St. Petersburg, on the eastern shore of the Baltic, one of the largest and most important cities of Europe, became Leningrad in 1924 to honor Nikolai Lenin, leader of the Communist revolution that created the Soviet Union. Leningrad, along with Stalingrad, were the cities that Hitler most needed to conquer in order to realize his dream of the destruction of the Soviet regime. When Germany crossed the Russian border with Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, Army Group North (one of three prongs of attack) had Leningrad as its target, reaching the city by the end of August. Helped by the Finns, who moved on Leningrad from the north and west, the Germans nearly encircled the city during the next two months.

Captured German soldiers under Red Army guard are escorted through the streets of Leningrad, August 1942. Photo: Hassadar
Captured German soldiers under Red Army guard are escorted through the streets of Leningrad, August 1942. Photo: Hassadar.

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The Siege of Leningrad

Despite all efforts by the Wehrmacht, Leningrad did not fall. Instead a siege began that lasted 900 days, from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944, an attempt by the Nazis to starve the city's 3 million people to death. The only lifeline the Russians could hold was a water route across Lake Ladoga (the "Road of Life") -- the Germans held the highways, rail lines, and other water access.

Dead civilians lying in the streets of Leningrad, killed by German artillery, 1941. Hassadar
Dead civilians lying in the streets of Leningrad, killed by German artillery, 1941. Photo: Hassadar.

Although the Luftwaffe and artillery pounded the city, the Russians held off the Germans with a ferocious defense, involving the entire population in either actual fighting or work supporting the effort. In January-February 1942, over 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold, starvation or shellfire. Thousands of corpses littered the streets until spring. Despite this, the defense held and war production continued in the city's factories.

During the winter months, Lake Ladoga was frozen and truck convoys crossed the ice to deliver supplies and carry out refugees. In the summer, ferries served the same function. People carried on life as best they could -- factories, schools, and other functions continued even though the people were starving and under frequent attack. With incredible courage, the Russians carried on and did not surrender.

End of the Siege of Leningrad

The Germans built strong defensive positions around the city, able to withstand powerful attempts by the Soviets to lift the siege. But on 18 January 1943, as a result of Operation Spark, the Red Army took the German fortifications south of Lake Ladoga, opening a corridor to Leningrad, partially lifting the siege. A year later, on 27 January 1944, Soviet forces broke through the German lines and recaptured the region, ending the siege and pushing Army Group North back to the Narva River-Lake Peipus line. During the summer of 1944, the Finns were pushed back to the pre-war border.

At least 650,000 people, and perhaps as many as 1.2 million, died in Leningrad during the siege from starvation, exposure, disease or enemy action.

Recommended Book about Leningrad in World War II

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