Operation Iskra: The Red Army Effort to Break the Siege of Leningrad
The January 1943 Red Army victory over the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in the south was matched that same month by a lesser though still significant victory in the north when Soviet troops smashed through German fortifications at “the bottleneck” and broke the blockade of Leningrad.
Located at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, the “Venice of the North” was the cultural capital of the nation and, for a period under the czars, also its official capital. Built by Czar Peter the Great, the city was originally named after him. In 1924, following Vladimir Lenin’s death, the city was renamed Leningrad (in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the name St. Petersburg was restored). Because of its name, and because the Bolshevik Revolution creating the Soviet Union had started there, the city was also a powerful political symbol. Like Stalingrad, the battle for Leningrad became an epic military struggle and test of wills between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb, commanding Army Group North, was assigned the task of capturing and destroying the city. In early September 1941, about two and a half months after the start of Operation Barbarossa, von Leeb’s troops captured the major rail center of Schlüsselburg on the shore of Lake Ladoga on Leningrad’s eastern flank. With the Finnish Army sealing off the Karelian peninsula in the north, the city was now isolated.
The siege of Leningrad, generally considered to have begun on Aug. 21, would last 890 days. Because Army Group North was not strong enough to take the city by direct assault, Hitler ordered Leningrad blockaded, its buildings destroyed by artillery and air attacks, and no quarter given to its citizens – the population and city were to be obliterated. Because the incompetent military and civilian leaders in the city had made the decision not to evacuate people and vital industries, or stockpile food and fuel (under the belief that such a move would be seen as defeatist, causing them to be shot – a not entirely unreasonable assumption in Stalinist Russia), with 2.5 million civilians now trapped within its borders the city was ill prepared for the fate it now faced.
Winter came early, and was one of the coldest winters on record. By November the people were on starvation rations. In December children’s sleds began to appear. But they weren’t carrying kids out having fun. In his epic account, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, author Harrison E. Salisbury wrote, “The children’s sleds, suddenly they were everywhere – on the Nevsky, on Lavra, toward Piskarevsky, toward the hospitals. The squeak, squeak, squeak of the runners sounded louder than the shelling. It deafened the ears. On the sleds were the ill, the dying, the dead.” Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Nikolai Markevich wrote in his diary for Jan. 24, 1942: “Almost the only kind of transport is sleds … carrying corpses in plain coffins, covered with rags or half clothed. … Daily six to eight thousand die.”
“In our six-room apartment
There live only the three of us – you and I
And the wind blowing from the darkness. . . .
No, excuse me. I am mistaken.
There is a fourth lying out on the balcony,
Waiting a week for the funeral.”
—“Blockade” by Zinaida Shishova
When Lake Ladoga froze over, a supply and evacuation route was established, but it was incapable of mitigating Leningrad’s plight. The ever growing number of dead were gathered into huge piles of frozen corpses and after the spring thaws, buried in two mass graves at Piskarevsky and Serafimov cemeteries. It is impossible to know for certain the final death toll, but historians estimate that a total of 1.3 to 1.5 million civilians and military personnel died during the siege.
Operation Iskra (Spark), launched on Jan. 12, 1943, was the Red Army’s third attempt to relieve the city. Despite being weakened by having other units reassigned elsewhere on the Eastern Front, Army Group North put up a spirited defense. But the Red Army’s pressure was relentless, and by Jan. 30, it had reached Leningrad and established a 5 to 6 mile wide corridor along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. Though supply convoys were within range of German artillery, and the siege had many months yet to go, Leningrad had been saved.
The siege became a source of inspiration for the arts. The poetry excerpt highlighted in this article is taken from Zinaida Shishova’s 1943 poem “Blockade,” written during the siege. Russian critics regard it as one of, if not the most, moving works about the siege. The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich completed his Seventh Symphony in December 1941. Dubbed “The Leningrad,” it quickly became a musical symbol and testament of the struggle against Nazi Germany and of the roughly 25 million Soviet citizens who died in the war. YouTube has an excerpt of a documentary about Shostakovich and the symphony that can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKOZEW9SfdU.