your connection to The Boston Globe

Leningrad siege survivor recounts detention at camp

Russian city marks 60th anniversary of blockade's end

ST. PETERSBURG -- As the survivors of Leningrad emerged from the horrors of the 900-day Nazi blockade -- starving and shellshocked, but alive -- Vera Lyudyno found herself on another journey to a place of death and destruction, this time in a Soviet labor camp.

Her crime? Keeping a diary, she says, that reflected not only the city's heroic struggle, but also the inability of the Soviet state to protect its citizens and the cruelty the siege brought out in its victims.

"In that diary, I wrote about what I saw: frightful hunger, the number of bombardments, the frozen bodies of dead people," Lyudyno said in an interview.

The city, which has reverted to its original name, St. Petersburg, yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of the lifting of the siege. Along with the proud stories of mutual aid and surviving against all odds that have dominated such anniversaries in Russia, more disturbing recollections such as Lyudyno's are increasingly coming to the public eye.

Lyudyno was 17 when Nazi troops surrounded the city in September 1941. They cut Leningrad off from the rest of the country and bombed the city's main food warehouse, Badayevsky -- causing the extreme hunger that together with the bombardment killed more than half the city's estimated 1.3 million people.

The daily ration was between 4 1/2 and 9 ounces of bread, a black mixture of flour and sawdust. Searching for anything edible, people boiled soup from glue, leather belts, or potato peels. They made tea from pine twigs and dug up the dirt around the Badayevsky warehouse, where the bombardment caused sacks of sugar to melt into the soil. Soviet propaganda strictly censored news from Leningrad, not allowing the publication of pictures showing more than three dead people.

During most of the siege, Lyudyno, who was born with deformed joints, was in a cast due to surgery on her legs before the war. She could do nothing but look out the window and describe what she saw in her diary.

One of her neighbors, a singer, used to eat his entire monthly ration of 7 ounces of meat all at once so that no one would steal it. Another neighbor wore a bag on her chest, where she kept her bread portion, fearing her daughter or grandchildren might eat it. "That woman died later, with the bag still on her chest," Lyudyno said.

There was looting and cannibalism. Children in her building disappeared, and their clothes and bones were later found in the apartment of a violinist neighbor, she said. The violinist's 5-year-old son also disappeared.

Lyudyno said her family even resorted to cooking gelatin from leather belts, or glue flavored with bay leaves.

"When you ate it, your stomach felt like it was on fire and you got very thirsty," she said. "But the trick was not to drink anything to preserve the feeling of satiety."

Lyudyno's mother lost her ration card when she left the city limits to help build defenses. State workers confiscated it, she said.

Because she was in a cast, she could not seek refuge in an air-raid shelter during the bombing. Her father stayed with her in the apartment, and the two played chess for distraction. Lyudyno's father died of starvation in 1942. Lyudyno had her cast taken off in the spring of 1943. A few months later, she entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study piano. She also started reading her blockade diary to her friends.

The siege ended on Jan. 27, 1944. In February, she was arrested and convicted for anti-Soviet propaganda: picking up German leaflets, reading Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and once saying she would not work in a collective farm -- a statement she acknowledges telling friends, because her disability wouldn't allow manual labor.

The diary had disappeared several days before the arrest, and Lyudyno is convinced it was the real reason for her six-year sentence in a hard-labor colony in the bleak, cold steppes of the southern Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

"Where is the diary?" was the secret police interrogator's first question, she said.

Lyudyno said psychologically her prison and camp experience was much harder than even the siege.

"When you see how secret police officers kick a person to death, it's completely different from seeing people dying from hunger," she said.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives