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When the city’s residents gathered naked in communal bath-houses — the bania — it was impossible to distinguish between men and women. With nearly a thousand people dying every day, corpses were an omnipresent feature of daily life.‘I wanted to write about the scene in the bania,’ wrote Ivan Savinkov in his diary in January 1942. Bodies were stacked in mounds like so many logs, and the sight of people perishing in public was common.‘One old woman, waiting for bread, slowly slides to the ground,’ wrote Vera Kostrovitskaia, a ballerina. Either she is already dead or she will be trampled to death.’Vera then recorded, horrified, how she watched those in the queue looking to see if the woman’s ration card had fallen to the ground, or whether they needed to snatch it from her dead hand.There is trupoedstvo — eating the flesh of someone who is already dead — and liudoedstvo, which means eating the flesh of someone you have killed.In Leningrad, both took place, and mothers even fed their children human flesh.Rather than teaching children, it became Alexandra’s job simply to keep them alive.With a city of two million people blockaded since September 8 by the Nazi war machine, Leningrad had swiftly become a place of famine rather than a bustling centre of life and culture.It may make disturbing reading, but these journals personalise the catastrophe far better than any conventional history.After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, many Leningraders remained upbeat about their future.
Bread quickly became more valuable than money itself. ‘Bread rules, bread can do anything, it dictates and chooses.’In weeks, people were starving to death.
Some 1,500 Leningraders were arrested for it during the siege.
The Russian language distinguishes between two types of cannibalism.
She was lying under a mattress, swaddled in a heap of filthy laundry. Shura explained to Alexandra how a seemingly kind stranger had come to the flat and taken away the family’s ration cards. I ought to live and save more children.’Tragically, despite her best efforts, hundreds of thousands more children — and adults — were to die in Leningrad during one of longest and deadliest sieges in history.
As Alexandra well knew, having no ration card was a certain death sentence. Lasting for 872 days, from September 1941 to January 1944, the blockade resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 inhabitants — some 40 per cent of the city’s pre-war population. Today, the story of the siege is often neglected — especially in the immensely broad picture of World War II — but it deserves a more central position in the canvas.