Spring 1944. The siége of Leningrad is lifted. Leningraders remove the protective cover from the Vladimir Lenin monument in front of the Finland Railway Station, where Lenin proclaimed revolution in 1917.



Everybody, who has been to Petersburg, remains enchanted by the unique charm of this city. There on every corner one finds many a wonderful monuments of architecture, museum collections, and rich galleries and libraries, testifying to the eternal values of the genius of the masters of trowel, brush, chisel and pen. Foreigners had nicknamed it "Venice of the North", while to the Russians it has always been just "Peter". In 1924 the city was renamed Leningrad to commemorate Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Great October Socialist Revolution that broke out right there in 1917. But it was not only history that decided about the importance of the city; the second biggest city of the USSR, after Moscow, has been also a large industrial, scientific and cultural centre.

However, it was exactly due to its tradition of progressive and democratic thought, and being the cradle of four revolutions (1905, 1912, and twice in 1917), that the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in his criminal plans had sentenced the city to destruction, and its entire population - to extermination. In this spirit he formulated his Army order of 28 July 1941.

According to the plan Barbaroßa, out of three German army groups formed for assault on the USSR one, the Army Group North, was to take Leningrad. Initial strategic plans (till September 1941) did not consider Moscow as a main objective for the Army Group Centre, operating in that direction. The task of that army group was to rectify the frontlines and support the wings of the neighbouring army groups.

Whereas a fall of Leningrad would have brought substantial advantages to the Germans: connection with their Finnish allies, annihilation of the biggest and most modern Soviet fleet, the Baltic Fleet, and turning the Baltic Sea into a German inner sea. According to the Wehrmacht strategists, swift occupation of the city would prevent evacuation of its industrial facilities (which at that time produced more than 10% of the country's industrial output), and deprive the USSR of an important centre producing machine-tools, aircraft engines, measuring equipment, aircraft spare parts, communication equipment and armoured vehicles.

Apart from strategic gains, Hitler also counted on a tremendous propaganda effect that would inevitably follow a fall of Leningrad. To lose the city bearing the name of the leader of the communist revolution and creator of the Soviet state to the enemy, would be a fatal blow to the morale of the fighting country, and to its political leadership and military command.

The defence of Leningrad was on the Leningrad Military District, responsible for guarding the Soviet-Finnish border from the Barents Sea to the Gulf of Finland. It was to hold positions on a 1,600km-long front with the forces of three armies (14th, 7th and 23rd), which together numbered 15 infantry divisions and 2 mechanized corps. In the Baltic Sea operated the Baltic Fleet with 2 battleships, 2 cruisers and 65 submarines. A move very important to the defence of Leningrad was shifting the Soviet-Finnish border after the war of 1939-1940. Then the border running within 32km from the city centre was moved by 150km westward, and the Baltic Sea gained bigger ease of operating in the Baltic Sea.

The commander of the Leningrad Military District, Gen. Markian Popov, inspected the deployment of his forces on 17 June 1941, and came to the conclusion that the war would break out any day. He ordered two infantry divisions to assume defence positions in frontier areas around Murmansk and Kandalaksha. Also the commander of the Baltic Fleet, Vice-Admiral Vladimir Tributs, under the pretext of unplanned exercises, introduced the state of combat readiness on the ships and bases of the navy.

On 22 June 1941 at 0:30 the command of the Leningrad Military District received a message from the people's commissar for defence, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, regarding possibility of provocative actions of the German forces. At 12:00 the communique broadcast through all the Soviet radio-stations clarified the situation: Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union without declaration of war. The communique ended in a solemn declaration: Ours is a righteous cause. The enemy shall be defeated. Victory will be ours. After hearing that communique, Leningraders spontaneously rushed to the army and navy recruitment offices; factory and office workers summoned ad hoc meetings, at which they made declarations to provide any arms and supplies the armed forces might need in waging the war.

On the same day martial law was introduced in the city and in the province, and mobilization of the reservists under the age of 45 was announced. Between the second day of the war and 1 October 1941 as many as 147,000 volunteers from Leningrad and the province reinforced land troops, navy and popular militia. Particularly active were young workers, students, and junior university teachers, members of the Soviet party and the Communist Union of Youth (Komsomol). Beginning of 23 June, thousands of Leningraders took part in digging air-raid trenches in the parks and suburbs. Simultaneously there began works to mask and protect city's monuments and heritage buildings.

On 24 June the Leningrad Military District was transformed into the Northern Front and General Popov became its first commander. To the post of the front's Member of the Military Council was appointed Andrei Zhdanov - a secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (bolsheviks), and the secretary of the Soviet party's Provincial and City Councils of Leningrad. As early as on 27 June the Military Council of the Northern Front, Provincial Council, and the City Council issued a number of regulations concerning conscription and employment. All the industrial and office workers after hours were submitted to the mandatory military, civil defence, or medical training.

All the city's industry was gradually switching to the war production. It was a difficult task, since only few factories had a matching profile, many professionals were drafted, as reservists, for the military, and new people (retirees, housewives, clerks and youth) coming to replace them had to be trained in manning industrial equipment. Nevertheless, production of a variety of weapons and equipment was organized quickly.

Further decisions of the Soviet party and government had launched evacuation to the country's hinterland of the factories crucial for the war effort, and cultural treasures. Beginning of 28 June in Leningrad operated the Commission for Evacuation, whose chairman was Peter Popkov. First of all he sent to the locations in the Urals and Western Siberia personnel and equipment of the precision mechanic works, aircraft engines factories, and research and development institutions. There were evacuated dozens of thousands of engineers, technicians, skilled workers, scientists and artists. Also priceless collection of the Hermitage, musea and libraries were placed beyond the range of the enemy aviation.

Since the outbreak of the war the danger of the air raids was clear and present, so the city authorities undertook steps towards evacuation of the civilians. It was decided to evacuate 700 thousand inhabitants women, children, retirees and sick people. But after 19 August in view of intensified activities of the enemy air force the pace of the evacuation was disrupted, and only 450 thousand people were evacuated before 29 August.

Since the Baltic Fleet was put on alert already before the outbreak of the war, first air raids on the fleet bases proved inefficient. Yet, when Finland joined the invasion of the Soviet Union, the main naval base at Kronstadt (fortress and port on the Island Kotlin, in the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland), so far in the deep rear, now found itself under the fire.

More distressing news were coming to the city about the fights on the North-Western Front (transformed from the Baltic Military District), whose troops were fighting the German forces advancing from East Prussia to Lithuania, Lettonia and Estonia. Against two Soviet armies (8th and 11th) were fighting there the forces of the German Army Group North (18 armies, 4th Armoured Group and 1st Air Fleet), commanded by Field-Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, and the left wing of the Army Group Centre (3rd Armoured Group and elements of the 9th Army). That grouping numbering 42 divisions, in this 7 armoured and 6 motorized, was assigned to destroy Soviet forces in the Baltic republics and around Leningrad, and seize the city.

After taking of Vilnius the the Army Group North occupied Lithuania and the 4th Armoured Group started advancing into Lettonia without giving the scattered units of the Soviet 11th Army time to regroup and reinforce. In result of the pursuit after retreating Soviet troops on 26-29 June the 4th Armoured Group crossed the Western Dvina and seized bridgeheads near Daugavpils and Krustpils. From there they were able to open the direction to Leningrad.

At the same time on the right wing of the Soviet front the 8th Army (Gen. Peter Sobennikov) was retreating in the sector between the Baltic coast and Western Dvina. Its opponent was the 18th Army, which took Riga and continued advance to Estonia.

In the north Finnish forces tried to keep up to the pace of the German offensive. On 29 June they started fights along the whole front from the Sea of Barents to the Gulf of Finland. Yet, they failed to break through the Soviet defences on the Karelian Isthmus, which blocked the direct way to Leningrad from the north. Only in some sectors of the Northern Front the Finns managed to wedge into the Soviet lines. The Russians had also stopped the Finnish troops and the German Army Norway on the Kola Peninsula (Murman) along the railway linking Leningrad with Murmansk. This way they frustrated the enemy design to capture the only ice-free port in the Russian north.