By Lada Semakova
The Blockada, more famously known as The Siege of Leningrad or Operation Barbarossa, began in September 1941 and finished some 900 days later in January 1944. The Blockada was meant to destroy Russia’s major commercial center by eliminating its population through starvation and bombing. Today the Blockada is regarded as one of the lengthiest and most devastating sieges in history. The siege resulted in the death of one million soldiers. Three million were wounded or sick. Over one million civilian deaths occurred during the siege and after evacuations. The city was not able to return to its original population as per before the Blockada until the 1960s.
The square screen appears in the Skype window and with a familiar trill the video starts. I’m so glad he picked up. Now, as though the thousands of miles between Toronto, Canada and St. Petersburg, Russia have vanished, he sits in front of me.
He hasn’t changed much. Perhaps he cut his hair. It’s as white as ever. His skin glows. His cheeks burn pink. His lips curl into a luminous smile. The wrinkles beside his eyes crinkle in the thin golden frames of his glasses. This man has not aged in my eyes since I was a child. My dedushka, Vladimir Mihailovich Semakov, observes me with a soft gaze through the screen of my MacBook. I grin.
Behind my dedushka I see the familiar interior of my grandparents’ apartment. I see the gold-framed painting of peonies hung at the center of the wall and the oak armoire positioned in the corner and the same old yellow couch in the middle of the living room that I played on when I was six. The desk lamp lights Dedushka’s face. Everything behind him drowns in the blue hue of the television.
I grasp my pen. I bite down on the side of my cheek and furrow my brow, eager to ask Dedushka about his childhood. But a part of me is scared of what he’ll tell me.
Well you can’t expect much from me. I’m sure you, too, in a couple of years won’t remember what happened to you as a toddler. In 1941, I was only three years old, living in St. Petersburg. During the Soviet times it was called Leningrad.
A lot of the details are blurry and many of them were brought back to my memory through stories that others told me. But what I can swear my life on is that at the time nobody expected Germany to invade. Everyone discussed the possibility, but every clear thinking adult was sure that for Germany to fight two wars at once would be complete suicide.
Actually, now that I think of it, there is a trivial memory that I do recall. It was early September in 1941 that my mom and I were riding on the streetcar passing by Ligovka Street. That day, my mom dressed me in my favourite Russian navy outfit. The white and dark blue stripes of my matroska ran horizontally over my chest. A bezkozirka hat rested atop my head, the red star with the hammer and sickle embroidered in the center. That hat was my pride and joy.
That day, I heard the wail of the air raid siren for the first time. A flood of people stampeded in the streets. We evacuated the streetcar in search of cover. Feet pounded the cobblestones. Sirens blared from black square gramophones that towered over the city on the sides of buildings and ten-foot wooden posts. My mom’s hand clutched mine. My eyes, wide with confusion, searched for the source of the furor. The bezkozirka skimmed the top of my head as it flew off. I yanked back to grab it, but with a violent pull my mother’s hand jerked me forward, leaving the hat trampled under the feet of thousands of civilians clamoring for the bomb shelters. Oh did I ever miss that hat!
But that was just the start. Soon the German and Finnish troops encircled Leningrad from both sides. All commerce ceased. Imports and exports halted. The Germans worked strategically and studied the locations of all factories and produce storages in the city. They blew them up.
Air raids happened daily. At first people took essential supplies and documentation with them before descending into the bomb shelters. But in a matter of weeks the city’s produce supplies began to diminish and the famine set in.
Hunger only got worse with the onset of the Russian winter. Soon some people couldn’t go down to the bomb shelters, their bodies too feeble for the physical demand of climbing down a flight of stairs.
If you talk to more people who lived through the Blockada, they’d tell you that they could get past the cold and poverty and the daily death that they witnessed around them, but one thing was omnipresent: starvation. Oh darling, you could never forget the feeling of starvation.
German bombs did not take away the most lives during the Blockada, malnourishment did. Skeletons roamed the city. People would collapse walking on the streets and they would die in stairwell landings and in alleyways and they would freeze on the sides of roads as others walked by without a single look. The body trucks eventually picked up the dead and carried off piles of corpses in their trunks. These people ceased to have names. They wouldn’t even have graves.
Six months into the Blockada, by a stroke of luck, Mom, Grandma and I escaped on a train headed for the Arkhangelsk province where we spent two years. Dad stayed in the city and fought.
We lived for Dad’s letters. We prayed they would never stop coming.
In 1944 I turned six and my family reunited in the rubble of Leningrad. We returned to my childhood home on Dostoyevsky Street to find that everything in the apartment had been burned as firewood: books, toys, appliances, furniture. The only thing left standing were the two metal bed frames at the center of the room.
The siege ended that year. For the first time, Stalin allowed fireworks outside of Moscow. People rejoiced. Hope was restored. Leningrad tried to go back to normal. But the Blockada left a big and ugly scar on the city.
Leningrad was ruined. People used food coupons from the end of the war to 1947. Every family had lost someone. Some people had lost everyone: children lost parents, sisters lost brothers and wives lost husbands. Over two million soldiers perished in the war. Millions of innocent civilians disappeared into icy graves.
We were lucky. My father shattered his tibia. He wore special footwear that elevated one of his feet 15 centimeters from the ground so that he could walk. But he was alive.
Everyone tried not to think of the siege for to remember the horrors of the Blockada was to relive it again, and to relive it again was to die inside.
Oh darling, you don’t know how lucky you are to be alive and fed, to be warm and clothed, to be safe and free. You are blessed to have more thoughts in your mind than just the thought of how you will survive to see another morning. If you take anything away from this, let it be that no matter how weak the flesh may be, let your spirit be strong. Let your spirit have hope. It is with hope in our hearts that we survived. Let it guide you to a place that will bring you peace.
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About.com. n.p. 4 Oct. 2009. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Siege of Leningrad (Soviet
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Web. 16 Feb. 2014. Vladimir and Irina. 29 June 1941. Semakova Family Archives. St. Petersburg,