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Critical Biography of Elena Skrjabina

From Women in European History

"Elena Skrjabina"


In early September of 1941 the German Wehrmacht completed its noose around the city of Leningrad, in northern Russia, by cutting off the last connection to the Russian mainland. During several weeks preceding the encirclement, hundreds of thousands of people fled the city, but just as many remained behind. For the next 872 days the city remained under siege, and for every single one of those day, those who remained behind experienced hell. Among those who remained in the city, and among the survivors of the siege was Elena Skrjabina. She has kept a diary, part of which she published detailing the events of months preceding the siege of Leningrad and lasting through her experience of living in the city limits, and eventually fleeing the city in hopes of escaping the German war machine, the cold, the hunger and the desperation that plagued the streets and alleyways. Elena wrote in her diary about the hardship she endured, about the hope she lost, about the horrors she experienced. But most importantly, she knew the significance of her memories, of these events and tried as hard as she could to document what it was like to survive. The tale of survival did not begin with her escape from the besieged city; the tale began with her decision to stay.


Contents

Setting the Stage

Leningrad was the only port-city of USSR on the Baltic Sea. As a result, its importance was not only weighted as the northern capital of Russia, but also as the only gateway into the western waters. When Hitler invaded Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, capture of the second-most largest city in the country, Leningrad, was one of his top priorities. An entire army group: Army Group North was dedicated to this task, and along with allied forces from Finland, over the course of late-summer the city was slowly being surrounded, and the defenses were slowly being pushed closer and closer to the city limits. When the final route to the city was cut on September 8, the city received an ultimatum from the German commanding Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb demanding an immediate and unconditional surrender. Elena notes that the Germans had spread tons of leaflets throughout the city issuing the ultimatum, and promising a massive bombardment should the city refuse[1]. The city refused. As promised, the massive artillery barrage and air raid came the next day and continued wave after wave, salve after salve for over four days without a single break. Biggest shock to Elena and others, was the hollow promises of invulnerability of the city’s defenses. Prior to encirclement, STAVKA made sure to take every step necessary to avoid a city panic, and to make people stay and defend the city, maintaining morale. Through heavy use of propaganda and Stalinist fear methods, people were led to believe that the city would never get close to falling into enemy hands. She wrote “And all the time they told us that Leningrad was inaccessible, that there would be no air raids. This is how inaccessible it is! The antiaircraft defense might as well be soap bubbles. Guarantee of safety? A shallow phrase”[2] With this the trials had only just begun.

Diorama of Siege of Leningrad, displayed in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Moscow

Early Days of Occupation

The following days, Elena writes, the food stockpiles were hit and burned to the ground, plunging the city into starvation almost immediately. At this time, Elena is still somewhat optimistic. While the food supplies are running low, and the public is bargaining and foraging for anything edible and consumable, anything that can be stockpiled and saved, most of the people still do not realize their situation. Entries that Elena wrote during September and into October still have a sense of hope that the Red Army is just around the corner, and that this duress will not last. The fact that she is mortified at the news coming in of death and destruction is in itself a state where you are still human. In the time to come, as we will see, continuous exposure to suffering will turn even the motherly heart of Elena into stone. The despair creeping over the people living in the city where people fall down dead of hunger and cold is only starting to set in. At this point, around early November, Elena starts to comment that food is virtually nonexistent. Local delicacies are now leather-boiled gelatin and wax-cakes: “The mess is beyond description – yellow and repugnant. As hungry as I was, I couldn’t swallow even one spoonful. I choked. “[3] But this is also the time when cases of cannibalism start to surface; “Not just rumors, but reliable sources, i.e. news from militia sectors, tell us that a lot of sausage has appeared at the marketplace – jellied meat and such – made of human flesh. To think that such a horrible possibility could be imagined! People have reached their limits and are capable of everything.”[4] The morale and hope of people continue to fall. As the military is unable to break the encirclement, and unable to get supplies into the city limits, people die. “Death reigns in the city. People die and die.[…] People are so weak from hunger that they are completely indifferent to death.[…] People are used to it. They are apathetic, knowing that such fate awaits everyone, if not today, then tomorrow.”[5]

Every Woman for Herself

Amidst all of this, there are those who abuse the system the best they can. Everything that people do at this point is to look out for themselves. Though few things can still be obtained based on favors, it is virtually the only way to get something: “My husband arranged with the hospital on the Petrograd side. They will use Dima as a courier.”[6] In the conditions and rationing that the city dictated, those who do not work, do not eat. Given the rates of starvation, the fear of such death, any job that will net even the measly 125g of bread was hard to find. And despite the fact that Elena’s husband was an engineer in the city, well educated, he could not do any more than that. Ever since he was called into the militia to stand watch against air raids and put out fires, he barely even saw his kids and Elena.

A Grim Possibility

Some time after, in early February, Elena has gotten word that her husband has arranged for her and their children to get out of the city with the next military evacuation convoy that is going to make a run for it across the Doroga Zhizny – a frozen path over the lake Lagoda that is constantly shelled and bombed by the Germans. Despite being good news, it did little to help the situation at hand. She writes “The future frightens me. Where will we go and what will happen to us? My aunt, who is also supposed to evacuate with her daughter and grandchildren after her husband’s burial, sighs heavily when she looks at me. Know that she doubts the success of this venture. But we will see. There is nothing we can do. There is no other way out.” [7] In broad view, the siege and constant psychological pressure, combined with death and decay spread through the city, caused people to stop function as normal human beings. Erratic, always-hungry eyes, filled with apathy towards everyone else drove people and their loved ones into further desperation. As time passed, thoughts and dreams faded, replaced by a single desire – a desire to for all to end. No matter how it ended, people just wanted an escape: they were tired.

Elena paints us a grim picture indeed. Shortly after she escaped the city, she follows the crowd and eventually ends up in the town Pyatigorsk. Soon after, upon the capture of the town by the Wehrmacht, she ceases this particular diary: “The setting sun illuminated the black sign of the iron cross. There could no longer be any doubt. The city had been occupied by the Germans.”[8] And though she has more yet to tell, there is much we can learn from even this short snippet of her diary about women and their place in society during the Soviet regime and during the wartime.

Myth and Recollection

Of particular note is the part where Elena ends the tale. The article by James Clapperton discusses this phenomena by calling such memories mythic and nostalgic: “Accounts of community spirit and acts of self sacrifice exist alongside the acute deprivation of siege life.” [9] And furthermore he claims that most of those who lived in the city during the siege relate most closely to and always first remember the first months of the blockade. “The Germans continued to shell Leningrad right up until the final days of the siege in January 1944 but their grip on the city was never as tight as it had been during those initial months. Consequently, siege testimonies tend to focus on the initial seven or eight months of the blockade.” [10] It is this very period she focuses on in her diary. As the most brutal of the months, before the aforementioned path over Lake Lagoda was established, they are also the most traumatic. This most likely suggests deep attachment and feeling of salvation. Those who have survived the first winter, lived to see the first glimpses of hope, and aid from the outside world. And those who managed to escape from that hell, will always think back to it, and every other challenge surely will pale over the tale of survival in the besieged city. Escaping the city limits, after all Elena and her children have been through, brought such a relief to Elena and her children, that even the previous horrors would not bother her, allowing some deep and undisturbed sleep. Though the latter was only achieved through kindness of strangers, which yet again gave more hope to Elena, that not everyone in Russia is like the people in Leningrad: there is still kindness; there is still hope.

What is most surprising about this, and probably the hardest thing to grasp on the surface, is the level of care and attachment Elena held to that city. People were evacuating weeks, and in some cases months, prior to the initial raids. And yet Elena refused to go home. And even throughout the first 7-8 months that she spent in the city, she had several opportunities to leave, and yet she hesitated. And in part, this particular dedication to the city is what made Leningrad survive. Thought on the other hand, Elena’s descriptions seems to mention very little of the politics that were happening at the time. Hitler, announced in “directive No 1a1601/41 that he intended to ‘raze the City of Petersburg from the face of the earth.’ Any offers of surrender were to be refused and the populace was to be left to perish in the event of a German victory. “ [11]While that’s true, the opposite side of the coin is just as important.

Equality Among the Dead

During the Soviet regime, the basic idea was that everyone was equal: including women. This showed heavy implications over the In some respect, the government and local authorities held women in a higher state of respect due to the fact that they were the mothers of the nation’s children. In his thesis statement, V.M. Arutiunjan claims that there is a clear reason why Russia was the “motherland” and not anything else. [12] And it is worth mentioning that during the war years, it was women who worked the factories, stores, stockpiles, hospitals, and everything else when the men were called to duty. [13] And while Elena in her journey does not join up with the army, it is mainly because she has very little opportunity to do so. And in the same light, she does what she can to keep herself and her family alive, and at the same time help the war effort. She tries to provide for the family so that her children live. As a mother, it is a natural instinct. Elena thought always first of her children. She would give them her bread, and her porridge and wax-soup, in desperate attempts to keep them alive and active. As a citizen and as a comrade, it is her duty. To soviets, children were the future. And the state made sure people took care of their kids. The city government of Leningrad made it their particular goal to exterminate any sort of prejudices, as D.I. Balibalova states: “in the future the government politics regarding women question would be based on Leninist preconceptions of social equality:[…] 4) complete uprooting in the minds of the people any prejudices, that lead to misevaluation of skill of women and their roles in the society”[14] This makes for interesting considerations when cross-examining the testimony given by Elena in her diary regarding what people did and how people were treated. Women were given preferential treatment to leave the city with children, but that is really it. Otherwise the preference was given to workers. Not male or female workers, but workers in general. Which accounts quite significantly for Elena’s poor food supply, since she was not a worker, but a student of the university in Leningrad at the time. Her husband on the other hand was an engineer, though he was immediately drafted into the local militia.

Women and Society

Another interesting particular was the relationship Elena had with the people around her, and with her children. As the time went on, in her diary she grew more and more apathetic about what was happening to her children. Though this statement seems to contradict the point made earlier, it simply looks at it from a different perspective. In the setting of so much death and despair, when she finds out that her eldest son got sick, she delivers him to a hospital almost knowing for certain that he will not make it out. Her diary is so dry. There is no emotion, nothing, even though she is parting with her son and leaving for the train outside the city. Similarly, her affection towards people faded. As she grew more tired, more disillusioned and more desperate, she started to lose interest in her neighbors, friends and other family, though not the least cause of that was also the frequent death of the people in her life. Through her diary we could tell that sometimes writing about all of the events was a chore. It was no longer a desire to leave her memories on paper, to have a recollection to pull out later. It was something she had been doing every day throughout the siege, and one of the few things that remained very reliable and constant.

The One Unchanging Thing

This is where the true value of this writing comes up. She needed a sense of stability and repetition to get by. Nothing in her life could offer this sense of stability like a diary, to which she turned even on days when things were looking extremely grim. She tried to write on anything that she could, and as Norman Luxembourg notes: “Many of wartime notes were, of necessity, written on scraps of small paper until such time as she was able to again continue recording in notebooks.”[15] Which leads us to realize how much this diary meant to her after all she lived through, after all she saw, heard and witnessed in the city griped by fear, starvation and without hope.


Additional Information

War Goes Global

World War II began with the German Invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939. Consequentially, the French and British government declared war on Germany with hopes of ending the aggression of the country. It is fair to note that the militarization of Germany prior to the invasion was viewed with contempt by the remaining Western European powers. Due to the previously signed Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced into disarmament and into a demilitarized state. Therefore, increase in manufacturing in Germany alerted the allied governments and raised caution flags all over Europe. Regardless, no one was prepared for what was ahead. After Poland fell, and Western-European nations declared war, the Wehrmacht swept through France and occupied it, and proceeded to launch military operations against British Empire all over the world: Europe, Africa, and they even attempted to take the war further into the Indian colonies. It was not long after that the second front opened when the German armed forces crossed into the USSR, on June 22nd, 1941.

Operation Barbarossa - Army Group North

Military plans and movements of Wehrmacht and Soviet Army Fronts

THE German military on the eastern front was split into several groups: Army Group North, Centre and South, and several smaller armies with smaller strategic tasks. Of the three groups, Army Group North’s primary objective was encirclement and capture of the “Northern Capital” of the USSR, the city of Leningrad. Preliminary troop movement suggested the possible course of action and mid-June the Russian city began mass evacuations. The cauldron locked on September 8th, when the city ended up in a complete blockade. Originally Hitler delivered the city an ultimatum: to surrender or face extinction. The city, following orders of Stalin to not take a step backwards, and for a lack of a better option, refused. Following the refusal of the ultimatum, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, began a prolonged bombardment campaign that would last until the last day of the siege and wrought heavy destruction on the city. Though the city was long in preparation for the defense of the siege, as it was predicted Germany would attempt it, the anti-air defenses proved no match for the bombardment raids.

Some action was taken by the citizens of the city to help defend it against the siege from the sky, as well as shelling from the artillery batteries from the front lines outside of the city limits. Primarily, the city has declared for people to extinguish all lights during THE night – SO as to not provide any targeting marks to the Luftwaffe bombers. Notably, the dome of the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, which was originally made of gold, was painted grey in order to avoid enemy bombers and to provide accurate intelligence of enemy plane movement and incoming barrages over the city. Being one of the tallest bird’s nests in the city, the strict lights out policy also allowed for the observation post to be formed in the tower: effectively providing accurate movement and events that occur around the city. Citizens that stayed behind in the city took turns, as part of the city militia, standing guard at various parts of the city on the rooftops looking for downed airplanes. In some cases the goals were military, to prevent enemy fighters from roaming city streets, but for the most part the people just wanted to scavenge the downed men for anything of value to be traded later for food, which quickly became a very rare commodity.

Survival of the Hungry

Following the first winter of isolation, the harshest by comparison to the coming seasons, the way to bring in food was only opened after some time, was a dangerous Road of Life. The path over lake Ladoga, dubbed the Road of Life, allowed supplies to be brought into the city by blockade runners. These blockade-runners risked their lives moving trucks and cars full of food and clothing under incessant artillery shelling, in order to try and relieve the suffering of those stuck inside the blockade.

Eventually the siege was lifted through joint efforts of Soviet naval, air and ground military operation, Operation Spark, which started on January 12th, 1943. By January 18th, two soviet armies met, opening a 12km wide corridor that allowed aid to be delivered to the city. Though the corridor was opened, the siege continued until January 17th, 1944, when Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive finally lifted it.

Consequences

Throughout the siege, which lasted for 872 days, over 1,500,000 civilians and soldiers and militia died within the city limits, with over 1 million people dying during evacuation attempts. This siege is marked as the most brutal and longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare. The conditions endured by the citizens were atrocious, and towards the end of the first winter cases of cannibalism and famine were a common sight. Desertion of militia men increased as the time went on, no matter the order of the party leaders in the area. General Zhukov, who was placed in charge of defending the city, ordered very strictLY not to condone any deserters, and to have violators of martial law shot on sight. Morale was hanging by a thread, all the while shells and mortars kept falling on the roofs of people unfortunate enough to have remained in the city.



Notes

  1. Skrjabina, Elena. "Siege and Survival: The Odyssey of a Leningrader." Translated by Norman Luxenburg (Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), pg.25
  2. Ibid., pg.27
  3. Ibid., pg.38
  4. Ibid., pg.38
  5. Ibid., pg.39
  6. Ibid., pg.39
  7. Ibid., pg.63
  8. Ibid., pg.143
  9. Clapperton, James. "The Siege of Leningrad As Sacred Narrative: Conversations with Survivors." Oral History, Vol. 35, No. 1, War and Masculinities (Spring, 2007), pg. 50
  10. Ibid., pg.51
  11. Ibid., pg.52
  12. Zhenshini Leningrada V Gody Blokady: Theses of papers presented at a conference 20-22 March 2005. St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg University Press, 2005, pg. 3
  13. Ibid., pg.4
  14. Ibid., pg.5
  15. Skrjabina, Elena. "Siege and Survival: The Odyssey of a Leningrader." Translated by Norman Luxenburg (Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), pg.156

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