Last week we ended with some harrowing statistics associated with the Siege of Leningrad. The enormity of 1,500,000 deaths is too big to comprehend in any meaningful sense. Too large for our minds to process in terms of quantifying the evil, the loss, the grief and their ripples of effect that radiate outward and onward into the future.
We’ve a better chance of fully comprehending the loss of 1 or 2 individuals, perhaps 5, or even 10 in terms of the holes and the journeys cut-short that they leave behind. Anything larger rapidly becomes too much for a mind to hold.
This is what Stalin meant in his often paraphrased statement: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
The starvation mechanism
A human may survive for roughly 3-10 weeks without food -depending on the physical and mental state of the individual and upon any other positive/negative factors at play. During this time the body initially consumes available sugars, then fat reserves, before breaking down increasingly essential tissues (e.g. muscles) for sustenance. The individual experiences accumulating mental and physical debilitation as his system, by degrees, loses functionality and capability until survival is no longer possible.
By contrast, death through dehydration is a much swifter process, typically taking 3-4 days, though perhaps only a few hours in the most unfavourable conditions. Sure enough; within weeks of the siege’s commencement (8th September 1941), the first deaths from starvation in Leningrad began to appear as the shortages bit hard and the season pitched towards winter.
Existence (or not)
Other than immediate survival, the priority of the civilian population was to construct perimeter fortifications against the German advance -especially to resist infiltration of the city by tank. Whilst construction raced ahead, the determined Russian military engaged Hitler’s forces; resisting, buying time and struggling to breach the Nazi blockade.
With the defences complete and the siege settling into daily rounds of attacks, the subsequent task lay with cleaning the city streets of rubbish, human waste and the ever-increasing number of dead -left to decay where they fell, lest disease take hold, and ravage the weakening population.
Outside the perimeter defenses, German forces captured, wrecked and plundered institutions of Russian culture wherever they found them, Catherine’s Palace, Peterhof Palace, Gatchina Palace and others.
Officials apportioned food according to the importance of the individual’s role within Leningrad’s defence. Unsurprisingly, soldiers and those working within supply lines or the industrial war effort received the largest consideration.
However, those at the other end of the spectrum; the sick, elderly or anyone incapable of such ‘valuable’ work struggled to subsist on as little as 300 calories per day. That’s less than ⅕ of the amount typically required by an adult (depending upon gender, environment, activity etc). To lend some perspective; modern supermarket sandwich packs (containing two whole slices of bread plus filling) frequently exceed 400 Calories.
Starvation deaths continued to mount as the brutal winter of 1941 consumed Russia, with temperatures bottoming out at -40 °C while new, ominous and disturbing reports began to surface.
The trappings of civilisation were sacrificed to necessity as primal drives arose. Tellingly, books were the first to go, burnt reluctantly on the hearth to generate precious heat. Then furniture, all but the essentials followed.
Citizens exchanged fine clothes and other valuables for increasingly smaller amounts of food. Stray dogs disappeared from the streets -all trapped and eaten. Then family pets and the Hermitage’s cats; any living thing that could be caught and consumed.
The dwindling bread ration was bulked-out with sawdust and cellulose, diminishing the nutrition per serving whilst animal bones were boiled into soup and skins devoured. When standard conceptions of food were absent, necessity forced the unconventional. Beyond that, desperation substituted the abstract: glues, toothpaste, medical cream, cough medicine, wallpaper paste – anything edible and with (any) calorific value.
The ubiquity of death devalued life, as some -both men and women- sold themselves for the brief gratification of others, in return for food. Opportunists stole ration cards from easy targets (including the dead), then people killed for them, even relatives -then close relatives.
In their homes, whole families slowly transitioned from the living into the dead, member by member. Weakening survivors documented such passings, with no memorials but the names and dates on scrap paper; themselves only days, weeks or months behind. Who would write their names? They hid deceased ration card holders and claimed the absent members shares until the life-saving documents expired; the owners still providing for remaining family members in absentia -if only temporarily.
Changes became apparent in the population’s physicality: emerging from bodies unable to contain them further. Citizens grew withered, aged (irrespective of their years), bloated through malnutrition, with stick-bones for limbs that jutted from clothing that would no longer fit. Trauma rendered some unable to recognise their own reflections or even acknowledge their own identities beyond those strange, unknown old faces that gazed blankly back from mirrors or the windows of emptying shops.
An appalling entry surfaced in NKVD documents, dated 13th December 1941; announcing the first confirmed discoveries of “human meat” being used for food. There had been rumours, and outright claims too: of amputated limbs missing from hospital theatres, of fresh graves disturbed in icy cemeteries, and more.
Here however, was something disturbingly concrete. The entry listed 13 accounts of familial murder and subsequent cannibalism. Family members were now predating upon their relatives -even immediate ones- in order that others may survive. Roughly 2000 instances of cannibalism would subsequently come to light, whether involving strangers, relatives, opportunism, or deliberation.
The authorities, with laws unprepared for such things, divided the crime into two critical categories: those that killed others for food and those opportunists who merely discovered -and subsequently ate- the dead. The former would face execution, and the latter imprisonment, with some clemency granted for the prevailing, extreme circumstances, the horror and the madness that had corrupted their lives.