The Road of Life, St. Petersburg

“An original Leningrad cuisine has developed; we’ve learned to make doughnuts out of mustard, soup out of yeast… many bring in soil that contains charred sugar… they boil it, filter it, and make coffee” (Kochina 46). In World War Two, Hitler decided to encircle the citizens of Leningrad in a siege, so that the city would give up, or all die of starvation. During this siege, under constant threat of Nazi attack; millions of citizens battled not only with the armies, arrayed pincer-like around the city, but also with famine, with sickness, with fear. They used creative ways to survive and to fend off hunger and death. One such survival technique was manifested in the Road of Life (Doroga zhizni), or the ice road that crossed Lake Ladoga to the North of St. Petersburg to bring supplies to the dying city.  This opening of the lifeline is dated to 19 November (1941) when a road for military vehicles was ordered to be built by the Leningrad Front from the eastern shore of Lake Ladoga across the ice of Shlissel’burg Bay (Glantz 139). During the winter months, the ice road over Lake Ladoga to Leningrad was the only way to transport rations, military equipment, and other supplies through the pincer grip of the German troops. The risks taken by those working on the ice road or driving supplies through to St. Petersburg, were high. The food supply was as low as the morale, and starving people would fight each other in the streets for a mouthful of bread or soup. The workers on the Road of Life and the truck drivers that tested such dangerous conditions became working class heroes. Their success was immortalized by the survival of those struggling inside, and by the victory of Leningrad over its opponents. Moreover, memorials commemorating the “Road of Life” and the Siege of Leningrad, such as The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, keep the valor and spirit of the besieged Leningraders alive in the current hearts of those in St. Petersburg.

The population of Leningrad was dying from starvation, cold, and untreated medical conditions.   Rations of bread were as low as one hundred grams per person per day during the darkest times, and one might get more or less depending on the profession of the worker. These rations inspired a different style of recipes. People would experiment with eating glue for gelatin or sawdust mixed in with bread or pancakes. A survivor of the Leningrad siege, Elena Kochina, described her breaking point in regards to her mixture of rations by saying that “despite [their] hunger, [they] couldn’t eat the meatballs; they were half sand” (100). This turned against the innovators, for “many people became ill from eating such concoctions, and some actually died from them” (Goure, 214). Not only did they experiment with unnourishing foods, but ration cards of dead would be held as long as possible in order to receive extra rations. Some bodies did not receive burials or ceremonies so that their families could benefit from the extra food.

The ice road was a treacherous path. The weather over Lake Ladoga rarely allowed for perfect conditions, and “the highway was under frequent bombing but the trucks continued to roll” (Skomorovsky and Morris, 181).  My visit along the Road of Life was accompanied by somehow fittingly horrible weather.  In the winter, however, it is even more dangerous. The ice was often not frozen evenly the entire way across the lake, leading to buildups of ice and areas of thin ice that were precarious for frequently unskilled and civilian drivers. The exhausted citizens of Leningrad regularly had to repair the road, “thousands of villagers… were employed upon it, working with no more than picks and shovels to mark the route… they had no snowplows, no bulldozers” (Wykes, 96). Also, as some areas of the ice became more fragile, they had to be avoided by the trucks, decreasing the amount of supplies getting into the beleaguered city, and causing “the location of the ice road…to be shifted from time to time, [and] over 1,000 miles of road were built in all” (Goure, 181).

It was thus that the drivers on the ice highway started to become true heroes. Without regard for their own health or personal well-being, some of them drove more than one shift regularly, meaning that they would be in treacherous conditions for over twelve hours straight. One driver, “Alexander Danilovich Tikhonivich, was doing two trips across the ice, whatever the conditions and with nobody to relieve him at the wheel, in a single shift, and that without single accident” (Fadeyev, 50). After his example, it became common to work well after the drivers’ health began to suffer. During their double and triple shifts, “many drivers fell asleep at the wheel or fainted from exhaustion… rest[ing] only when they became too exhausted to work” (Goure, 209).

Now, many truck drivers are applauded for doing the job they had to do, which may be an insult to their sacrifice. They did the job they did not have to do, and a lot of them died doing it. Being able to get out of the city under siege, and still returning to help lift the burdens of the masses, this was probably more than they bargained for, and is truly a lot to ask of these noble people.  Many were not trained specifically for their jobs, and worked with outdated and dangerous equipment.  The more dedicated truck drivers went “without sleep so that they could spend hours searching for less worn tires, ‘tuning up’ the grotesque engines, and performing mechanical surgery of astonishing resourcefulness” (Wykes, 119). Going without sleep and driving dangerous double or triple shifts was even more hazardous to their health considering the rations that everyone in the city had to abide by.

Many of the workers on the ice road were not specificially trained to do the jobs that they needed to do. The troupe was comprised of “peasants, collective farmers, Red Army rear troops, anyone available was put to work on the highway” (Salisbury, 409). It was an effort of the entire community to keep the ice road open, to keep bringing supplies in, and to keep defending their city against intruders. It is incontestable that these efforts, however dangerous, were extremely worthwhile. Though the road only worked during the months when the lake froze over, “hundreds of thousands of tons of precious freight were transported over the Ladoga Road during those winter months” (Skomorovky and Morris, 181). Moreover, it was not just a road for bringing supplies in and out. The road also helped with evacuating between five and six thousands of people from the starving city a day (Glantz, 144), and was actually “intended from the very beginning to provide for [such] a mass exodus” (Cherepenina, 55).  Kochina recalls her own anxiety about leaving the city on the ice road, about the weakening of the ice that would cut off their plan for escape (Kochina 47) .

After the war, there was a lot of debate as to how to memorialize the valiant inhabitants of Leningrad. Where could a monument be placed?  If in a military setting, it may be seen as denying  the sacrifices of the civilians.  If in a public setting, it could not be allowed to interrupt the flow of the recuperating city. Finally, the commissioners planned to construct The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad on a former battle front near the edges of the city. This helped to “bridge the experiences of the city and the front, of civilians and soldiers, of men and women” (Kirschenbaum, 213).  The next problem was attempting to encapsulate the memory of those victimized and those who fought back. The end result was a series of characters involved in the siege, such as a group of soldiers, a group of woman metalworkers, etc. These different supporting groups are gathered around the plaza inside another symbolic part of the memorial, which resembles a broken ring. This broken ring  refers to the broken encirclement around Leningrad at the end of the siege and the celebration of that moment. When I saw the broken ring for myself this summer, it was not what I had expected. The broken ring was jagged, as was much of the stonework, and it imparted the sense of a very bittersweet victory, and also quite a great deal of emotion. To this day, people still leave fresh flowers around the statues on the immediate inside of the circle.

This memories of the Road of Life and those who struggled through its lifetime are revisited as often as the monument is. Veterans and political officials attend on important anniversaries, and commemorative events take place in the same area. The memorial also continues its importance in the rituals of Leningraders in the sense that “newlyweds still stop by the monument with their small wedding parties to drink a toast, take videos, and leave flowers at the base of the ‘Blockade’ sculpture’” (Kirschenbaum, 228).  This monument was not the only one trying to honor the memory of Leningrad’s inhabitants during the siege, however. There are many more monuments, especially along the Road of Life and around the Shlissel’burg area that try to reconcile memories of those bleak times.

The remembrance of the Road of Life best exemplifies the idea of a series of truly collective monuments.  The running theme that connects many testimonials reads: “Никто не забыт, ничто не забытo (“No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten”).  This idea is featured prominently in the Memorial to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad; in the Piskarevskoye Cemetery, where mass graves can be found;  as well as another monument in the grass beside the Road of Life itself. It shows the idea of historical significance under the lens of an entirely different social framework, the framework of communism.

Some of the most visited places in St. Petersburg are testaments to a single ruler, a noble family, or an accomplished writer. For example, the Bronze Horseman is representative of Peter the Great as well as Catherine the Great. The Yusupov Palace demonstrates the history of that family and its involvement with the infamous Grigorii Rasputin. There are statues of Pushkin scattered throughout the city. One can infer from these monuments the importance of the individual rising above the rest, as well as showing the significance of heritage. The monuments dedicated to the Road of Life and the Siege of Leningrad portray a very different image of heroes. There is a definite influence of Socialist Realism in the sculptures constructed in memory of the defenders. There are a great deal of women and men that intend to glorify the workers as well as the soldiers, the civilians as well as the leaders.

The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad is a microcosm of the city during the siege. On the outside, surrounding the towering monument, there are sculptures of the people who defended the city. Statues of workers drag heavy metal machinery, soldiers guard the city with guns they struggle to carry, and even women and children share the burden of helping everyone to survive. When I saw the sculptures in person for the first time, I was nearly moved to tears.

The expressions carved onto the women and children’s faces were expressions of suffering but also of hope. It just felt like they captured the entirety of society within the monument. Inside the museum directly beneath the Monument to the Heroic Defenders, are two more inclusive monuments with the words “Книга Памяти” (“Book of Memory”)  inscribed on the front. These endeavor to list the victims on their engraved bronze pages. They attempt to account for every contingent of troops, every nurse, and every innocent bystander. Even the number of dogs used for sniffing out bombs are listed there as losses to the city. This last discovery, made when I visited the Museum, painted a much more vivid picture for me than I might otherwise have received.

The Road of Life itself is punctuated by  a series of stone markers designating the road from St. Petersburg to Shlissel’burg.   Each marker either has a star or a hammer and sickle on it, accompanied by the kilometer number. In addition, there are other monuments alongside the Road of Life and around the city of St. Petersburg that make up the “Green Belt of Glory”. Some of these include the infamous “Broken Ring” monument, demonstrating the broken siege around Leningrad; the “Rumbolovsk Hill” monument, whose oak and laurel leaves represent the glory of life, and the “Flower of Life” monument.  Another has the recurring phrase “Никто не забыт, ничто не забытo” set into the grass accompanied by three white birds flying away. There are also more informal monuments, such as a grove of trees decorated with a huge number of wreaths and hearts to remember those lost. Driving along it, one is constantly reminded of the significance and amazed by the heroism of the truck drivers going such a long distance while being under constant fear of attack.

Returning to the typical statue of czarist times, however, it is obvious that the creation of these monuments helped to develop a new myth to celebrate the victories of the Soviet Union. Just as Americans remember the horror of Pearl Harbor and take motivation from that mythology of war, and just as the Czech Republic remembers Lidice, the monuments commemorating the Siege of Leningrad and the Road of Life aid in the mythology and propaganda of the state. In the same vein, these monuments are structured very differently than others seen around Saint Petersburg. Again, there is a greater focus on a community. In the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, there are trees for every surrounding city that helped Leningrad. There are sculptures of any kind of worker that one could imagine. To reinforce the idea of the Soviet communist victory, Lenin’s face and the Soviet flag can be seen in numerous places in the museum and on the monument itself. This

On the other side of the Road of Life is a  diorama-based museum under a highway dedicated to the breaking of the siege around Leningrad. The front side of the building holds a giant metallic map on which the Road of Life is shown, along with tiny metallic trucks moving across the lake. After entering the museum, the visitor is shown a partially three-dimensional diorama that depicts the Spark Operation that relieved Leningrad from its isolation from a viewpoint near Shlissel’burg, south of Lake Ladoga. The diorama was designed and produced in 1985 by survivors of the siege: Seleznev, Garikov, Kabachek, Kotik, Kotusov, Molteninov, and Savostianov (Muzei Diorama).

Noticeably, the diorama takes advantage of a certain hierarchy of memory, wherein the artists capable of illustrating it were the ones who themselves lived through the terror of those days.  From my experiences in Russia, it seemed to be more respected than another site dedicated to the victims of Leningrad. In Smolenskoe Cemetery, there are mass graves bearing signs that show that victims of the siege lay there. However, since this was probably requisitioned by the government, it did not seem to have earned as much respect as the memories of the artists in Shlissel’burg. Whereas in the diorama museum I saw school field trips and foreign tourists, on the sunny day that I visited the cemetery, there were both sunbathers and picnickers present alongside the grass-covered mounds. It was interesting to note which areas were significant as sites of memory to the Russian people and how they determine which sites are truly worth honoring. However, some of the awe inspired by the Road of Life is starting to decrease because the generation that remembers being in the siege is starting to either die out or move away. When they cease to exist, the question might come up how this site of memory will evolve, when the children of the victims stop passing the stories down to their children. Will the monuments continue to have fresh flowers on them? Will there still be streams of schoolchildren learning in the museum of the diorama? Regardless, the Road of Life continues to be an inspiring place to visit, a tragic place to remember, and a historical place from which to learn.

Works cited