The Effects of the Siege of Leningrad on the Civilian Population

World War II was an example of Total War. The entire population was mobilized for the war effort, and more than in any prior conflict, and civilians were as likely to become casualties as soldiers. The siege of Leningrad stands as one of the clearest examples of this. Leningrad was part of a war zone for three years, and during that time, its entire population faced the risks and contributed to its defense.

Leningrad was believed to have a population of 2.54 million shortly before the war began. At the end of the siege, the population is estimated at a mere 600,000. Soviet reports show that around 850,000 more were evacuated, while about 100,000 civilians became soldiers. Still, these figures do not account for about a million people, and most of those lost died during the siege. The chaos of battle and the use of mass graves prohibit any closer accounting of the dead.

Many of those who were lost were killed by enemy fire. For most of the siege, German forces were too far from the city itself for infantry or tanks to attack it, but long-distance fire from artillery emplacements and bombing runs from the Luftwaffe began as soon as German forces were close enough to perform them, and continued unabated for a long time thereafter.

Initially, these served a tactical purpose, but when Hitler, enraged at the city’s resistance, ordered its destruction, these attacks became an end in themselves. The discovery of fresh corpses in the streets became a daily occurrence, as was the disposal of these bodies in mass graves.

Starvation also contributed to these losses. Several times in the ebb and flow of the siege, the Germans succeeded in cutting off the flow of supplies into Leningrad. For example, the capture of the railway hub at Tikhvin succeeded in keeping shipments out, until Lake Ladoga froze over and it became possible to deliver goods over the ice. Food was tightly rationed, and these rations were inadequate even in times when supplies could be brought in. For example, when supplies were ferried across Lake Ladoga during the fall of 1941, food deliveries amounted to only 22,000 tons per month, in contrast to the 30,000 tons that were needed.

While starvation killed some directly, malnutrition also encouraged the spreading of disease. Another contributing factor was the degradation of sanitation. Prolonged sieges always result in unsanitary conditions; furthermore, a side effect of the bombing and artillery fire was a breakdown in the city’s power supplies. Without adequate heat, the flow of water became problematic in the winter. Not only did this contribute to dirty conditions, but it also hampered efforts to put out the fires in the city.

Such issues were most pervasive during the first winter of the siege, from 1941 to 1942, but they continued throughout the siege in varying degrees. Leningrad was not just the home of two and a half million civilians, however; it was also one of the largest industrial centers in the Soviet Union. The affected area contained more than 500 factories, and over the course of the war, ten percent of Soviet industrial output came from Leningrad. Leningrad was particularly important in the production and use of steel, which has obvious military significance. Among its military functions, Leningrad produced the heavy KV tank.

In some respects, the fact of the siege made such production that much more important. While the soldiers in the Volkhov Line to the east of the city could be supplied from the east and south, the soldiers defending the approaches to the city itself could not receive supplies in adequate quantities in the same way, so much of what was used to defend Leningrad, came from within Leningrad.

At the same time, however, the city was not permitted to focus only on its own survival even in its greatest crises; Leningrad production was expected in other areas of the country for their defense, too. Boats, planes, trucks and trains carrying supplies into Leningrad needed take back freight to their point of origin, and the cargo space was not permitted to remain empty. Some of that space was used to evacuate civilians who were not considered vital to the defense effort, but national priorities took precedence, and that meant that much of the space was used for industrial cargo to be sent elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

Indeed, evacuation did not reach a large scale until the summer of 1942, when it became possible to transport factory equipment as well as factory workers. Save for the buildings themselves, entire factories were taken to a safer location, and with them came many of the workers to man them. More than half a million of the total evacuations occurred during that summer.

The importance of this industrial work affected the meaning of “vital” in the context of defense. The most obvious defense elements were the uniformed soldiers and the local militia that was raised in June, 1941. Active defense forces were supplemented by those who manned the anti-aircraft guns placed throughout the city; these were organized separately from the Red Army. It also included civilian labor gangs sent to the outskirts of the city to build or repair defensive positions.

Between the end of June and the beginning of October, 1941, an enormous amount of work was performed to build defensive positions, from machine gun nests to anti-tank obstacles. The initial effort was colossal, but relatively safe; repair would have to be undertaken under risk of enemy fire.

The workers in the factories were also essential; between the demands of the fighting at home and the requirements of Moscow, Leningrad’s industrial production needed to proceed as near to full capacity as supply would allow. This was supplemented by the establishment of workshops where basic tasks, such as the repair of damaged weapons, could be performed by small crews. The need for labor to continue generated a need for organizational personnel, who naturally worked under the auspices of the local branch of the Communist Party.

Political officers were generally considered essential in the Soviet Union, and they oversaw all forms of civil defense work, from firefighting to the maintenance of civil order. Looting and other crimes did occur, and armed representatives of the Party and the NKVD dealt harshly with those who were caught.

Between standard Soviet behavior and the demands of the immediate crisis, harshness was indeed widespread. Rations were sometimes held below the level necessary for survival, and punishments included death by shooting or impressment into labor gangs operating in or near the lines of fire. The argument can be made that this harshness was a cruel necessity during the first winter, when the city came nearest to collapse. It is also characteristic of the Soviet system that it continued for the remainder of the siege, even though the need had passed.

The defense of Leningrad is often cited as one of the clearest symbols of Russian endurance during World War II. It is that, indeed, but it also highlights the nature of Stalin’s version of the Soviet regime. In everything, the needs of the individual were subordinated to the demands of Party leadership. Leningrad demonstrates the two sides of that coin: it permitted the survival of a large outpost under circumstances that would likely have led to surrender or destruction anywhere else, but it also continued long past any need for such measures, generating rather than alleviating human misery.



Dear, I.C.B.  The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995

Forczyk, Robert.  Leningrad 1941-44.  Osprey, 2009

Glantz, David M.  Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944: 900 Days of Terror.  MBI Publishing Company, 2001

Parrish, Thomas.  Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II.  Simon and Schuster, 1978



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