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?
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.