Lip
31

Kontynuacja odcinka 6

(zdjęcie Chess Base)

Model’s meritorious war effort almost ended up in vain. Right at the beginning of the siege the first threat endangered Abram Jakovlevitch.  His name was Jewish, and moreover, it sounded too ‚German’. Ironically enough, one of the most favourite Hitler’s battlefront commanders was general, and later on field marshal, Walter Model (1891-1945). This German commander almost conquered Moscow in November 1941 and at later times was appointed to command the most critical sections of the battlefield. From the end of January 1944 he took over a group of the Northern armies which sieged Leningrad.

Like the whole country, also Peter’s city was affected by a wave of spy mania during the first months of the war. Government authorities had always encouraged hatred against everything alien and during the war hatred was escalated, whereas the anti-German campaign was obviously the strongest.  As usual in Stalinist repressions, completely innocent people frequently ended up in the hands of officers executing the repression. They committed the only offence – they had a wrong name. In the traditionally cosmopolitan city many families originated from the adjacent Baltic countries or they arrived during the tsarist imperium era from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to help build Petr’s window to Europe (as Pushkin called Saint Petersburg) and to eliminate Russian underdevelopment. Large numbers of people with German sounding surnames could be encountered in the city.

Many of them ended up in NKVD prisons because of this ‚flaw’ and some of them were even lynched… When they came to arrest the father of Olga Berggolcová, a radio reporter and an author of an extremely popular collection of poems inspired by her Leningrad inferno experience, she recorded in her diary: “He served in the Red Army for the whole civil war as an army doctor, saved thousands of people, he is Russian to the marrow… It seems – and it is not a joke – that NKVD simply dislikes his surname.” Agram Model could really consider himself lucky that he was not persecuted. Maybe his chess activities protected him – he ranked among well known people in the city.

However, the siege represented for everyone, except for the top party representatives, another threat – hunger. And Model was lucky in this respect as well. At the end of December 1941 when almost 30 000 people died of undernutrition every week, the municipal procurement committee allocated 1st class food vouchers to Model. In early January 1942 Master Georgij Michailovic Lisicyn (1909-1972), an author of a valued chess strategy textbook, appeared in Model’s flat. Lisicyn brought to Model a document confirming his entitlement to this special supply; he found his friend half-dead of hunger. Fortunately, Model, being helped by his daughter, managed to get to Jelisejev warehouse where both of them obtained a total of two kilograms of food. At the time when life and death depended on additional 100 grams of old black bread and when even close relatives would rob or kill one another because of food vouchers, this supply meant for Model something like a water-of-life spring.

The city lost the last ground connection with the rest of the country on 8th September 1941 when the Wehrmacht occupied Slisselburg, a historic fortress situated at the place where the Neva river leaves Lake Ladoga. Now the only way to reach the city was across the lake; the siege ring closed down. The worst famine afflicted the city between November 1941 and February 1942. Various public amenities went out of operation along with procurement: water stopped running and the sewage system stopped working, electricity and heat supplies were interrupted. The initial cause of problems in the city was related to the German siege. Nazi commanders did not plan to treat Petersburg gently. According to Hitler´s orders the city was to be destroyed to the ground, surviving citizens were to be liquidated or evacuated. Korchnoi was wrong in his assumption mentioned in his autobiography  that Germans – knowing the architectural beauty of Peter´s city – wanted to retain its impressiveness for themselves. Vice versa almost for the whole siege the enemy continued dropping bombs on the city and firing at the city from long-range canons.

Behaviour of Soviet authorities significantly deteriorated the situation and consequently caused many unnecessary casualties. The notoriously inefficient Soviet bureaucracy proved to be unable to manage unexpected problems of the war and the siege; its representatives preferred the ideology while arrogantly overlooking needs of the citizens. Anastaz Mikojan, a member of the party management and from the beginning of the war the chairman of the Red Army Procurement Committee, was going to send several food trains to Leningrad in September 1941. However, he was strictly rejected by the Leningrad boss Zdanov who hurried to assure Stalin that he took proper care to provide food for the town. Later on Zdanov forbid the local people to obtain food supplies from other places in the Soviet Union. And the reason? Pure propaganda! The regime was trying to hide information about the famine in Leningrad not only from the world, but also from the local public. And most people in the USSR had absolutely no idea about all the tragedies that took place in poor Leningrad especially during that horrible winter 1941 – 1942.

Long ago Dante needed seven circles to describe the deepest levels of hell. As regards Leningrad five circles of hungry inferno would suffice. The first circle meant that at the beginning of the siege domestic animals were eaten – canaries, parrots followed with cats and dogs. Victims of the second circle comprised street birds – pigeons and crows. In the third circle mice and rats disappeared. The fourth circle brought miracles of human inventiveness – people tried to change anything that comprised at least any energy into food. Starting from wallpaper glue, continuing with leather products and ending with medicines, industrial oils and greases. The last circle of Leningrad hell went expressly to the ground itself. People ate the ground, more specifically Leningrad peat. Two pieces of peat could be exchanged for a piece of bread.

When the second man of the Bolshevik revolution, Leon Trotsky (killed in 1940 by an NKVD agent upon Stalin´s order) was told during the Russian civil war that “Moscow was expressly dying of hunger”, Trotski answered: “That´s no hunger. When Titus was conquering Jerusalem, Jewish mothers ate their children. You can come and claim that you are hungry only after I force your mothers to eat their children”. This might be the last circle of the hell even for the sieged Leningrad. Memoirs of blockade survivors do comprise mentions of consumption of human meat. Official propaganda strictly refused this information. But even official reports of the militia and NKVD document a number of dreadful stories in which bodies of the dead saved the ones who were still alive. Almost two thousand people were accused of misusing human bodies and were brought to the court because of that.

The phenomenon that we know from besieged fortresses in other wars or from the history of crews of shipwrecked boats obtained a tinge of horror in a city with three million citizens. Dreadful is the fact  that sometimes people did not even wait till the future source of nutrition died of hunger or a disease. A young worker Olga Grechinova noticed metal splinters lying around lathes in her factory. “What happened to our old cleaning lady,” she asked. Everybody would affectionately address the cleaning lady Aunt Nastja. “She was executed”, the answer was. “She ate her daughter, she hid her body under the bed and cut off pieces of her. Militia shot her down. No court trials are held on these days.” An NKVD situation report as of 13th December describes a case of a mother who suffocated her eighteen-month-old daughter in order to feed herself and three older children. Ten days later NKVD recorded a similar case when a woman killed a year-old child so that she could feed a year older daughter. In the light of these real tragedies Trotsky’s statement does not sound only as a striking example of Bolshevik rhetoric filled with arrogance, pathos and striking ignorance towards human suffering. It changed into a scary prophecy which unfortunately became true in sieged Leningrad.

The system of rationed food was introduced by Leningrad authorities with the aim to prevent a potential procurement crisis right after the beginning of the war. Original doses of up to 800 g bread daily for working adults and 400 g for children up to 15 were sufficient. Moreover, food could also be bought in shops in addition to the allocated ratios. If you owned valuable things you could swap them for food. The Korchnoi family, impoverished by the revolution and civil war had to rely on their ratios. However, since September 1941 when Germans destroyed the direct connection with the rest of the country, the food allocations became smaller and smaller month by month. In the second half of November Viktor and his grandmother, both of whom had the status of dependent persons (i.e. children and not-working adults), received only 125 grams of bread a day. Since there was no flour soon, blockade bread from various substitutes was baked; such bread obviously had a much lower caloric value. For a ten year old youngster such energy supply meant just a slow way to death. By the end of November Viktor could use food vouchers left behind by his father. It was a common practice even though municipal authorities kept criticizing it. Since December 1941 Viktor and his grandmother remained alone in their fight for survival. Uncle Konstantin disappeared at the beginning of autumn after he had stolen a piece of bread in a baker´s shop. Victor Hugo sentenced his novel hero Jean Valjean to several years of hard labour for a similar ‚crime’. Les Miserábles from Leningrad could not enjoy such mercy, NKVD shot them to death instantly.

Zdeněk Vybíral

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