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Leningrad siege survivor's frank diary landed her in labor camp

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- As the survivors of Leningrad emerged from the horrors of the 900-day Nazi blockade -- starving, shell-shocked but alive -- Vera Lyudyno found herself on another journey to a place of death and destruction, this time in a Soviet labor camp.

Her crime? Keeping a diary that reflected not just the city's heroic struggle, but also the inability of the Soviet state to protect its citizens and the cruelty the siege brought out in its victims.

"In that diary I wrote about what I saw: frightful hunger, the number of bombardments, the frozen bodies of dead people," Lyudyno said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The city, which has reverted to its original name, St. Petersburg, celebrates the 60th anniversary of the lifting of the siege today. Along with the proud stories of mutual aid and surviving against all odds, more disturbing recollections such as Lyudyno's are increasingly coming to the public eye.

Lyudyno was 17 when Nazi troops surrounded the city in September 1941.

They cut Leningrad off from the rest of the country and bombed the city's main food warehouse, causing the extreme hunger that together with the bombardment killed about half a million people.

The daily ration was between 4 1/2 and 9 ounces of bread, a black mixture of flour and sawdust. Searching for anything edible, people boiled soup from glue, leather belts or potato peels; made tea from pine twigs and dug up the dirt around the Badayevsky warehouse, where the bombardment caused sacks of sugar to melt into the soil.

During most of the siege, Lyudyno, who was born with deformed joints, was in a cast due to surgery on her legs before the war. So she could do nothing but look out the window and describe what she saw in her diary.

"It was a time that revealed the worst and the best qualities of people, most of whom already lived by one instinct -- to eat," Lyudyno said.

There was looting and cannibalism. Children in her building disappeared, and their clothes and bones were later found in the apartment of a violinist neighbor, she said. The violinist's 5-year-old son also disappeared.

Lyudyno said her family even resorted to cooking gelatin from leather belts, or glue flavored with bay leaves.

"When you ate it your stomach felt like it was on fire and you got very thirsty," she said. "But the trick was not to drink anything to preserve the feeling of satiety."

In February 1944, she was arrested and convicted for anti-Soviet propaganda: picking up German leaflets, reading Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and once saying she would not work in a collective farm -- a statement she acknowledges telling friends, because her disability wouldn't allow manual labor.

The diary had disappeared several days before the arrest, and Lyudyno is convinced it was the real reason for her six-year sentence in a hard-labor colony in the bleak, cold steppes of the southern Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

"Where is the diary?" was the secret police interrogator's first question, she said.

Lyudyno said her prison and camp experience was much harder than even the siege.

"When you see how secret police officers kick a person to death," she said, "it's completely different from seeing people dying from hunger."


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