The orchestra that stood up to Hitler

Amanda Vickery hails an act of musical heroism that defied the Nazis

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To say the past weighs heavy on St Petersburg is an understatement. I have never visited a city so haunting and haunted. Most great cities evolve organically over the centuries, but 300 years ago, the imperial capital was willed into existence, rising from marsh to become a city of 200,000 souls within a single generation, at the behest of Peter the Great. Built in defiance of nature, St Petersburg would be his window on the west.

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Renamed Petrograd after the outbreak of the First World War, Leningrad after the death of Lenin in 1926, and restored as St Petersburg in 1991 by referendum, the city has long provoked debate about Russian national identity, and has been seen as a symbol of the towering achievements of Russian culture. 

he city remains swathed in collective myths and memories of imperial glory, artistic excellence, conspiracy, assassination, revolution, repression, purge and war. But the single event that defines St Petersburg’s narrative in the 20th century is surprisingly not the 1917 Revolution (the storming of the Winter Palace and all), but the siege of 1941–44, a saga of frozen horror, martyrdom and heroism that has branded the city’s collective memory.

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Tom Service and Professor Amanda Vickery in Leningrad

The German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was sudden and shocking. Naively trusting in the Nazi-Soviet NonAggression Pact signed in 1939, Stalin and the Red Army were underprepared, and Leningrad, on the north-western edge of Soviet territory, exposed and vulnerable. It took just 12 weeks from the launch of Operation Barbarossa for the German Army Group North to streak across the Baltic to the gates of Leningrad.

With their old enemy the Finns sealing off the north, by September Leningrad was completely encircled. When the last road to the city was cut off on 8 September 1941, there were about 3.3 million mouths to feed in the city (mostly women, children and old men), with enough food supplies to last a month.

Hitler loathed Leningrad, not just because it was the cradle of Bolshevism, but because to him the city represented the intrusion of the Slavs into the ancient territory of the Teutonic Knights. In its sheer sophistication Leningrad was an affront to Nazi belief in the impossibility of Russian civilisation. The Slavs were untermensch (sub-human), and Hitler would wipe their cultural capital from the face of the earth.

Rather than waste the lives of the Wehrmacht on a costly frontal assault on the city, the Germans coolly set about the business of starving the Leningraders not simply into submission, but to death. Mass starvation was a deliberate strategy, not an unfortunate by-product of a broader military strategy.

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Luftwaffe air raids and artillery targeted the city’s warehouses of food with the calculated intention of “relieving us of the necessity of feeding the population… through the winter”. The statistics are almost impossible to comprehend. Leningrad was besieged for 872 days. By 27 January 1944, when the blockade was broken, an estimated three-quarters of a million civilians had starved to death – four times more than perished in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

As German Panzer tanks stormed across Russia in 1941, composer and Leningrad fire watcher Dmitri Shostakovich penned the opening of his Seventh Symphony. He was evacuated out on 1 October 1941 with his wife and three year-old son Maxim, completing his symphony in Kuibyshev behind the lines.

Musical life in starving Leningrad was at its lowest ebb. A memo from the last remaining orchestra in the city, the Radiokom, reads: “Leader first violins – dead. Bassoon – near death. Senior percussionist – dead.” But against the odds on 9 August 1942, the very day that Hitler had planned to hold a victory banquet at the Astoria Hotel, the Radio Orchestra performed Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Radio Leningrad broadcast the concert via loudspeaker across the enemy front line. The performance was one of the greatest gestures of cultural defiance in history, and a significant propaganda coup during the Second World War.

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This expression of civilisation in extremis is a key moment in heroic Russian memories of the war. However, the symphony was read at the time, as well as since, as not just a comment on the menace of Fascism at the gates, but also of Stalinism within.

For our BBC2 film, we recorded excerpts of the epic ‘Leningrad’ Symphony in the same Philharmonic Hall where it was performed in August 1942. Of course our musicians were well fed and there was no artillery bombardment. The conductor was Maxim Shostakovich, son of the composer (see picture above and main image). He remembered being frightened by the symphony at the age of three.

We invited two survivors of the Leningrad blockade (blokadniki as they are known), who were in the original audience that night. Their siege memories were haunting and humbling to listen to. Our film is their story.

Amanda Vickery is Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London 

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Leningrad and the Orchestra that defied Hitler is on BBC2 tonight (Saturday 2nd January) at 9.10pm