Their demands to Finland for a trade in territory unmet, the Soviet Union launched the Winter War invaded Finland on November 30th, 1939. A few days earlier, to create a casus belli, the Red Army had shelled the Russian village of Mainila and blamed it on the Finns. The Soviets, however, were terribly unprepared, and poorly led. Not expecting the tenacity that the Finns put up in defense, the invasion quickly stalled against the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Isthmus.
The fierce winter that came on the tail of the attack did no wonders for the Soviets either, who had poorer winter gear than their opponents, and some lacked any at all. With temperatures plunging at times to below -40 degrees, more than a few simply froze to death.
It wasn’t until February that the Soviets, with new leadership and better preparation, were able to renew the offensive and punch through the Mannerheim Line. Their main defenses breached, and the hoped for foreign intervention not forthcoming – or at least, not coming in enough time, as the British were making overtures – the Finns had no choice but to enter peace negotiations, the war officially coming to an end on March 13th, 1940.
The Finns were forced to turn over significant territory on their eastern border, and just over a year later, would resume hostilities in the so called Continuation War, joining Germany as a ‘co-belligerent’ at the onset of Operation Barbarossa.
Tatiana Savicheva (January 25, 1930 – July 1, 1944) was a Russian child diarist who died during the Siege of Leningrad in the World War II. Her diary is one of the most tragic symbols of the Siege of 1941-1945.
Twelve-year old Tanya Savicheva started her diary just before Anne Frank. They were of almost the same age and wrote about the same things – about the horrors of fascism. And, again, both these girls died without seeing victory day – Tanya died in July of 1944 and Anne in March of 1945. “The Diary of Anne Frank” (which was a carefully kept journal over a period of two years) was published all over the world and she has become one of the most renowned and most discussed victims of the Holocaust. “The Diary of Tanya Savicheva” was not published at all – it contains only seven scary notes about the deaths of her family members in Leningrad at the time of the blockade.
Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was in the midst of a devastating 900-day blockade that lasted from September 1941 until January 1944. The German army had laid siege to the city, bombarded it and cut off all supplies in its attempt to ‘wipe it off the map’, as Hitler had ordered.
The Savicheva family had all answered the call to help bolster the city’s defences. Tanya, only 11 years old, helped dig anti-tank trenches. On 12 September 1941, the largest food warehouse, the Badayev, was destroyed, bombed with German incendiaries. Three thousand tonnes of flour burned, thousands of tons of grain went up in smoke, meat frazzled, butter melted, sugar turned molten and seeped into the cellars. ‘The streets that night ran with melted chocolate,’ said one witness, ‘and the air was rich and sticky with the smell of burning sugar.’ The situation, already severe, became critical.
Road of Life
As winter approached, Lake Ladoga, to the east of the city, froze. From December 1941, supplies of foodstuffs, fuel and medicine came through by convoys of trucks, a hazardous journey over thin ice and through enemy bombardment. What was brought in on this ‘Road of Life’, although vital, was only ever a fraction of what was needed.
Within the city, as that first winter progressed, whatever could be eaten had been consumed – pets, livestock, birds, vermin. And whatever could be burnt had been used for firewood. Tanya had kept a thick diary but this, as with every other book in the household, had been used for fuel – except for a slim notebook.
The youngest of five children, Tanya Savicheva’s father had died when she was six. Tanya, her mother and her five siblings, in common with every citizen of Leningrad, suffered terribly from hunger and cold. One winter’s day, Tanya’s sister Nina, 12 years older, failed to return. The family assumed that like so many hundreds of others, she had succumbed and died. In fact, Nina had been evacuated out of the city across Lake Ladoga at a moment’s notice. She returned to the city only after the war.
One by one, the remaining members of Tanya’s family died, and it was recording of each death that constituted the notebook.
The first entry recorded the death of her sister, Zhenya, who died at midday on 28 December 1941. Others were to follow until the sixth and final death, that of Tanya’s mother, on 13 May 1942. A neighbour described the tragic figure of this young girl:
‘When Tanya lost everyone, she became deranged with grief. She would clutch at a small house plant, which had only a few withered leaves left, and was virtually dead. Somehow, it seemed to remind Tanya of her family. She would stand by her stove, swaying from side to side, holding it close to her, in a terrible trance. She was trying to bring it back to life.’
Tanya herself was eventually evacuated out of the city in August 1942, along with about 150 other children, to a village called Shatki. But whilst most of the others recovered and lived, Tanya, already too ill, died of tuberculosis on 1 July 1944.
Her notebook was presented as evidence of Nazi terror at the post-war Nuremberg Trials, and today is on display at the History Museum in St Petersburg.
The text of Tanya’s notebook reads as follows:
Zhenya died on Dec. 28th at 12:00 P.M. 1941
Grandma died on Jan. 25th 3:00 P.M. 1942
Leka died on March 5th at 5:00 A.M. 1942
Uncle Vasya died on Apr. 13th at 2:00 after midnight 1942
Women’s experience during the siege of Leningrad: Leningrad’s women, 16-45, were mobilized by the thousands. Women were the majority of the half-million civilians who dug anti-tank ditches and defense fortifications and1,500 women were mobilized to work in peat bogs to provide the city with fuel.
The long-suffering women of Leningrad suddenly realized that on them lay the fate not only of their family, but of their city, even of the entire country. Aware of the burden placed upon them to protect their city, able-bodied Leningradian women between 16- and 45-years-old were mobilized in numbers reaching the hundreds of thousands. Women formed the vast majority of the approximately half-million civilians assembled to build anti-tank ditches and defense fortifications along the Pskov-Ostrov and Luga rivers, and 1,500 women were mobilized to work in peat bogs to provide the city with fuel.
The death of men in Leningrad during the war made the siege of Leningrad a woman’s experience. In the face of the men’s absence, women were expected to replace men in the factories, prepare defense fortifications, and protect the city from incendiary bombs, among many other traditionally male duties. All the while, women also fulfilled their traditional responsibilities, such as maintaining home and hearth and preserving societal morality, all increasingly difficult tasks during the severe conditions of the siege. Women managed to assume both roles, all while suffering from starvation, the disintegration of relationships, and alienation from their own bodies. Their experience of the siege illustrates how the ideology of the “new Soviet woman” — woman as man’s professional equal, fulltime worker, loyal Communist citizen, and devoted mother and wife — persisted in the darkest days of the siege of Leningrad.
There are a ton of survivor testimonials on the siege of Leningrad on YouTube.
The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days. Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation. 750 000 people died, which represented between quarter and a third of the city’s pre-siege population. It was the greatest loss of life experienced by a modern city.
I got 2 minutes into this one before I couldn’t take any more.