Throughout my program in Russia these past few months, the toll of the Second World War, has often been present and palpable. During World War II and the Great Fatherland War, the name Russians give the part of the war that took part on Soviet land, approximately 20-30 million Soviet men and women perished. Some died in battle, while trying to defend the Fatherland from the Nazi blitzkrieg that began in June of 1941. Others succumbed to starvation or other secondary effects of war, as was the case in my city of study, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). One third of the city’s then-three million citizens died as a result the Nazi blockade, which cut off supply lines for nearly 900 days (Dykman). Though I had heard the startling statistics before coming to Russia, it was hard to conceptualize the reality of these numbers through history books or documentaries that I had previously turned to for information. Now in St. Petersburg for four months, the personal and individual effect of the war has become clear.
Perhaps the most immediate sign of the war for me were the buildings in St. Petersburg. On a bus tour during the first week of the semester, the guide regaled us with grand architectural descriptions of the many building ensembles in the northern capital. A large portion of her narrative concerned post-war renovation and restoration. A Nazi missile fell through the roof of the Winter Palace and into the grand ballroom. Artillery had chipped away at the columns of the iconic St. Isaacs Cathedral despite the efforts to camouflage its golden dome with gray paint. This theme of damage and restoration continued throughout the tour and on other palace and building tours during the semester. Each visit often featured photos from the blockade and views of destruction that followed air raids. At Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, our group was astonished by the incredible opulence of the present day palace against photos showing the destruction that followed a fire set by the Nazis.
On a long walking tour of the city, our guide showed us a monument along the Fontanka river embankment, which memorialized the people of Leningrad that had used the river’s water to drink and wash clothes during the blockade. He then added the anecdote of his aunts, who had survived the siege. He told of their frailness and thinness, which served as reminders of the psychological and physical result of severe food shortages during that time.
The familial accounts of the war continued with a story from my Russian language teacher one day during class. Like most Russians, the war had taken members of her family. Her great-uncle, 17 at the time, lied about his age in order to fight for the fatherland. Tragically, he died within the first few days of fighting in Stalingrad. Along with these second hand accounts, I was privileged to speak with a 75-year-old Russian grandmother, who I had been meeting with for language practice. Valentina grew up in a small town in Siberia and was born at the beginning of the war in 1941. Her generation, now called “deti voyni” or children of the war, were too young to remember the actual happenings of the conflict but were deeply affected by its results. Her father and older brother perished in the conflict and she recalled a very sad childhood. Valentina recalled there being very few men left in her town and that women in the community often cried. Although the stories I’ve heard only account for a few of the countless victims of the War, they were invaluable to my growing conception.
With the context of stories and history, aspects of daily life in St. Petersburg had more meaning. The great respect for the elderly on public transportation and on the street, were predicated by deep respect for the sacrifices made for the fatherland. The many memorials throughout the city and country, always adorned with fresh roses, reflected the common mantra, “No one is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten.” The somber yet grand spectacle on May 9, Day of Victory, in which young and old came together, conveyed the communality and eternality of remembrance.
The toll of war on the Soviet Union is important to understand in considering its continued effect on the modern Russian people. Consciousness and ethos are greatly affected by these types of devastating historical events, especially those in such great magnitude as the Second World War. I know my discoveries over the past few months are an invaluable resource as I continue to study the complexities of Russia and its people.
Dykman, JT. “WWII Soviet Experience.” Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College –. Eisenhower Institute, n.d.
About the Author
Erik Finn is a rising senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Although his primary major is political science with a concentration in international relations, Erik’s study abroad experience in St. Petersburg has encouraged him to take on a double major in Russian studies. On campus in Amherst, Erik is involved in the Russian culture organization, club swim team, and residential life as a RA. He elected to study abroad in Russia with the encouragement of the vibrant Slavic community on campus and the desire to gain more insight into the mysterious Russian ethos. His experience is being partially funded through an SRAS Challenge Grant.