4 Must-See WWII Sites in St. Petersburg: The Siege of Leningrad
St. Petersburg: Russia’s capital of art and culture, with extravagant palaces, magnificent theaters, world-renowned museums and miles of canals. But during the Second World War (WWII), Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known then) was an entirely different sight.
In 1941, Nazi Germany attacked Russia, and by September of that year, Leningrad was completely surrounded by German forces. From September 8th, 1941 until January 27th, 1944, the city experienced one of its darkest times. For 900 days during the infamous Siege of Leningrad, the city was under constant enemy bombardment, with only one route to connect it with the mainland, the aptly named “Road of Life” (more info about “Road of Life”).
Food and fuel stocks were severely limited; three months into the siege, the city had no heating or water supply and barely enough electricity. Food rations dropped to an all-time low in January of 1942 – only a quarter pound of bread was allowed per person, per day. Some 700,000 people died from cold and starvation during this horrific time – it would take 20 years for the city to regain the population it once had.
Despite these tragic losses, civilians still refused to surrender, an act that earned it the distinction of being named Russia’s first “Hero City.” Today, the Siege of Leningrad has become an important part of the city’s heritage, and the mark it has left can be found on many of St. Petersburg’s museums, monuments and citizens.
Here are our recommendations for four must-see sights where you can pay tribute to the heroic deeds of this enduring city:
Siege Museum on Solyanoy
Almost immediately after the end of the blockade, St. Petersburg established the Siege Museum to commemorate the survivors and document harrowing stories from the siege. Originally, the museum covered an area 30 times the size of its present site, with nearly 37,000 exhibits.
Fearing it might inspire Russian citizens to revolt, Stalin ordered the destruction of the museum during the purges of 1948, and its many exhibits were either scattered or destroyed. It wasn’t until 1989 that the museum could be recreated, though on a much smaller scale. Today, it includes photos, letters and memorabilia from the 900-day siege, many of which were donated from survivors.
Pulkovskye Vysoty (Pulkovo Heights)
Located 12 miles outside of St. Petersburg, Pulkovo Heights was the site of a major WWII battle during 1941. The German army held the heights, rising 211 feet above the city, from 1941 to 1944, and used the superior position to shell Leningrad during the siege. Several anti-tank pillboxes and defensive outposts remain from that time.
Also located here is the Pulkovo Observatory, the principal astronomical observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a component of the St. Petersburg UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the Siege of Leningrad, the observatory was decimated by German air raids and bombardment. However, the main instruments and a significant portion of works from the main library were saved, and the observatory was restored and expanded in 1954. It continues to be used as a research facility and museum today.
Pushkin – Catherine’s Palace & the Amber Room
Though many visitors come to Catherine’s Palace to admire the impressive baroque craftsmanship, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has also held a fascinating place in WWII history.
Located about 15 miles south of St. Petersburg in the town of Pushkin, the palace was originally built in 1717 during the reign of Catherine I. It was enlarged and embellished in 1752 by famed Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. However, much of what we see today is just a shell of its former grandeur – when Leningrad and its environs were seized in 1941, the palace was stripped of all of its treasures by German forces.
The city was won back in 1944, but as Nazi forces retreated, they set fire to the palace, nearly destroying the entire estate and the palace buildings. Today, much of Catherine’s Palace and its grounds have been carefully and expertly restored.
A highlight of the palace is the Amber Room, which took 24 years to restore. Delicately crafted amber panels, created during the time of Peter the Great, once decorated the walls here, but were stolen during the Siege of Leningrad and never recovered. The beautiful panels you see today were painstakingly recreated from photos and descriptions of the originals.
Piskarev (Piskaryovskoye) Memorial Cemetery
A poignant memorial dedicated to the thousands that perished during the 900-day siege, Piskarev Cemetery is the final resting place of some half a million Leningraders, buried in 186 mass graves marked only by their year of death. Near the entrance to the memorial complex is an eternal flame, with a marble plate affirming the number of those who died during this terrible time.
Granite steps lead visitors to a statue of the Motherland, depicted as a grieving woman, with a plaque inscribed with the words of Russian poet and fellow Leningrader Olga Bergholz, who became famous for her inspiring speeches and poems on the Leningrad radio during the siege. A trip to this moving memorial is a tribute to the endurance of the people of St. Petersburg.
Travel to St. Petersburg, Russia with MIR
MIR has 30 years of travel experience to Russia, with affiliate offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Siberia offering on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
If you’re looking for a ready-made tour of Russia, MIR offers a variety of scheduled departures to Western Russia, Siberia, and along the Trans-Siberian Railway. A pre- or post-tour to any of the above sites can be added to your itinerary.
You can also pay your respects to the Russian war effort on a personalized, private journey tailored especially for you. We’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip based on your personal preferences. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance.
If you need inspiration for a WWII-focused tour, our Beginner’s Guide to World War II Sites in Western Russia and our History’s Buffs Guide to Lesser-Known World War II Sites in Western Russia are great places to start. Or peruse through our other WWII blog posts for additional information. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.
(Top photo: An eternal flame burns near the entrance of the Piskarev Memorial Complex. Photo credit: Liz Tollefson.)
PUBLISHED: May 4, 2016