One of most interesting books I read last year was Leningrad: State of Siege - the story of Germany’s siege of St. Petersburg from September 1941 through January 1944. More than a million people died of starvation during these years (more than U.S. and U.K. soldiers in WWII combined).
The worst effects of the blockade were experienced in the first winter. From December 1941 – February 1942, the Russian population faced three months of utter horror, prompting frightening testimonies like this:
“I watched my mother and father die. I knew perfectly well they were starving. But I wanted their bread more than I wanted them to stay alive. And they knew that. That’s what I remember about the blockade: the feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.”
The slow starvation led people to chew leather, to boil wood and other objects, anything to dull the pain. As the siege continued and the citizens starved, the true character of people was revealed. Olga Mikhailova remembered:
“The blockade began to reveal things more and more clearly. You could straightaway see the good and bad sides of a person. Those who were greedy certainly grew worse, and tried to live at the expense of others. But goodness would flourish too.”
During the worst of the winter, the siege led people not merely to fight for food, but also for their humanity. People observed how corpses in open areas would be cut up. Certain neighborhoods became known for cannibalism, with citizens shocked to see their neighbors and family friends transformed into starving cannibals.
The Artist Defies Death
One survivor’s story is particularly moving, an expression of an artist’s defiance of death. As an 18-year-old girl named Elena Martilla lay in her bed, wasting away and recognizing that death was near, she cast aside her hopelessness and clung to anger to survive. She said to herself:
“If I am going to die, let me die with dignity, as an artist, with a brush in my hand.”
Martilla realised she would have to find a subject to engage her interest powerfully. She decided to paint a self-portrait. There was little light in the room – the kerosene lamp was weak – but she took out paper, blue paint and a brush and, looking at herself in a mirror, started to paint what she could see.
The room grew colder and darker, and Martilla’s brushstrokes became more hesitant. Inexorably, everything was slowing down. She could not find the strength to go on, and she paused, motionless, in the freezing silence. Then a last, defiant thought entered her head. ‘Maybe people will realise Leningraders do not give up that easily.’
Making a supreme effort, she began to paint again. Looking up from her picture, Martilla saw a faint glimmer of light through a gap in the curtain. Morning was approaching – a morning she had thought she would not live to see.
‘I felt a wonderful joy and serenity,’ she remembered. ‘And then I said out loud: “I did not die. I will not die. I will live.” As I repeated this, I felt a surge of strength, as if some force was permeating every cell of my being.’
Martilla knew something had fundamentally changed. Each day, she felt a growing power and certainty within her, a conviction that she would survive.
A week later, she painted another self-portrait. ‘In the first I looked at myself through the eyes of death,’ Martilla said. ‘Now I wanted to celebrate being alive.’
The Symphony Plays On
During the darkest days of winter, the citizenry began to collectively lose hope. As Jones describes: “The dead were engulfing the city, their bodies hacked and dismembered by the crazed living…” Into this vortex of chaos and despair, the announcement was made that the orchestra would gather and the symphony would go on.
The description of this orchestra’s fortitude is remarkable. The musicians were overcome by physical weakness and mental despair, yet they remained resolute in their decision to provide a work of art for the city’s feeble inhabitants.
‘Dear friends,’ Eliasberg began. ‘We are weak – but we must force ourselves to start work.’ But when the first trumpeter’s solo arrived, there was silence. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said, ‘I just don’t have the strength in my lungs.’ There was a pause, then Eliasberg replied, quietly but firmly, ‘I think you do have the strength.’ The trumpeter looked at him, picked up his instrument and began to play.
Survivors credited the symphony for giving the city hope in the worst of times. Though thousands died that winter and into the next, the orchestra’s performance (which was blared through loudspeakers all throughout the city) was a turning point for Leningrad.
This story reminds me of the power of art in its relationship to humanity. We are made in the image of God. Only humans make art. We create, because we bear the image of a Creator.
Michael Jones describes the experience that night:
Waves of emotion surged through the concert hall. In the first movement it was anger; in the second, sadness. As the symphony reached its conclusion, some members of the orchestra faltered – they were utterly exhausted. ‘It was so loud and powerful that I thought I’d collapse,’ Parfionov confessed.
In a remarkable, spontaneous gesture, the entire audience rose to its feet, willing them to keep going.
At the finish there was silence. Someone at the back began clapping, and then there was a thunderous ovation. A little girl came up and presented Eliasberg with a bouquet of flowers.
‘People just stood and cried,’ Eliasberg recalled. ‘They knew that this was not a passing episode but the beginning of something. We heard it in the music. The concert hall, the people in their apartments, the soldiers on the front – the whole city had found its humanity. And in that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.’