I remember standing in front of the famous Astoria hotel in St.Petersburg, just a stone’s throw from St. Isaac’s cathedral. Unaware of its significance, my guide explained its intended role if another version of history had played out.
We had just emerged from a side street into St. Isaac’s square, when, with a sweeping gesture she announced, “That’s the balcony where Hitler was planning to address the crowds after taking control of the city,” or words to that effect.
I turned and glanced up to see the platform, jutting from the building’s fascia, no doubt passed by thousands, daily without a second thought.
The frontage, the balcony and the square it overlooked all seemed too small to contain such momentous events that never were.
Nonetheless, Hitler had set his mind on this very stage to revel in his (supposedly) inevitable victory after betraying his former Soviet allies with Operation Barbarossa.
His troops -with assistance from the Finns- set out to first isolate the city and cut off all military and civilian supply-lines. Whilst Russian reserves diminished, ground troops assailed St.Petersburg, alternating with artillery attacks and aerial bombardment. Surely, even Russia’s 2nd city could not withstand such relentless trama?
So confident that the city would “fall like a leaf”, Hitler had invitations to the victory celebrations in the renamed ‘Adolfsburg’ already printed, ready and waiting whilst the siege was still underway. This was, of course the horrific siege of Leningrad, St.Petersburg’s former title.
I was mistaken about the crowds that would have gathered to witness their new dictator’s inaugural rant. The downtrodden and apprehensive assembly of defeated Russians would not have been present, and even the urban landscape may not have resembled anything that stands today. There may even have been no Astoria from which to proclaim triumph whilst celebration raged within.
“There can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban centre… Requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved…” Stated Hitler at the time.
His victorious address would have been a passing moment in the rubble of a dead city, heard and shared only by his fellow invaders after the entire civilian population, and any attending forces- lay as abandoned corpses in the ruins of Peter the Great’s dream.
Tragedies and statistics
Some did escape, however -as evacuees. According to Field Marshal Zhukov, St.Petersburg and its outskirts contained a population approximating 3.4 million of which 1.75 million fled between June 1941 and March 1943. Tragically, many of these would succumb to starvation, cold or be killed in the process of attempting freedom.
Many of the 2.5 million remaining civilians set to work digging trenches and establishing defensive fortifications. Ongoing evacuation would later reduce this figure to around one 1,000,000 via the one viable route out (or in): The Road of Life, but more of that next time.
The siege itself began on 8th September 1941 and lasted for 872 days, while Hitler’s anger raged at his commanders over the seemingly interminable duration of such a ‘certainty’. After all, German scientists that confidently claimed that the city would succumb to the weapon of starvation after only a few weeks. The siege would ultimately be broken, but after an appalling loss of Russian lives.
Due to inaccuracies in record keeping, the broad estimate of 700,000 to 1.5,000,000 deaths is commonly quoted, with civilians bearing the brunt of the losses: possibly totalling 1.3,000,000, many of them unknown and unburied.
We will examine this further next time.