days. 

2. Some Arithmetic and Geography  

Leningrad does not sit on an island. Nor is it sited on a peninsula linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus (like the crossing into Crimea to reach Sevastopol). There are endless stretches of dry land, crisscrossed by railway lines, both to the north and to the south of the city. 

The northern transport corridor (the Leningrad – Sortavala – Petrozavodsk line, running north around Lake  Ladoga) was lost to the Finns on 14-15 July after they broke through Soviet defences and moved their frontier all the way up to the top of the lake. The southern corridor was lost on 30 August when the Wehrmacht’s 20th Motorised Infantry Division took the town of Mga and its station. One week later, on 8 September, the  Germans were able with a single infantry regiment to occupy Shlisselburg and thus finally cut off Leningrad’s  land links with the ‘mainland’. 

Central Intelligence Agency from Washington, D.C. – 1943 Leningrad Front, Public Domain 

The Bay of Finland stretches out west of Leningrad and upon it sails the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. The  Germans had no fleet to speak of in those waters, while the Finnish Navy in comparison to the Baltic Fleet  was as a midge to an elephant. To supply Leningrad by sea from Swedish ports was entirely feasible. One only needs to remind oneself that sea convoys fighting their way through on each voyage is precisely how England survived six years of war. The possibility of supplying Leningrad via the Baltic Sea in this way was not even considered – and with eminent good reason, since there are four points to a compass and there was still the east to consider. 

East of Leningrad there remained 60kms of unoccupied shoreline on Lake Ladoga. The Finnish army took the  Karelian Isthmus at the end of August and stopped at their 1939 frontier. On 4 September, Mannerheim gave orders to establish a line of defence, after which all was quiet on that ‘front’ for the next three years. 

If one looks at the shortest possible route across the lake (the “Shlisselburg Bay crossing”), the fishing settlement of Kobona is only 30kms away, while Novaya Ladoga (the town and port where the Volkhov River flows into Lake Ladoga) is somewhat further – 100kms. In any event, even the slowest of barges could cover the distance from Novaya Ladoga to the Leningrad shoreline still in Soviet hands in 10-12 hours of sailing. 

It is not like there was a shortage of watercraft: there were more than plenty of them. The North-West  Shipping Line (NWSL), the Leningrad District Shipping Line, the Lake Ladoga Flotilla, and Lenryba (the  Leningrad Fisheries) all had numerous vessels. The fleet of just the first-named above consisted in 1941 of 323 tugs and 960 barges with a capacity of 420,000 tonnes. Over the 1940 sailing season, the NWSL carried 3,400,000 tonnes of goods. If one accepts that the river fleet might have had problems sailing in the choppy autumn waters of Lake Ladoga, that was not going to be the case for the Ladoga Naval Flotilla or Lenryba’s fishing boats since they were made to sail the lake. It is also worth pointing out that the fleet available for the start of the 1942 navigation consisted of 116 vessels, powered and unpowered, with a capacity of 32,800  tonnes, even after all the losses of 1941 (a major element of which was the removal of vessels away from Leningrad to the east). 

On 30 August 1941 (i.e. immediately after the loss of the Mga railway station), City Committee for Defence Ordinance N°604 set out measures for the supply of Leningrad by water. It proposed to use 25 tugs and 75 lake barges of 1,000 tonnes capacity, with no fewer than 12 running the route at any one time, while one tanker and eight tanker barges were to carry fuel and lubricants. One can view this number (12 barges per day) in two ways: on the one hand, this is remarkably little in view of the total tonnage available; on the other, such a  carriage capacity would not only be able to feed the citizens of Leningrad in accordance with USSR norms but also to accumulate supplies for many months ahead. In particular, it envisaged shipping by October 143,000 tonnes of flour and grain, 28,000 tonnes of meat and fish, and 3,000 tonnes of oil for a total of 173,000 tonnes of produce. 

However, none of this happened in reality: what actually happened is that the mountain gave birth to a mouse. In the first 30 days of navigation, only 9,800 tonnes of food were delivered to the west bank of Lake Ladoga – 330 tonnes a day! And although the quantity did increase over time, between 1 October and mid November, when navigation on the lake had to stop due to the early onset of a very cold winter, only 45,000  tonnes of foodstuffs (44,000 tonnes of grain, flour, cereals, and hardtack, plus approximately 400 tonnes of concentrated milk and around 600 tonnes of meat, fish, and fats) were eventually shipped. 

These quantities were not only not sufficient to increase food storage levels but were furthermore not sufficient to provide the blockaded city with the minimum official rations. On 8 November, two months exactly after the capture of Shlisselburg, the Germans took Tikhvin, the last railway marshalling yard from which goods could be transported directly to the south-east shore of Lake Ladoga. The northern route, using the station at Lodeynoe Pole, had been lost earlier, when the Finns reached the Svir river and created a bridgehead on its southern bank. Henceforth, goods for Leningrad would have to travel from further afield on  forests roads over hundreds of kilometres. 

The seventy Douglas DC-3 cargo planes allocated for the establishment of an air bridge could of course not resolve the immense city’s food supply problems on their own. In any event, they were destined for quite another purpose: their task was to carry qualified specialists along with optical and electronic equipment out of the city. What food they did carry into the town was hardly intended for simple folk: 346 tonnes of cured meats, 257,000 tins of meat and fish, 52 tonnes of chocolate, 18 tonnes of butter, 9 tonnes of cheese… 

On 9 December, a counter-attack initiated by the Red Army managed to drive the Germans out of Tikhvin,  with the railroad from Tikhvin to Volkhov being cleared of enemy over the next 10 days. By this time, Lake Ladoga had frozen solid, turning it into an immense ‘hardtop’. Indeed vehicles had been venturing across the  ice from 22 November onwards. 

All this notwithstanding, Leningrad continued to be spoon-fed supplies, hardly a metaphor in this case, given  the number of mouths to be fed and the quantities brought in. 

Only 800 tonnes of flour – less than a single day’s requirement – was brought in over the first nine days of operation of the ‘road of life’, as the ice road was dubbed. Two thousand two hundred and eighty-two tonnes  were transported between 1 and 10 December, and it was only in the latter third of the month that 600-750  tonnes a day began to be carried. In the early days of the ice road, the 17th Motor Transport Brigade had only 120 trucks at its disposal. This number rose by the end of December to 2,800 vehicles, of which fewer than one thousand went on missions as the rest were immobilised due to lack of fuel or the need for repairs. 

In order to make sense of these figures, one should recall that at the start of the war (i.e. before the mobilisation of motor vehicles from all spheres of the economy), the Leningrad Military District disposed of 20,500 trucks and 4,200 tractors. (In winter conditions, tractors with sledges attached would have been far more useful than the rickety 1½-tonne load capacity GAZ-AA trucks.) The next-door Baltic Military District, whose troops had retreated to the territory of the Leningrad Military District in July brought with them a  further 13,500 trucks and 3,000 tractors. After the declaration of full mobilisation (the Leningrad District’s  plan for which was met in full), the army disposed of roughly twice as many vehicles as previously. In addition to all this, Leningrad’s giant military enterprises had thousands of vehicles of their own, none of  which were subject to mobilisation. 

We know that vehicle losses during the retreat of summer-autumn 1941 were surprisingly low. Total vehicles  losses for the whole of 1941 amounted to 33%. In other words, there were tens of thousands of trucks and many thousands of tractors within the blockaded area. Leningrad’s plants and factories were perfectly able to  carry out all and any repairs, including the manufacture of parts. So where were these vehicles and what did  they do? What was there that was more important to do than to supply food and fuel to the dying city? 

3. Starvation and Death 

As a result of the food supply situation being so dire, it became necessary to reduce consumption. On 6  October, a daily usage limit of 1,000 tonnes was decreed. This was further reduced from 1 November to 735 tonnes and again on 13 November to 622 tonnes. On 20 November, this, too, was dropped to 510 tonnes. It  should further be noted that these amounts refer to the mix of flour and ‘technically edible fillers’ used to make the revolting ‘blockade bread’. 

One should also bear in mind that a war was being fought and the priority was to feed the army. The miserable supplies available had to be shared between the soldiers at the front and the civilian population and those shares were not going to be anything like equal. Thus, the limit of 1,000 tonnes set on 6 October (by, it should be noted, the Military Council of the Leningrad Front and not the city authorities) was to be divided into 312 tonnes for the army and fleet and just 587 tonnes for the town’s inhabitants, even though there were seven times as many of them. When the allocation reached its minimum of 510 tonnes, the split was 169 tonnes for the army and fleet and just 310 for the other two and half million mouths waiting to be  fed. 

In October 1941, the bread ration was dropped to 400 grammes for workers and 200 grammes for dependants. Not even the larger ration gets anywhere near the 1,700 kcal that a person at rest in warm premises requires. The houses were not warm: the winter was unusually early and cold, there was no central heating, pipes froze and it became necessary to fetch buckets of water from holes cut in the ice of the Neva  river.  

On 20 November a new ration was introduced: 250 grammes of bread for workers and 125 for dependants, who now made up about two-thirds of the total because so many had been made jobless following factory  closures. 

By November the death rate in Leningrad was running at twice the pre-war level. Deaths from starvation  began in December. People would pass out in the street and bodies were left to freeze uncollected from dwellings. In December, 53,000 people died in the city; 102,000 more in January; 108,000 in February. No one was able to remove the bodies. Whole families were dying. Between 19 December and 1 March, Local Air Defence rescue teams collected 9,207 people who had collapsed from starvation in the streets and disposed of 261,000 bodies. By 21 February the following year, 886 people had been arrested for “murder with the intention of consuming corpse meat”. 

In late December, a gradually growing trickle of food being transported by truck across the ice of Lake Ladoga saw the flour allocation raised from 510 to 560 tonnes per day, with the townsfolk’s share going from 310 to 395 tonnes.  

A new bread ration was introduced on 25 December 1941: 350 grammes for workers and 200 grammes for non-manual workers and dependants. Although clearly more than before in the purely arithmetic sense, the new ration mattered little in real life: this amount of food was not enough to survive on, particularly in the deep frost of winter (something January’s doubled death rate would sadly confirm). Still, Comrade Zhdanov was able to report to Moscow on the day of the announcement that the increased ration had brought about “a  real holiday feeling” in the city. 

While leaving it to our current crop of deputies to the State Duma of the Russian Federation to decide if such  a statement is in breach of any Russian laws against being offensive, we might more usefully for our part take a closer look at Leningrad Front Military Council Directive N° 00320 dated 6 December 1941 (the only one of its kind I have ever been able to find in the archives). The document defined food allocation limits and in it one finds that besides the two main categories of ration recipient (soldiers/sailors and townsfolk), the  Directive lists another category: “closed [i.e special or secret] establishments and catering.” What is very  notable for this mysterious category is that it does not appear to consume bread or sugar since its allocations consist of meats and fats – and rather generous ones at that. For instance 49 tonnes of meat (as against 72  tonnes allocated for the general population of 2½ million) and 19.6 tonnes of fats (general population 51.5  tonnes). As for the 346 tons of cured meats brought in by air in November-December, there is nary a mention  of such delicacies in any of the recollections of plain Leningraders… 

Other testimonies are, however, to be found. In 1998, Professor N.N. Kozlova of the Russian State University for the Humanities published the diary of one N.A. Ribkovsky, which he kept during the Leningrad blockade. Comrade Ribkovsky was born in 1903. He graduated from the Moscow Party University (Moskovskaya  Vysshaya Partiinaya Shkola) in 1940 and was appointed Secretary of the District Committee of the Party in Vyborg. When the town was re-taken by the Finnish army in August 1941, he made his way to Leningrad  where, after three months of waiting for arrangements to be made, he was appointed to the fairly menial post  of instructor in the personnel department of the city party committee. This was by no means a high-ranking job. 

His diary entry for 9 December reads: “As for food, I am now not doing too badly. Breakfast in the morning  consists of macaroni, noodles, and porridge with butter and two cups of sweet tea. Lunch comes as shchi or [3] some other soup and the main course is meat every day. For example, yesterday my starter was fresh cabbage shchi with smetana and the main course a meat rissole with vermicelli, while today we had a clear soup with vermicelli to start, with pork and stewed cabbage to follow.” 

In early March 1942 (during which 99,000 people died of starvation), a senior staff member was sent for rest and recuperation to the so-called City Party Committee hospital. Nothing so plain and workmanlike as pork with stewed cabbage was on the menu there: “The food here is as good as in a peacetime sanatorium… There is something meaty every day – lamb, ham, chicken, goose, turkey, sausage. There’s also fish – bream, herring, or smelt, which they serve fried, boiled or in jelly. We get caviar, smoked fish, cheese, pies, cocoa, coffee, tea, and 300 grammes of white and the same again of black per day, with 30 grammes of butter.  Besides that, we can also have 50 grammes of wine or port with lunch and supper…” 

This entry is dated 5 March 1942 and ends with the delightful sentence: “Indeed, a recuperative break such  as this, on the front lines during a long blockade, could only happen thanks to Bolshevism, to Soviet power.” 

4. Rescue Comes too Late 

On 29 December 1941, the Leningrad Front Military Council published a special directive in which it stated  that the ‘road of life’ (the crossing over the ice of the lake) was considered to be ‘completely intolerable’. On  5 January 1942, Leningrad Front Council Member and Secretary of the Central Committee Comrade  Zhdanov gave a speech to the men of the road’s military transport unit, which he opened by saying: “Dear Comrades! The vehicle passage on the ice is continuing to operate most unsatisfactorily…” 

Source: reddit

As Soviet historians tell it, the response to Zhdanov’s talk was that all the troops engaged on the road held meetings at which bla-bla-bla… In actual fact, they did more, fortunately, than hold demonstrations and gather in party meetings. The first thing they did, not just chronologically but also in importance, was to restore movement on the Tikhvin – Volkhov – Voibokalo railway line, thus bringing the transfer point for goods 15 kilometres closer to the lakeshore on Shlisselburg Bay so that trucks could now make two round trips a day. The number of vehicles involved was massively increased and real improvements were made to the  supply of fuel for them. 

Results were rapidly apparent. On 19 January alone, 3,315 tonnes of goods, half as much again as were  transported over 10 days in early December, were carried across. The daily average quantity transported in January was 1,764 tonnes – four times as much as was carried in November and December. This increased  again in February, with a figure of 3,071 per day, while the total for March was 118,000 tonnes (or 3,946 per  day). In fact, 6,243 tonnes were carried across to the western shore of Lake Ladoga on one single day, 31 March. Eighty-seven thousand tonnes were delivered during the last three weeks that the road was operable  (up to 21 April) for a daily amount NINE TIMES as great as the average level for December 1941. 

Three-quarters of the goods carried consisted of food – 271,000 tonnes in total. Furthermore, over the winter of 1941-42, the transports also brought in 35,000 tonnes of fuel and lubricants, 23,000 tonnes of coal, and 32,000 tonnes of armaments and munitions. The transports did not return empty either. Out of Leningrad came the output of the city’s military factories – regimental 76mm cannon, mortars, electronic and optical equipment, and also men who were being moved from Leningrad to reinforce the military units on the Volkhov front. 

On 22 January 1942, the decision was at last taken to carry out a mass evacuation of the city’s civilian  population. (Prior to this, and without waiting for official permission or assistance from the authorities, 36,000 people had managed to walk across the ice or use ‘unofficial transport’ to escape the city.) Using the ice road, 554,000 were taken over to the ‘mainland’ between 22 January and 15 April 1942. 

The greatly increased quantities of food reaching the city together with the evacuation of a considerable  number of mouths that required feeding improved the food situation for the soldiers and townsfolk who remained. From 24 January, the bread ration was increased to 400 grammes daily and combat troops received a daily ration of 150 grammes of meat, which raised the calorific content of their daily ration to 2,830 kcal – not that much in sub-zero temperatures, although it at least removed the threat of  starvation. On 11 February, the bread ration for the general population was increased for a third time, to 500  grammes for workers and 300 grammes for children and dependants. The use of ‘technically edible fillers’ in  the bread was stopped. The ration was now, for the first time since the start of the blockade, just above  survival level. By March, the worker’s ration reached 600 grammes and groats, sugar, fats, and meat became  available. 

Deaths, however, continued. In the tens of thousands. Ninety-nine thousand deaths occurred in March, 80,000 in April, and 53,000 in May. The sun was already warm and summery, early vegetables were making  an appearance (every tiny patch of land around the city and even within it was cultivated), the water supply was restored, trams were running, special feeding stations were established for the hundreds of thousands suffering from starvation, yet deaths went on running high. Alas, alimentary dystrophy is a severe condition and is not just a matter of ‘feeling hungry’. In fact, in its later stages the starved person does not feel hunger. The person suffering from this condition undergoes profound and frequently irreversible complications, notably kidney failure and oedemas of the entire body, and eventually dies as his body ceases to be able to cope. 

Strictly speaking, each and every person who managed by some miracle to survive ‘the days of the 120-gramme blockade ration’ needed hospital treatment that should then have been followed by a period of  recuperation in a sanatorium. Of course, with war raging all around them, the very idea was no more than a  sad joke… 

Thirty-four thousand more died in June, 18,000 in July, and 9,000 in August. Matters were much the same – delayed deaths as a result of alimentary dystrophy – with the Leningraders who had made it out of the city alive to the ‘mainland’ over the course of the blockade. However, their numbers were never included in the  statistics. 

According to the more reliable and guarded figures available, 600,000 people in all died in the ‘Leningrad  holodomor’. 

5. Could things have been done another way? 

No thinking person can help but ask himself that question when faced with the above facts. Why wasn’t Leningrad given better supplies and why wasn’t the civilian population evacuated faster and sooner in order to save lives? How is one to explain the obviously deficient, measurable not in percentage terms but in order of magnitude, flow of goods and the literal lack of transport in 1941? 

Was there enough food to feed the population? Theoretically – yes. I have Comrade Stalin himself to  support me in stating this: in his 9 February 1946 speech at the constituency meeting in Moscow already mentioned above, he also said that the Soviet Union in 1940 had produced “38.3 million tonnes of commercial grain”. The term ‘commercial’, in this case, means grain that has been delivered to state storage facilities and does not take into account grain retained by the collective and state farms. To provide the  population of Leningrad with bread for six months (even without any evacuation) in accordance with the set norm, required 1,500 tonnes a day for a total of just 270,000 tonnes – 0.7% (!) of the amount in state storage facilities. Not a great deal for the city which manufactured 30% of the country’s armaments. 

Was there a route to deliver the goods? Yes. Across the lake by water transport or over the ice when it was  frozen. Throughout the period of the Holodomor of 1941-42, transportation was interrupted for just two  weeks in November 1941. Sixty kilometres of shoreline on the Leningrad side of the lake were under Soviet control and freely available to the city for the duration of the ‘blockade’. With the exception of one month (8  November – 9 December 1941), it remained possible to carry goods by rail to Voybokalo station, 15 kms away from the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. It is important also not to forget that rail links between the city and the rest of the country continued to operate normally right up until 30 August, more than two months after the start of the war (which is how a considerable part of the the Leningrad State Reserves Directorate’s stores were removed from the city). 

Did the country have enough fuel for the trucks on the ‘road of life’? This strange question is also asked from time to time. Let’s consider. From Voybokalo station to the unloading bays on the western (Leningrad) side of the lake is a distance of not more than 60 kilometres. A GAZ-AA 1½-tonner would burn 25 litres of fuel for the trip there and back. Four thousand trips would fully satisfy the city’s needs, for a total of 100,000 litres or  71 tonnes of fuel per day. During the war, the USSR produced 11,400 tonnes of petrol a day – shamefully  little, given that oil production was running at 76,000 tonnes a day. The ‘road of life’, however, only wanted  0.6% of the petrol produced by the country in order to operate. Given Leningrad’s importance to our warring  country, it could well have have been allocated two or ten times more fuel.  

In any event, the ‘road of life’ solution was quite the wrong way to set about things. Everything that the city needed could have been transported more efficiently and cheaply by another mode of transport – by boat. 

6. Was Navigation Possible on Lake Ladoga? 

In the distant past, Finnish and Slavic tribes dwelt on the shores of Lake Ladoga, where they fished, hunted for furs, sailed the lake to trade, and travelled down the Neva and Vuoksi rivers to reach the Bay of Finland.  Archeologists have found Viking weapons in digs on the eastern shore of Ladoga and Karelian ornaments in  Sweden. One of Orthodoxy’s most famous monasteries was built on Valaam Island, located in the northern  sector of the lake. N. Ozeretskovsky described these parts in his 1792 book A Journey to Lakes Ladoga and  Onega: “Lake Ladoga’s shores teem with people and they travel the lake on all sorts of vessels, carrying the  results of their artisan labours to Saint Petersburg. Many of them labour on the lake itself, fishing and  catching seals, sailing across it in all directions.” 

In 1880, N. Bogolyubov in his book Ship-Building and Navigation on Lakes and Rivers, remarked: “The environs of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega are hives of artisanal activities and shipping. Lake Ladoga even has its own shipping industry… Private steamboats and shipping lines are of course the major carriers of goods, providing  regular routes between Petersburg, Shlisselburg, Valaam, Kanevts, Serdobol [now Sortavala], Petrozavodsk, Povenets, and other ports on the two lakes… These boats are trusted by the public and they sail on them quite happily. Some sail to Petrozavodsk as many as 90 times a season.” 

In summer 1942, the Germans wanted to disrupt navigation on Lake Ladoga and decided to organise their own flotilla on it. To this end, dismantled parts were despatched by rail to Lakhdenpokhya station on the northern shore of the lake, where they began to assemble some strange objects, each consisting of two  pontoons, connected by a wide deck carrying an anti-aircraft gun in an armoured superstructure. These technological wonders were at first planned to be self-propelled anti-aircraft batteries and are listed in the organisational tables as ‘Siebel ferries’ (Siebelfähre ) and came under the Luftwaffe (yes, really). 

The Siebel ferries began military activities in September and ceased operation at the end of October 1942,  meaning that they were set to work during the period of the worst autumn storms. These boxy steel craft were as slow as tortoises, with a speed of 5-6 knots, and crossed the lake diagonally from north to south,  attacking Soviet shipping and even landed marines at the Sukho Lighthouse on the tiny island of the same  name. The Germans’ report on this project concluded that the concept was futile – “…the successes attained by the units deployed in this way were insignificant and the cost of these operations on Lake Ladoga cannot  be justified.” The German anti-aircraft gunners had too little training in boat management and the vessels themselves were unsuitable for naval warfare. One thing stands out for the absence of its mention in the report: nowhere does it say that navigation on Lake Ladoga is not possible. 

Nor did the Soviet leadership have any doubts about its possibility. Indeed, it had grandiose plans for  shipping operations on the lake – although the planned large shipments were for the transportation of goods not to Leningrad, but from the city. On 4 October 1941, Stalin held a conference over radio link with Zhdanov and Kuznetsov in which they spoke about evacuating the tank production line: “To transport to the east from Leningrad the machine tools, presses, electrical equipment, the foundry, forges, and rolling mills…  The evacuation of all the above is to be undertaken across Lake Ladoga and taken to Volkhovstroi.” They replied: “We agree with your proposals. Plans for the evacuation of the Kirov and Izhorsk plants together with  Factory N° 174 and others involved in tank production will be delivered within 24 hours.” 

The port of Osinovets (on the “undeveloped lakeshore” as certain present-day historians hasten to  emphasise) became a hive of activity: dredging was carried out, piers were built, cranes erected. This was not a matter of moving 50kg sacks of flour; forging equipment and rollings mills weighing ton upon ton would have to be handled. Some items were actually loaded and shipped off to the ‘mainland’ before 19 November when, with the icebound period approaching, it was decided to cease the evacuation and take the equipment still waiting off the western shore back to the plants. 

This work was, however, not done in vain, because, when the “second navigation” (summer-autumn 1942)  came, 1,100,000 tonnes of goods were transported to and fro across the lake. To Leningrad went 790,000 tonnes – THIRTEEN times as much as was transported in the 1941 navigation period. Food alone was brought in at the rate of 2,000 tonnes a day (not counting live cattle, of which 16,500 head were brought). In the other direction went 540,000 evacuees and 28,000 pieces of industrial equipment, 138 steam engines, and 2,027 wagons, flatbeds, and cisterns. 

It is only in recent years – when people have begun to publicly ask questions about, and examine the facts of, the Leningrad Holodomor – that doubts (or rather hysterical attempts to deny the obvious) have been expressed about how much shipping Lake Ladoga could carry. One of the supposedly “irrefutable”  arguments put forward comes in the form of a question: “If Lake Ladoga was so well able to support navigation, then why were hundreds of kilometres of canals constructed along its southern shore?” There is a  simple answer to this and it has long been known. 

After Peter the Great decided to build his city in the Neva bogland, it suddenly and unexpectedly (as always)  turned out that his “window on Europe” was being founded in a place that had no transport links with the interior of the country. Even supplying the new town with its prime necessities was proving to be a nearly insoluble problem. The solution was found in the establishment of the so-called Vishnevolotsky water route. A system of canals would connect the rivers Tvertsa, Tsna, Msta, and Volkhov and so enable barge navigation from Tver on the Volga to Lake Ladoga, and then on by the Neva to Saint Petersburg. These rivers were,  however, shallow; vessels could not have a draft of more than 67cm in spring and 53cm in summer. The  barges were pulled along the waterways by teams of horses (10 horses per barge at a speed of two kilometres  per hour). 

Barges could not travel in this way on Lake Ladoga for two evident reasons: waves would overturn the flat bottomed barges, and neither horses nor barge-haulers would be able to pull them due to the impossibility of creating tow-paths on a ragged shoreline. For this reason, a canal had to be constructed from the mouth of  the Volkhov, where it flowed into Lake Ladoga, to the Neva at Shlisselburg, with a cobbled tow-path for the  horses. When railways made their appearance in the 19th century, the significance of this waterway dropped  to nil; the Staro-Ladozhsky Canal was left to silt up, while the Novo-Ladozhsky Canal was put to use for the  winter storage of boats. 

7. Counteracting the enemy 

One can’t have a war without an enemy to fight. The Germans, of course, tried to disrupt supplies to  Leningrad. Shells crashed down to break the ice on the lake. Aerial fighting took place above it. Fighter planes burst into flames and came crashing down in plumes of smoke. Pilots died. It would be easy for the author to worry the reader with endless tales of the soul-shaking howl of bombs and shrapnel and the shredded bodies of infants, with their mothers wailing beside them… However, that is not the task of this essay. Its purpose is to invite the reader to switch on his brain and to try to understand the true scale of  events, to view the matter in the context of the realities on the ground. 

The Germans never once tried to “take to the ice” and attack the convoys on the “road of life”. The reason for this is that the ground, or in this case ice, defences were very considerable, with dozens of “ice bunkers”  (bunkers constructed from blocks of ice) along the route. These were so good that the Germans thought  better than to risk attacks. 

Aviation was the only way that the enemy could presume to disrupt the Ladoga transport route. That,  however, meant having aviation with which to do so. However, in early September 1941, the Germans only had a little over 1,000 operational warplanes for a front running from Murmansk to Odessa. The Luftwaffe’s  weaknesses had to be compensated for by “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and the Leningrad front was low in the  list of priorities. The only time aircraft (including Ju-97 dive-bombers, of which Army Group North had none in the first weeks of the war) ever appeared en masse over Leningrad was in September and even then they  were not tasked with hunting rusty barges on the lake but with destroying the Baltic Fleet’s major surface  combatants (including two battleships!) that were gathered in the port at that time. Having carried out this task with relative success, the dive-bombers were transferred to Army Group Centre, where the grandiose advance aiming to surround and seize Moscow was under way. 

The consequences of all this to-ing and fro-ing are clearly reflected in the reports of Leningrad’s aerial defence forces: “The first bomb was dropped by a German plane on 6 September… From October 1941 onwards, the German command went over to nightly bombing runs by single bombers… Due to a lack of success, the German airforce ceased flights over the city on December 1941 and only renewed them in April  1942…” The actual figures are as follows: in September, 675 sorties were made on Leningrad; in October –  377; in November – 388; in December – 59; and in January, February and March – 0. 

To clarify the scale of what this means, one should bear in mind that 675 sorties for the whole of September 1941 is the same as one single Luftwaffe bombing run on London. A geographically closer comparison can be  made if one considers the Winter War with Finland, where over three months the Soviet bomber command carried out 45,000 sorties, including 14,600 sorties deep in the Finnish rear. 

Perhaps the clearest confirmation of the low presence (not to say, non-existence) of the enemy in the air may be seen in an action report of the 123rd Fighter Regiment (the regiment defending the air over Lake Ladoga). The report was dated 25 January 1942, and includes such statements as “thanks to the self-sacrificial work of our pilots, the enemy was able only on seven occasions to get close to his targets and drop his bombs. No  serious damage was caused.”  

One might decide that this is just a boastful fisherman’s tall story, but real figures confirm the claims: the regiment carried out 3,100 sorties and in the process lost just 17 aircraft. This is one loss for 177 sorties, a  remarkable number. Strictly speaking, given that aircraft engines have a life expectancy of 100-150 hours, no plane could actually make 177 sorties. The Soviet airforce on average counted one loss for every 28 fighter plane sorties (with the best ever figure of one loss per 66 sorties set in June and August by the air force of the Southern Front, where the enemy was the small and weak Romanian airforce.) 

Ground defences were plentiful, too. Two anti-aircraft divisions and three separate AA batteries were positioned in the port of Osinovets, on the west bank, and one division each in the ports of Kobe and Novaya  Ladoga on Ladoga’s south bank. Directly on the ice of the lake, anti-aircraft machine-gun posts were established at 3km intervals, with additional guns every 1.5km, while every convoy was accompanied by 10 mobile quad gun units. 

Thus, during the evacuation of the civilian population between 22 January and 15 April, enemy air attacks  resulted in six killed and 66 wounded. On the other hand, 2,394 people died as a result of starvation  while being evacuated. 

8. Possible Answers 

As the title of this essay implies, the task herein was to collate facts and then formulate questions. No  promise of answers was given. Finding them will require the serious efforts of many specialists. 

Nevertheless, I would like to propose a fairly plausible hypothesis that was first (as far as I know) put forward  by N.N. Sabchenko [4] and that is that the famine came about because NO FOOD WAS SUPPLIED FOR TRANSPORTATION to the city: the food situation in Leningrad was determined not by the transport  capacity available, but by the very availability (or lack thereof) of food in the staging areas on the  south bank of Lake Ladoga. 

This hypothesis has indubitable merit. It is simple, logical, and holds no hint of conspirology. Its sole disadvantage is the conclusion to which this leads: that the words ‘siege of Leningrad’ should only ever be  written in inverted commas and that over 600,00 people died in a siege that never was. This conclusion will  of course be totally unacceptable to ‘sov-patriots’ and will have them still more loudly screaming blue murder about the uniquely vicious quality of Lake Ladoga’s waves and the sky-darkening hordes of Luftwaffe  bombers… 

For those readers who are not prone to hysterics, I would like to mention that the fate of the Leningrad  population was no different from that of the villagers thrown out into the frost from their burning homes on the approaches to Moscow. The slogan “Give all for the front, give all for victory” included people, too. 

One should of course not totally exclude criminal negligence as one of the factors that led to starvation in Leningrad. However, one can only suppose that the main factor was the conscious decision that the first and foremost priorities were 1) to rescue (extract from encirclement) the men of the Leningrad Front, and 2) to destroy the city’s industrial infrastructure before it was seized by the enemy. The survival of 2,500,000  townsfolk was simply not a priority. 


© Mark Solonin, 2022  

English Translation © David Loutit, 2022 

The Siege of Leningrad © 2022 by Mark Solonin is licensed under  Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International. To view a copy of this  license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/ 


Notes

[1] Many publications wrongly give a larger number. This is due to a confusion that came about because of the fact that at the start of the war, when the appearance of Germans at the approaches to the city was still unthinkable, 175,000 children had been sent to  summer camps in the south and south-east of Leningrad district. They were, however, brought back to the city when the German  advance drew closer. 

[2]  The siege is dated as beginning on 8 September 1941. Germany invaded Russia on 22 June.

[3]  Traditional Russian cabbage soup. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shchi  

[4]  Nikolai Nikolayevich Savchenko is a Russian Orthodox priest and the author of a number of articles on the history of Russia in the 20th century. 


The text of this translation by David Loutit can be downloaded here:


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