In the second world war, the Germans (always called the ‘Fascists’ in St Petersburg museum displays) blockaded St Petersburg for 872 days (although it is always called the 900 day seige). They never took the city (although they came close enough that soldiers could walk from the parade ground to the front). But they killed directly or indirectly almost 750,000 people. Most died from starvation.
Understandably, people from St Petersburg are acutely conscious of the Second World War as a result, and particularly conscious of honouring those who gave their lives to save the city from occupation.
There are lots of museums with displays devoted to the blockade, and heaps of monuments and all kinds of other stuff to keep them in mind. People who lived through the blockade get all kinds of discounts and stuff for free as well.
The story of the blockade is just horrific. You can see the timeline in one of the museums. Heaps of people were evacuated once it became clear the Germans would attack. But many remained, continuing to work making weapons for the war effort.
One reason the city did not fall was the “road of life” across Lake Ladoga (to the north-east – a route that remained open), which was used to transport food into the city.
Even with this support, there was very little food. By six months in (the middle of an early, especially harsh winter) a worker received a piece of bread about the size of a cigarette packet each day. People who did not work got half of that.
When there were no rats or mice left, they ate dirt and the glue from the backs of wallpaper. People dropped dead walking down the street, and their bodies were piled in alleyways during winter because there was no way to dig enough graves. Come the spring thaw, a massive public effort was required to get the bodies into the ground so as to avoid killing everyone who was left with disease.
Thus was created one of the most incredible places I have been in St Petersburg – the Piskaryovskaya Cemetery. It is a series of mass-graves. Outwardly they are just rectangular grassy mounds a few feet high, and about the size of the goal-keeper’s box in soccer. They each have a single stone with just the year of death written on it.
But zoom out from looking at just one mound and you will see scores of these mounds, surrounding you a few hundred feet in every direction. Consider that there are half a million people buried here. Go inside the pavilion at the front gate and see the photo of the babushkas digging the graves, or the lists of people buried in each grave, or the skeletal face of the worker clutching his inadequate daily ration. Walk back outside and consider the fresh flowers laid beside old black and white photos on the graves. Listen to the haunting music they play. Read the inscription from the grateful living to the heroes in the grave. Then you start to understand the Russian obsession with the war. And the reason for all those monuments.
Later on in the day, considerably humbled, I had another “only in St Petersburg” moment. There I am happily writing email. There are a lot of messages – I have not been on email for a while. I am starting to get tired. Check the watch. Ah. Half past one. Time to get to bed.
So I set off to walk down the street – it is about half an hour to the hostel. Public transport stops around midnight.
Then I remember the bridges.
When the Neva is flowing, they raise the bridges across it every night to let sea-going ships through. When the bridges are up, it can be impossible to get from the city to places in the north. My hostel is in the north, just over a bridge.
Each bridge is on a different schedule. So I check my guidebook. It says my bridge goes up at 2:10. Phew, plenty of time. You can see where this is going to end, can’t you?
I flag down a car (everyone is a taxi in this country). It turns out I am on the wrong street, so we have to take a wee detour to get to the bridge. Imagine my dismay when we rock up to the bridge, only to discover that it is already raised.
I jump out of the car and run up to the guy standing there. He says, even before I say a word, “There is no reason to hurry, young man, the bridge comes down at 4:40am. You have plenty of time”. I read the sign. The bridge raises at 1:50am.
I sit down to read my book (ah, new purchases). It starts to rain.
So I wander back to the internet cafe. Eventually I did get home – at 5am. Just to prove my total failure to learn from my mistakes, I had to run to make the bridge the next night as well.