Monday, April 20, 2009

Lenigrad; State of Siege by Michael Jones

One theatre in Leningrad had stayed open that winter (1941)- the Musical Comedy Theatre. Georgi Maximov, the theatre's director, had noticed something interesting about siege psychology: 'In the first months of the war our attendances dropped sharply. But after 8 September, when the city was surrounded, they rose again, and continued to rise despite the shelling and bombing.'

'The theatre became an island of joy in a sea of grief', actress Evgenia Mezheritskaya said. 'The front of the building might look like a military base, for the square was filled with camouflaged lorries, armored cars and even light tanks. But inside, soldiers and civilians could, however briefly, forget about their worries.

Sometimes there were seven or eight air-raid alerts during a performance. The audience would be led to the bomb shelter under the nearby Philharmonic Hall while the actors went to their posts, still in their costumes, to watch out for incendiaries. From 20 November these actors, who toured the front during the day as well as giving performances every evening, only received the minimum bread ration of 125 grams. They grew weaker and weaker. 'Every day things were getting worse and worse', actor Nikolai Rudashevsky recalled, 'by December many of us were finding it hard even to walk to the theatre'.

Yuri Panteleyev remembered appearing before the marines of the Baltic fleet. 'We had almost finished the show when one of the sailors reported that the Nazis were about to shell the area. It was decided to continue nonetheless, so we speeded things up, the singing became very loud and the men in the hall were roaring with excitement. The spontaneous applause and cries of "Bravo!" drowned the noise of the bombardment. Threatened with death, the audience came totally alive. That evening we truly understood the power of performing to others'.

Tamara Salnikova recalled a performance of "The Three Musketeers" given on 7 December:

' It had been snowing all day. I was walking to the theatre but was finding it really difficult to keep going- it was bitterly cold, and I was already dizzy from starvation. As I crossed the Kirov Bridge artillery shelling started. I tried to take cover, along with several other women, and we rushed to the snow mounds on either side of the bridge, and flung ourselves face downward. But suddenly, one of the women cried out and then began to crawl, leaving a trail of blood behind her. The shelling was still going on, but I followed her, and tried to haul her away from the bridge. Fortunately, at the Field of Mars, a militia unit appeared and they carried her off to the hospital'

Exhausted by this Salnikova eventually managed to reach the theatre, bloody and bedraggled:

' I went to the dressing room. The temperature inside was well below zero. I changed into my costume, and as there was a little electricity running I tried to melt my frozen make-up container on a small lamp. Then the hairdresser got to work and I did my vocal exercises. Unfortunately, my character was supposed to appear for the first act in a low-cut blouse...!'

She made it through to the interval, which offered her something of a reprieve, for in the second act- mercifully- she had a warmer outfit. Suddenly, she heard agitated voices in the corridor outside:

'I looked out, to see that one of our best actors- Sasha Abramov- had collaped. He had been standing next to the hot-water tank, trying to warm himself up, and drinking a little tea. His cup lay shattered beside him. Sasha died during intermission. At that time, thousands were dying of starvation, but the loss of my colleague, still in his musketeer's costume, left me absolutely stunned. The stage director spoke to us, and tried to rally us. He told us that we needed to go on- for the audience's sake- but I felt lost in a fog of disbelief"

Someone helped Salnikova change and got her out onto the stage, but as the curtain lifted she stayed rooted on the spot, unable to utter a sound:

' I was supposed to sing and dance- but nothing happened. I couldn't find my voice and my feet simply refused to move. Then as I looked out at the full audience, waiting expectantly, I recalled the exhortation of our stage director" "It is the duty of us- artists- to continue". The power of his words awoke something in me, and somehow, my duet happened after all.'


  1. 'The german bombing raid seemed to be going on forever, leaving people counting the explosions and hoping desperately that the deafening noise would end. As the shelter reverberated and shook, everyone inside became more and more frightened.

    All of a sudden, one of the old men got out his violin and began to play. At first he was just tuning his instrument, trying out the sound, and then, abruptly, he conjured up the most beautiful melody. Marila was utterly entranced, and she recaptured the moment for her diary:

    'He is a really courageous person, and now I don't feel frightened either. There are explosions all around us, and he is playing the violin as if leading us to safety.' Everyone calmed down and Martilla added : 'the terror was somehow less powerful- it had lost its grip on us. It was outside us now; and inside we had our music, and everyone felt its power. There was a most extraordinary sense of belonging'.

  2. Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941 and reached the outskirts of Lenigrad by 8 September. They blockaded the city and established a deliberate policy of starving its inhabitants to death, without allowing recourse to surrender. The siege lasted until 27 January 1944- 872 days. By August 1942 official burial registrations indicated nearly 1,200,000 of the inhabitants of the city had died... but who made the reckoning of those who slid beneath the ice or were picked up in the streets and immediately taken to mass graves? What about those in the suburbs and surrounding villages who fled into Leningrad, refugees without papers or those obliterated by bombs, buried in the rubble or consumed by cannibals? Astonishingly, many museums, schools, lecture halls, artists' studios, theatres and libraries remained open and well attended through it all