So, Ukraine may soon be at war once again. Over 100,000 Russian troops are massing at the Ukrainian border, including in Belarus – just a few miles from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The Americans are piling weapons into the country and pulling out their diplomats, Nato is reinforcing its eastern borders, and Israel is preparing for another mass wave of immigration by Ukrainian Jews.
Linked to Russia by centuries of history, and an economic powerhouse of the Soviet Union thanks to its agriculture, coal and heavy industry, Ukraine has changed enormously since gaining independence in 1991. When I first visited, in January 1992, Kiev was a drab, grey Soviet city, its beauty masked by leaden skies and decades of stagnation. The streets were covered in snow – lovely in the early morning after an overnight flurry, but later slushy and treacherous with ice.
There were few opportunities to escape the cold – pleasant ones at least. My friend and I ducked into a restaurant for some respite; it served nothing but cucumbers and garlic, both pickled, and unidentifiable meat and gristle patties, or kotleti. Being vegetarian in the embers of the Soviet Union wasn’t easy. The waitress brought us a sorry-looking bunch of red carnations and indicated two men at the only other occupied table, who wanted to give them to us. We declined. They started shouting. It all got a bit nasty and we left as quickly as we could. That was not an unusual experience at the time.
Today Kiev is a thriving city with a young, highly educated population, tech savvy industries and a wealth of eateries serving cuisines from all over the world. It looks to the west, rather than the east, after the hard-won popular uprising of 2013-14 – the Revolution of Dignity – which deposed the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
That brutal three-month stand-off brought tens of thousands of protestors to Kiev’s central Independence Square, or Maidan, in sub-zero temperatures. It began as a demonstration against the president’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union to enable greater rapprochement, and ended in all-out war against a government rife with corruption and cronyism that used horrifying violence against peaceful protestors. More than 100 people died during the conflict. I am currently immersed in the events of that winter, which form the backdrop to part of my half-finished novel.
Russia took its revenge for Ukraine’s reorientation to the west with the annexation of Crimea and by fostering war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has killed around 14,000 people, some 3,000 of them civilians caught in the crossfire. Over a million residents of eastern Ukraine have been forced to leave their homes. The conflict led to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight in July 2014 by pro-Russian separatist fighters, killing all 298 people on board. The war has continued to rumble on inconclusively ever since, with sporadic outbreaks of violence.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has always denied Russian military involvement in Crimea and the Donbas. Ukrainians referred to the armed troops piling into Crimea in February-March 2014 as “little green men”. Putin insisted the little green men were local self-defence groups – who just happened to be wearing Russian army uniforms – and had nothing to do with him. In the warring Donbas, he put responsibility firmly at the feet of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and insisted any Russian nationals in the rebel-held region were there on a purely voluntary basis. Western countries have always accused Russia of providing troops, equipment and funding to the separatists and have sanctioned Moscow over its role in the conflict. Indeed, the presence of Russian troops was proven during a recent unrelated court case.
Fast-forward to today and Putin is making no denials about the troops massed on Ukraine’s borders. The increasing militarisation is bringing the possibility of war in Europe ever closer. But the Russian leader has always been unpredictable and his intentions are very difficult to second guess. Destabilising an increasingly western-oriented democracy on his doorstep – in a country he considers within Russia’s sphere of influence – has long been his intention. If Ukraine is allowed to thrive, his worst nightmare could come true – Nato and the European Union wielding influence right on his doorstep.
What form this war may take is anyone’s guess. Hybrid warfare is already well underway with a cyber-attack on Ukrainian government websites earlier this month and warnings of a “false flag” operation by Russian saboteurs in the country to create a pretext for an attack. There is talk of a Russian puppet-leader – former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev – waiting in the wings to replace President Volodymyr Zelensky. Another politician named in the alleged plot is Mykola Azarov, formerly Ukraine’s prime minister under Yanukovych. Ukraine and the West will have to wait and see what Putin decides to do next. We may not have to wait very long.
As 2022 begins, this might not feel like the happiest of new years, with Omicron cases surging and another wave of Covid restrictions in many countries. But spare a thought for the inhabitants of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) who attempted to celebrate the new year 80 years ago in their besieged city back in 1941-42. For those suffering mass starvation, cakes made from potato peel, a thin soup, aspic derived from wood glue, a slice of bread and a spoonful of jelly amounted to a genuine feast.
The Nazis’ Siege of Leningrad – the Soviet Union's second largest city – lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, with enemy forces encircling the city and attempting to bomb and starve it into submission. Hundreds of thousands of residents died of hunger and cold during the first winter of the blockade.
Lake Ladoga, the so-called Road of Life, provided the city's only link with the outside world, enabling precarious deliveries of urgent supplies by boat in summer and by truck over its frozen surface in winter, under constant enemy fire. The driver's door was removed from all the trucks making the crossing to enable the driver to leap to safety if the truck broke through the ice and sank. The ice road was busy day and night, but this was not enough to provide sufficient food supplies for such a large city.
Bread rations were constantly being reduced and soon Leningrad faced mass hunger in spite of the makeshift canteens set up across the city. People fainted at their workplaces from exhaustion and some resorted to cannibalism or murder to attain extra food ration cards. By the beginning of the winter, there was no electricity, no running water and no heating; and the hundreds of corpses lying on the streets no longer shocked anyone.
Residents rarely ventured out unless absolutely necessary, too emaciated to walk even a short distance. Faint with hunger, many collapsed and died from exposure to the cold. But the need to find food and water still drove people into the streets. The city's water supply was disrupted, so residents collected water from cracks in the asphalt on Nevsky Prospect – the city’s main thoroughfare – caused by artillery fire.
More than 2.5 million residents and 500,000 soldiers of the Leningrad front were trapped in the city, with around 780,000 dying of cold and hunger during the first winter of the siege.
In a bid to boost morale, the municipal authorities attempted to hold some semblance of new year celebrations to usher in the year 1942. This was considered particularly important for the tens of thousands of children who had not been evacuated from Leningrad in time.
Despite the shortage of fuel, a thousand fir trees were brought to the city from nearby forests to be erected in schools, kindergartens, theatres and houses of culture. Plays and performances were put on – even though they were often interrupted by air raids and children had too little energy to follow what was happening on the stage. But everyone was glad for the holiday and especially for the opportunity to get a hot meal after the show.
“First, they showed us a concert, then they gave us soup – several noodles in a bowl of almost clear water – and vermicelli with a cutlet for the main course,” one schoolboy recalled. “Since I was so very skinny, they divided one extra portion between me and another equally skinny boy. Apparently, someone could not make it to school and there was a spare portion... After that new year party, I began to somehow get out of my nearly dying state, that get-together and the meal saved me.”
“The piece of bread turned out to be small, weighing no more than 50 grams. A better gift could not have been imagined. The boys understood it and treated a piece of bread as the most precious delicacy. Bread was eaten separately from lunch dishes, as everyone tried to savour it for as long as possible,” another schoolboy remembered.
A factory foreman described another festive event in the besieged city. “Polina baked one potato peel cake for each of us. I have no idea where she managed to get the peel from. I brought two cubes of wood glue, from which we cooked aspic and there was a bowl of broth for each of us. In the evening, we went to the theatre and watched a production. But it was not much fun, it was as cold inside as it was outside and all the spectators were covered in hoarfrost.”
A new year miracle was the appearance of tangerines, sent from Georgia especially for the children of Leningrad. A truck transporting the exotic fruit along the ice road on Lake Ladoga came under fire from two Messerschmitts. Their bullets hit the radiator and the windshield and the driver himself was wounded in the arm, but he managed to deliver his precious cargo. When the truck was examined afterwards, there were 49 bullet holes in it.
But not everyone could work up a festive mood for the new year. “That was the first time we celebrated the new year that way. There was not even a crumb of black bread and instead of having fun around a Christmas tree, we went to sleep because there was nothing to eat. When, last night, I said that the old year was ending, I heard in response: ‘To hell with this year, good riddance!’ Indeed, I am of the same opinion and I will never forget the year 1941,” one 16-year-old wrote in his diary, not long before his untimely death in February 1942.
By the spring of 1942, Leningrad and its remaining residents began slowly to come back to life. Farms were established in the suburbs to grow vegetables, the streets were cleared of rubbish, intermittent electricity supplies resumed in residential districts and some public transport began operating again.
This blog post is largely based on an article from Russia Beyond, which you can read here.
The Siege of Leningrad is the backdrop for several historical novels, including Ice Road by Gillian Slovo; The Siege by Helen Dunmore and The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simmons, among others.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.