Valentina Mitronova's right eye droops as if sagging under the weight of all she has witnessed. As a toddler caught in the nearly 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II, her earliest memories were forged in an atmosphere of suffering. On her fourth birthday, she recalls eating soup made by her mother from the beans that rattled inside her plastic baby toys.
"Sometimes I want to erase it all, to wipe it from my memory," Mitronova said. "But it's impossible, there's no way, just no way."
January 27 marked the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege, and the city held a bevy of ceremonies, parades and exhibitions to commemorate the occasion. A three-day exhibit transformed a central neighborhood into a wartime recreation, drawing a steady stream of visitors, old and young. On January 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin joined local officials, survivors and their families to lay flowers at Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, where nearly 500,000 victims of the siege are buried. Later, the Russian leader and dignitaries attended a commemorative parade.
When the German army encircled Leningrad in early September 1941, roughly 2.5 million civilians found themselves trapped. During the course of the siege, an estimated one million people perished, most of them starving or freezing to death. The city relied on a lone supply-line across Lake Ladoga, and residents were reduced to subsisting on household pets, wallpaper paste, and, at times, each other.
“The anniversary has never before been celebrated so widely, so extensively,” said Sergei Kurnosov, director of the Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad. “The city needs the memory of the blockade -- now more than ever, because of the generational shift.”
As the number of siege survivors dwindles, soon no eyewitnesses will remain. That realization is a source of concern for some survivors like Mitronova, who worries future generations may forget about the suffering and sacrifices of Leningraders. "The world needs to know," Mitronova said. "What we lived through, I wouldn't wish upon my enemy."
Interest in the siege appears relatively strong at present among St. Petersburg youth. Schoolchildren accounted for about half of the 40,000 yearly visitors to the city’s blockade museum.
“The blockade is something dear. It’s when our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers died for us, so we treat this day very seriously,” said 15-year-old Kirill Koshelev, who spent the morning of January 27 with two friends at the parade outside the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery.
For 84-year-old Apollon Shahtakhtinski, who endured the siege in a second-floor apartment on Mokhovaya Street near the Neva River, the commemoration offered a moment to reflect on the meaning of survival. With his father at the front, Shahtakhtinski became the main provider for his mother and aunts. “For the entire blockade, I kept moving. I couldn't have an inactive lifestyle; I was the only man left, all the others were my aunts and my mother. I went out every day to search for food and carry water back home. That, evidently, helped save me,” Shahtakhtinski said. “Movement is life.”
Others, like Lidia Baskina, also 84, found solace in the arts. She spent her wartime years studying the piano at a musical conservatory, and playing concerts for patients in hospitals across the city. Supporting others became the source of her own strength. "We experienced many sorrows, many, many sorrows,” Baskina said. "We would return home, not knowing whether our homes were intact, not knowing whether our mothers were still alive. But we experienced joy by playing for the wounded, and seeing them happy for a moment."
Both Shahtakhtinski and Baskina doubt that today's St. Petersburgers could survive the challenges the “blokadniki” faced. The new generation, Shahtakhtinski says, is "pampered, and too accustomed to comfort."
Noah Sneider is a freelance journalist living in Russia.