When I was in my 3rd year of university in Saint Petersburg, Russia, I was required to do my final Russian language exam. It had been 4 academic years of studying Russian. One year before joining Uni and 3 years in Uni. As part of the final exam, students were required to write a paper on a Russian historical figure or event.
I decided to write a paper on the siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), the 872 days siege by the German Nazi that is regarded as the longest siege in history. Leningrad, being on the gulf of the Baltic sea and the Russian window to the rest of Europe was very strategic for Hitler and he really wanted it, at any cost.
As I was doing my research for the paper, I realized that the topic was too wide and so I decided to focus on the state of the children during the blockade.
Writing that paper was an emotional rollercoaster. It was quite difficult to read about the suffering that befell the people in the city, especially the children. Apart from the war, hunger and disease ravaged the city and killed almost one million people, one third of the city’s population then.
With the city cut off from road and rail transport by the Nazi army, the only way to get food and other supplies was by Lake Ladoga. They would use boats but in winter a temporary road would be made on the frozen lake and trucks would use it. The road was named ‘doroga zhizni – road of life’ because it was the city’s lifeline. At some point rail was laid on the frozen lake so that a train could be used to bring in more supplies at a go.
Using the route was a suicide mission since the Nazis would drop bombs sinking many boats and trucks whenever food and people were being moved.
Bombs were also dropped in the city every so often. A siren was installed on every street to warn people of the impending shelling so that they could take cover in the created bunkers. There was a curfew in the city, night movements were prohibited.
I asked some of my Russian classmates who were Saint Petersburg natives about the siege and most of them told me that their grandparents did not like to talk about it.
And I can only imagine how it can be to endure almost 900 days under siege, closed in a city which could be overrun anytime, bombed every other day, bread rations becoming smaller and unreliable, without electricity and running water for a better part of those days since the Nazis hit the power and water plants.
But those who suffered the most were children, helpless and in the care of parents who could not help much. Hunger and disease claimed many of them and some of those who were evacuated would perish on Lake Ladoga from the Nazi bombings.
One child, Tanya Savicheva, watched her family die one by one and recorded each death in her diary. Six of them died including her two siblings. Her last record was ‘Only Tanya is left’. She was rescued together with other children close to the end of the siege, but she was too weak and sick. She died in hospital of Tuberculosis.
Her diary was found at home by her sister when she returned home from the front line. Tanya’s diary became world famous and was presented as part of the evidence by the allied prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials.
As I went through more stories of children during the siege, I came across a very peculiar story but not a prominent one. It was written several years after the war by one of the boys involved in the incident.
The boy records that one day during the siege, him and two other boys went to a church to look for food since they were so hungry as food rations had run out for days. They met a priest in the church who did not have anything to give them but offered to pray for the boys for God to sustain them until food arrived. The testimony of the boy is after the prayers their stomachs ‘became full’ and they did not feel hungry until the next food rations were distributed.
That story of the boys amazed me, and I decided to put it in my paper not knowing how my lecturer would take it. Religious talk is something to generally avoid in Russian academia. Most lecturers are atheists or agnostics and you do not want to risk your education by provoking them.
I saw that first-hand when my friend Maksim challenged one of our lecturers who asked if there was any orthodox Christians in our class. Maksim is the only one who raised his hand and an uncomfortable exchange ensued. It was about a church that the lecturer was overlooking from the window of our class, claiming that the land in which the church sat originally belonged to the university. Maksim held his ground that the whole church cannot be blamed for the actions of a few. They had to agree to disagree.
To my delight, my Russian language teacher was impressed by the religious angle that I took in the paper and gave me an excellent mark. It was her first time for reading about that story and she lauded me for that.
At a great human and economic cost, the Soviet red army managed to repel the Nazis and regained full control of Leningrad in January 1944. That victory was a major boost in pushing back the Nazis out of the Soviet Union.
The victory over the Nazis in World War 2 is celebrated in Russia on May 9th. You do not want to be indoors on that day as it is the most colourful event in the Russian calendar. Streets are decorated with army colours. Veterans donning their pinned army regalia are out in the streets receiving flowers, kisses, and hugs from everyone. The parade is long and elaborate, like nothing you will see anywhere else. It’s like all the tanks and army artillery are on display both in the streets and on the waters.
A major concert would go on at St. Petersburg square followed by the most artistic fireworks which would last like forever.
That is the day that even blacks are hugged and kissed in the streets.
When you give thought to stories like these, you understand why Russians always remind themselves of the victory in the world war 2. It was existential. It came at an extremely high human cost. It is estimated that there were more than 20 million casualties in the Soviet Union during the war, most of them Russians. Another 6 million could have died from Stalin’s oppressive regime by execution, dekulakization and in gulags. There have been disputes over these figures but every human loss was a blow to the Russian society.
Most of those who perished were men and that means that most children born in that period grew up without fathers. The family unit took a major hit. Communism and all that post war complications is the environment in which my classmates’ grandparents grew up in.
Maybe it explains the reason why very few of my classmates came from a family where the father and mother were still together.
Doing that paper on the siege made me understand my classmates better. Made me understand why it’s only Maksim who stood up to the lecturer who questioned the Russian Orthodox church in our class. Made me understand the ‘cold nature’ of Russians which is easily debunkable when you visit them in their homes where you will be surprised to find an African like reception. They can be very accommodating people, mostly in the confines of their privacy.
It gave me a glimpse into the ‘Russkaya Dusha – Russian soul’ of which Dostoevsky talked about many years before.
“It’s frightening how free a Russian man’s spirit is, how strong is his will! No one has ever been so much torn away from his native soil, as he sometimes had to be; nobody ever took a turn so sharp, as he, following his own belief!”
Maksim came to our wedding in Nairobi, sang in Russian and almost stole the show from my wife and I.
Russians consider themselves very deep people. There is a sense of pride and importance they carry themselves in, grinded by historical adversity into their unique forms.
They can only be understood from the lens of their past. And you would have to go as far as Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to really understand the foundations of modern Russian society.
Two years after doing the Russian language exam, I found myself on ‘doroga zhizni – road of life’, a meandering road leading to Lake Ladoga. We were visiting a small town near the lake with a Russian companion who explained to me that the road was zigzag so that trucks would avoid Nazi army bombs from the air as they went in and out of the city from Lake Ladoga during the siege.
The reminder is clear. The significance even clearer.
Happy victory to my Russian friends. С днём победы!