Remembering the siege
Now fast forward in time to a peaceful Sunday morning in Riga. Elizabeth Lepatkina has got together with the other members of The Society of the Leningrad Blockade to celebrate her 79th birthday. Lapatkina, who's a small and wonderfully energetic woman, also happens to be the head of the organization.
Everybody's enthusiastically tucking into dozens of various homemade foods that are laid out on a long table. All of a sudden one woman with a little red hat stands up and says in a shrill voice: "My dear Elizabeth Lapatkina! You help everyone who needs your help, and you bear others' pain like your own and there is no one who could say anything bad about you!" After a storm of applause the raised glasses are clinked and kisses smeared in red lipstick given.
Lapatkina is clearly touched as she stands up to address the crowd: "My dear friends, thank you very much! You all know that my heart is always with you. I would like to say that one can recognize a real friend only in hardship. Putin was right when he said that all those from the blockade were like frontiers. We defended the city and no one will forget our heroism!"
Lapatkina, who moved to Latvia in the 1950s, was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and was in the ninth grade at school when the war started. Most of the people in the city, including her classmates, decided to participate at the front and went to the committee of the region to get permission to go to there.
"At that time we were only 16 and I often think about what the power was that pushed us. People from the committee of region wondered what such small children would do at the front," Lapatkina remembers. "But we were such patriots, honestly! Mostly it's because we really loved our city and Leningrad was our spiritual and cultural center. Therefore we were ready to sacrifice our lives."
The German assault on Leningrad started in the spring of 1941. The Germans believed that taking the city was pivotal in their quest to take over the entire country. The defense of Leningrad took an area of over 450 kilometers and involved 517,000 men. The defense stopped the Germans in the suburbs of the city and lasted for 83 days.
Surviving against the odds
On the front-line Lapatkina worked at the 65th hospital as a nurse. "We went out onto the River Neva with dog wagons to look for dead or injured soldiers but suddenly another shelling would begin and we'd sink under the ice. We'd have to help each other get out of the cold water. First I was injured beneath my breast but I think that I was a lucky dog because on one occasion under a fire a soldier fell on top of me and took a bullet for me. I didn't know whether to be happy or to cry because a person was killed instead of me.
Vsevold Anekin, another veteran of the siege, remembers that the most horrible hunger was until April 1942. "When I was a child I lived in a communal apartment along with 36 people but by the end only seven were left alive." Hunger, he says, killed many of them.
Asked whether it is possible that such a terrible experience can give something positive to a person, Anekin replies after careful thought. "In some ways there are a few good sides - perhaps it's strange but I changed my attitude toward people because even during that horrible hunger, a unique creative spirit held us firmly together throughout the 900 days."
Lapatkina recalls one especially memorable incident that succinctly sums up what life was really like during the siege. She was going to visit her mother to give her a small jar of soup and a bit of bread that she'd saved up over two days. "I was hungry but it was for my mother. I passed by a market where I saw people exchanging various private belongings for food. I saw one woman who was holding a beautiful box with the most wonderful, brilliant necklace I'd ever seen.
She saw that I had some food and was ready to give me her necklace for a slice of bread. I was holding it in my hands when I suddenly saw an image of my mother's face and immediately I took back the bread and returned the necklace."
In the end Lapatkina lost most of her family in the siege, just like everybody else who lived through it.
In January 1943 the siege was finally broken and a year later, on Jan. 27, 1944, it was fully lifted. At least 641,000 people died in it (some estimates put this figure closer to 800,000). The Piskariovsoye Memorial Cmetery is a resting place for over 500,000 people and a timeless reminder of the horror that once befell the city.
Back at the birthday bash, Lepatkina is standing with a glass of cognac among her friends. "My dear friends, I would sincerely like to tell you that with every day all of you become younger and younger in my eyes. You all are so beautiful. So let's drink for young souls and love!" she says, and then the party begins in earnest with dances and games, with laughter and even a rather macabre Russian folklore story.
As I leave the party, along with a bag full of candies and sandwiches, a tiny woman comes up and wishes me farewell while holding both my hands. "I wish you happiness and good health and I hope you never have to experience what we had," she says.