Tag Archives: Leningrad

Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

The Second World War—and in Leningrad, the 900-day siege of the city by German forces—was one of the defining events of Russian history (yes, I’ve written about the war a lot lately.).

To better understand the role of the Great Patriotic War and the blockade in St. Petersburg’s history, I went to the most tragic monument to the human cost of World War II: Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Click here for photographs from my visit to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I arrived at the cemetery, a half hour walk down Проспект Непокорённых (Avenue of the Unvanquished) in northern St. Petersburg, expecting rows of neat tomb stones marked with Russian names and tragic end-dates from 1941 to 1945. I expected Hammer and Sickles chiseled into stone monuments to brave soldiers alongside the graves of innocent civilians who perished in the blockade.

My vision of military cemeteries was shaped by places like Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.

But Piskaryovskoye is nothing like Arlington.

I entered the cemetery between two rectangular white-stone buildings. Inscribed on one’s wall: Пискарёвское мемориальное кладбище – Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I approached the eternal flame that burns red just beyond the entrance—it was hardly visible in the bright sunlight—and looked out over the cemetery in the small valley below.

At the far side, about a quarter mile away, stood a dark statue of Mother Motherland (The name of Mother Russia during Soviet times). Between her and me, I saw three parallel pathways, nearly empty of people, lined by grass and rosebushes. I did not see any tombstones, but thought they must be hidden behind the trees to the sides of the paths.

Descending into the cemetery, I suddenly understood the absence of tombstones.

The grass to the left and right of the paths covered rows of identical rectangular mounds, each marked by a stone inscribed with the year 1942, a Hammer and Sickle, and a leaf.

I had found my chiseled Hammer and Sickles.

But they marked mass graves, 186 in all, containing nearly 500,000 people—more deaths than the United States suffered in the entirety of the Second World War, more people than are buried in all the rolling hills of Arlington.

Never before had I seen mass graves. They struck me as somehow more tragic than traditional tombstones; a jumble of former lives, anonymously lying under green grass in the late June sun.

A few plastic flowers stemmed from the fronts of the graves—strange, bright contrasts to the sombre music playing from hidden speakers.

I made my way down the length of the cemetery, slowly passing the still mounds, til I reached the towering Mother Motherland.

On the stone behind her, there is a memorial poem (translation courtesy of my Lonely Planet guidebook):

Here lie the people of Leningrad

Here are the citizens – men, women, and children

And besides them the Red Army soldiers

Who gave their lives

Defending you, Leningrad,

Cradle of the Revolution.

Their noble names we cannot number

So many lie beneath the eternal granite

But of those honored by this stone

Let no one forget

Let nothing be forgotten.

After pausing to make out what I could of the poem in Russian, I began walking through the rest of the cemetery. (I’ll soon have photos online with more detailed information about the cemetery.)

The mass graves are numbered—I wanted find the last one, number 186.

This goal brought me to the far back corner, far from Mother Motherland, surrounded by trees and grassy mounds of dead.

After some wandering, I found the 186th mass grave. I stopped there a moment, and wondered. How many people were buried under the rectangular mound?

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

As I thought, I picked up a small stone and placed it atop the grave marker.

Over 2000, I figured. And then I made my way back, up, and out of the cemetery.

Click here for my photos from Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

A visit to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Entirely by accident, I visited the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad on June 21, 68 years to the day after Nazi troops poured across the length of the Soviet Union’s western border in Operation Barbarossa, starting four years of blood-soaked conflict on the Eastern Front.

By the time Soviet troops reached Berlin in early May of 1945, about 27 million Soviet citizens (about half soldiers, half civilians) had died, just over 15 percent of the USSR’s pre-war population.

Over a million of those deaths occurred during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, widely considered the most deadly siege in world history.

So that the deaths of the siege (among civilians, largely of starvation, disease, and cold) will never be forgotten, monuments to and reminders of the siege stand throughout St. Petersburg, as I wrote about when I visisted The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad.

Since that visit, I’ve run into many more of these constant reminders.

Near the Hermitage, a marker affixed to a wall during the the siege advises Leningraders that the other side of the street is safer when German shells rain down. Fresh flowers always lay beneath it.

At Isaaki Cathedral, a giant chunk of stone is missing from one of the 100-ton pillars that support the building. Near the wound, a plaque state it’s cause: Nazi bomb. Another similar piece of damage, on a bridge over the Fontanka Canal, is also marked by a plaque.

But the most visible, impressive reminder of the war is the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, located on Moskovsky Prospekt, the main road into St. Petersburg from the south.

Centered around a 48 meter high obelisk, the gray monument pays tribute to both the soldiers and civilians who contributed to the city’s defense and ultimate salvation.

Behind the large obelisk, one can descend into the center of the monument. Here, a smaller monument to civilians lies at the center of a large broken circle, symbolizing the breaking of the siege.

The center of the monument.

The center of the monument.

Music, quiet and somber, plays in this part of the monument, setting the tone.

A small museum of the siege is located beneath the monument. Electronic candles line the tops of the walls. Flags from the many groups of defenders hang from the ceiling. Artifacts from the war fill display cases. The only sound is the ticking of a metronome, played over the radio throughout the siege to let Leningraders know that the heart of the city was still beating.

The museum beneath the monument.

The museum beneath the monument.

Click here for more photographs from the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad.

Kirov’s Apartment and the perils of Communism

Sergei Kirov's desk.

Sergei Kirov's desk.

Sergei Kirov’s apartment now stands as a memorial to the slain Leningrad Party Boss and as a reminder of the worst features of Stalinism.

At first though, the apartment, reconstructed to early 1930s form from photographs, seems to commemorate the early achievements of the Soviet system.

Click here for more photos from Kirov’s apartment.

Kirov’s desk is filled with reports on industrial output from factories in the Leningrad region, highlighting the impressive industrialization achieved under the first Five Year Plan and part of the second. Trinkets from these plants show off their successes—Kirov’s apartment contains the first typewriter made in the Soviet Union and models of many other industrial products, ranging from a steel bar to a tank. Photos show the construction of river dams and massive factories, and note Kirov’s inspection visits to some of these behemoths.

The explanatory text boasts of Kirov’s popularity among Leningrad workers and his closeness to other Soviet leaders. Stalin, it says, ate in Kirov’s dining room.

But Kirov’s dinner guest ultimately became his killer. And that same killer—after orchestrating Kirov’s assassination—embarked on a rampage of repression that resulted in the imprisonment and execution of millions.

The 1934 assassination of Kirov, likely on Josef Stalin’s orders, is generally considered to have signaled the beginning of these purges. During the purge period, several million people were killed (estimates vary widely, but many sources cite NKVD records stating that about 700,000 were executed in 1937-38 alone, at the height of the purges) and millions more were sent to labor camps, called gulags, where some died from starvation, disease, or cold.

I’ve written before about the conflict over Stalin’s legacy, which owes to the fact that the same Soviet leader who executed so many of his own also led his country to victory in the Second World War. But Kirov’s apartment is ultimately a memorial—not a monument—for a system that executed its most promising leaders and struck fear into the hearts of its citizens.

Daniil Kharms and Stalin-era repression

A small memorial plaque for Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

A small memorial plaque for Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

The X in the Russian name of absurdist writer Dаниил Хармс is a bit more ambiguous than the transliterated Kh suggests. Kharms studied English and German at his prestigious high school, and it is believed that he adopted his pen-name not only for its similarity to “harms” and “charms,” but also because it sounded like the name of a certain famous English detective.

Indeed, Kharms always dressed like Sherlock Holmes—pipe, top hat, and silly pants—at a time in Soviet history when standing out was a risky move. Kharms also stood out for his writings, ranging from absurdist dramas and poems to children’s stories that strayed from approved socialist values and storylines.

For his unwillingness to conform, Kharms was first arrested in 1931 and briefly exiled. But Kharms continued his absurdist writing, falling afoul of those in the Stalinist system charged with maintaining uniformity and order.

The strange writer, living in poverty, was arrested again in 1941 (shortly after the German invasion of the USSR) on charges of being a German spy, and imprisoned in Leningrad.

What is known with certainty is that Kharms died soon after, in 1942. What is unknown is how. Some say he was executed. Other that he starved during the siege of Leningrad, or died when prisoners were packed into train cars without food or water and sent west ahead of the invading Nazis. Still others say he was tortured until he died.

We’re reading a few of Kharms’ stories in our literature class. The stories are unthreatening—Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein have written works far stranger. But neither of them lived in a society where being different could be a death sentence.

Since reading Kharms’ work and seeing the memorial plaque, I’ve visisted two sites that deal explicitly with Soviet history: Sergei Kirov’s apartment and the Museum of the Political History of Russia. And although the museums were interesting, I’m left feeling that in some way, Daniil Kharms’ memorial plaque is just as revealing as glass display cases filled with historical documents and faded images.

The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad

A million Leningraders died during the 900 day siege of the city during the Second Great Patriotic War. Some starved, some froze, and some were killed by German guns and bombs.

The siege plays a heavy role in the city’s collective memory. I’ve already written about Victory Day, but beyond that single day, memorials to the dead and reminders of the city’s heroic sacrifice are everywhere. Incidentally, there was even one on the wall of the movie theater we went to after we left the State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad.

The museum itself is contained in a plain building, across a canal from the flashier parts of Petersburg. The exhibits—old Soviet and Nazi German uniforms, maps, guns, photos, letters, and lots of other items—line the walls of a single large warehouse room. Massive paintings of battle scenes and Soviet leaders sit higher on the walls, above the exhibit cases, framed by large gray curtains.

I was amazed by the sheer concentration of World War II stuff in the museum, although I couldn’t read most of it. There were photos of the Soviet leaders I’ve read so much about, including a particularly cool one of Gen. Eisenhower and Georgy Zhukov, a Soviet Marshall who led the Red Army to Berlin.

There were also plenty of weapons, from AK machine guns to partisan bolt-action rifles—and even an anti-tank gun—and a bunch of bombs and mines. As for uniforms, there were some Soviet ones (from what I could tell, they had belonged to Heroes of the Soviet Union) filled with medals and ribbons, as well as some Nazi ones, including SS uniforms with lightning bolts and Totenkopf, or Death’s Head skulls.

Between the military paraphernalia, there was a reconstructed blockade-era apartment flanked by photos of people living day-to-day, looking just slightly healthier than concentration camp survivors. The only sound was the ticking of a metronome on the radio—the beating heart of Leningrad.

There was also propaganda… Lots and lots of propaganda. I gotta say, I loved it. I mean, who doesn’t love Nazi soldiers portrayed as either evil or incredibly stupid? The great thing about propaganda, too, is that it’s mostly visual. So while we couldn’t figure out most of the words, the meaning got through (It helps that the word for fascist is pretty much the same in Russian).

One that was particularly amusing involved three panels:

  1. Nazis reading a complicated list of orders.
  2. Nazis marching with a full band.
  3. Soviet soldiers popping up, surprising the Nazis, and wiping them out. (The caption was something along the lines of “Our orders are simple. Kill the fascist occupiers.”

We’re planning to go back and get an English-language tour of the museum at some point so that we actually understand what’s going on a bit more.

Tonight is Museum Night in St. Petersburg. 150 Rubles to get into a ton of museums around the city—and the museums are open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. There are buses running between the museums all night, but we need to be back on our island before the bridges go up around 1:30 a.m.

We’re planning on checking out the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Artillery Museum, where you can apparently climb on tanks and artillery and such, the Museum of the Political History of Russia (and the attached, and closely connected Museum of the History of the Political Police. Seriously.), and several others.

Also – Kirov’s apartment. The assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934 (incidentally in the Smolny Institute, where we go to school every day) helped start Stalin’s purges.

Victory Day

5/9/09 – 23:30

The Church on Spilled Blood

The Church on Spilled Blood

“Write what you know” is probably one of the oldest clichés in creative circles. But in an unfamiliar city in a strange country speaking a language I can barely grasp, I don’t know a whole lot.

The archway leading to the Victory Day celebration.

The archway leading to the Victory Day celebration.

I know that today was Victory Day, День Победы, and that I glimpsed through the cracks in a wall of children perched on their parents’ shoulders a parade of military vehicles rumble by. I know that the children were excited to see the Katyusha rockets on their launchers pass through Dvortsovaya Square. I know that I heard hundreds—perhaps thousands, I couldn’t see very well—of soldiers in the square shout and react in unison to commands given from the podium, a martial Russian show for a day of Soviet military success.

The parade, from afar.

The parade, from afar.

Victory Day, I’m told, celebrates the Nazi German capitulation to Soviet forces in Berlin. Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then called, bore a heavy burden during the conflict because the Nazis encircled it, choking it but never taking its streets. For its strangulation—the starvation and deprivation its residents endured—it is called a Hero City.

War Memorial

War Memorial

Many of Leningrad’s heroes were out today, wearing their military uniforms heavy with medals. They’re an old and dying generation, just as American veterans of the Second World War are, but I do not know their stories. I couldn’t really ask them; my language skills just aren’t there.