On September 8, 1941, the Nazi army successfully surrounded the city of Leningrad, Russia, after three months of calculated military efforts. Their goal was simple: to slowly starve the population of Leningrad into surrender and begin their military occupation of Russia. Nazi officials originally anticipated that the city would eat itself alive within weeks, which, in many cases, it very literally did – Leningrad became rife with instances of cannibalism. However, to the great surprise of the Nazis, the citizens of Leningrad endured the siege for close to 900 days, or nearly three years.
To do this, though, people had to resort to desperate measures in order to acquire food, including eating pets, glue, sawdust, and – eventually – the bodies of their families and strangers. By the end of the siege, over one million people had died of starvation or related diseases, and of those who survived, over 2,000 were suspected of having practiced cannibalism in Leningrad.
For years, the level of desperation endured by citizens of Leningrad during the siege remained a tightly kept secret by Stalin's Russia, and, only after various diaries, letters, and documents describing the events were finally released, did people finally become aware of just how severe the situation had been.
An Estimated 2,000 People Resorted To Cannibalism, And At Least 586 Actually Murdered Their Victims
The Nazi siege on Leningrad lasted from 1941 to 1943, during which time the Nazi army had successfully cut the city off from all resources and had resorted to daily bombings of the area in an effort to overtake the politically strategic Russian city.
During this time, food rations became drastically smaller, eventually reaching the quantity of only 125 grams of bread per person per day, which is similar to the size of a bar of soap and amounts to a paltry 300-400 calories. In their desperation to find any food at all, people had to get creative. At first, people found ways to pull calories out of whatever they had at their disposal, including:
"‘macaroni’ made from flax seed for cattle, ‘meat jelly’ produced from boiling bones and calf skins, ‘yeast soup’ from fermented sawdust, joiners’ glue boiled and jellified, toothpaste, cough mixture and cold cream - anything that contained calories. They even licked the dried paste off the wallpaper."
Soon, however, this wasn't enough, and as starvation began to take more and more lives, people had to use their new-found resourcefulness to take advantage of another food option – each other. Not only were desperately hungry people stealing amputated limbs from hospitals in order to feed their families, but parents also frequently had to kill their youngest children in order to ensure the survival of the older.
After the first winter alone, people had become so desperate for food that a Black Market was booming, and people had begun killing one another in the streets for meat. In fact, many parents even "feared their children would be eaten if allowed out after dark."
Many People Kept Diaries And Wrote Letters Documenting The Siege
Over the nearly three-year-long siege, many people kept detailed records of their experiences, from the daily bombings that occurred across the city to the increasingly frequent number of dead who were found in the streets.
One such record was kept by an 11-year-old girl named Tanya Savicheva who wrote a diary during the time, vigilantly recording the deaths of her family members until no one was left besides her:
"28 December 1941 - Zhenya died. 25 January 1942 - Granny died. 17 March - Lyoka died. 13 April - Uncle Vasya died. 10 May - Uncle Lyosha died. 13 May at 7.30am - Mama died. The Savichevs are dead, everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left."
And though her diary was recovered, it is unclear as to what actually happened to Tanya during the remainder of the siege.
Over One Million People Died During The Siege - Nearly One Third Of The Population
By the end of the siege in 1944, when Soviet troops had finally managed to liberate the city of Leningrad from the Nazi blockade, nearly one third of the population had already died with those who had survived on the brink of starvation. Estimates put the number of survivors, or Blokadniki, at around only 400,000 people with 125,000 of them being teenagers and adults, providing further proof of the devastating decisions families were forced to make regarding the survival of their children. The crippling legacy of this siege could be seen for years after, and it wouldn't be until the 1960s that the population of Leningrad would regain its pre-war numbers.