Civilians appear after Ukrainian soldiers took back Chernihiv region from Russian forces on April 02, 2022. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is the situation in Ukraine comparable to the siege of Leningrad?

There are more similarities than differences

There are plenty more similarities than differences between the three-year-long siege of Leningrad during the Second World War and Russia’s current siege of the cities in Ukraine’s east. I am not the first to make this analogy. English language press picked up the story of a Leningrad blockade survivor who now lives in the not-quite-encircled Kharkov, and both the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made comparisons between the siege in the 1940s and the present day. The key comparison to make is one that looks beneath the immediate similarities: why is it that, in two centuries, so many civilians have ended up stuck inside besieged cities?

The siege of Leningrad is one of the iconic moments in the history of what the Russians refer to as the “Great Patriotic War”. The official story is that in September 1941, German and Finnish forces encircled the city and formed a blockade which lasted for nearly 900 days. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as 1.5 million civilians, died of starvation but didn’t surrender. In both the Soviet and the post-Soviet times, the story has been lauded as an example of the resilience of the Russian people in the face of the mortal enemy.

The obvious question — whether surrender would have been preferable to mass civilian casualties — is besides the point. As Russian historian Mark Solonin points out, Leningrad was never fully encircled.

It couldn’t have been. Leningrad, now, as at the time of its founding as St. Petersburg, is situated between the shores of the Ladoga Lake and the Gulf of Finland. Even after the invading armies conquered the landmass around it, the city was resupplied via the lake. As Solonin argues, aside from the winter of 194142 when the residents were given rations of 125 grams of bread a day and the bulk of starvation deaths occurred, the amount of food allocated to each resident was liveable.

Stalin’s complicity in deaths during the siege is undeniable

Why supply lines to Leningrad weren’t sufficient that winter is a subject of speculation. Solonin offers a range of explanations from incompetence to deliberate deprivation of the Russian cultural capital which, despite continuous repressions, remained the intellectual centre of resistance to Communism for the duration of Soviet history. Even if we can’t explain the thinking behind the Soviet wartime policies, Stalin’s complicity in the starvation deaths of the Leningrad residents during the siege is undeniable. Yet the pride that Russians take in the city’s heroic resistance is similarly undeniable.

Solonin’s history is highly controversial in Russia precisely because it challenges the narrative of heroic resistance, the staple crop of patriotic education. This account sidesteps the mistakes and cruelties of the Soviet leadership focusing on sacrifice and resilience of the people.

That’s where the contemporary Ukrainian parallel is useful — and goes beyond the immediate similarities.

In the run up to the war, the United States and her NATO allies continuously warned the Kiev government that war was imminent. Surely, Zelensky and the people around him were shown information that led US officials to that conclusion. Yet, to the day the Russians breached the Ukrainian border, the Ukrainian President laughed it off.

Days before the invasion, as foreign embassies were leaving the country, Zelensky was blaming the sensationalist foreign media for the capital flight out of Ukraine and asked for calm, saying:

“Right now, the people’s biggest enemy is panic in our country. And all this information is only provoking panic and not helping us […]”

He proclaimed 16 February, the day the West tentatively expected Russia to attack, the day of unity, calling on his compatriots to fly the yellow and blue flags. An Israeli journalist visiting the country was struck by the chill mood in the capital:

“In midday central Kyiv, there was no sense of tension or preparation for war. At the Maidan Nezalezhnosti landmark, signs were erected with the hashtag #saveukraine. I assumed the campaign was calling for defense against the Russian threat, but it turned out to be a civil movement fighting government corruption.”

Few gave a thought to fleeing, and in many cases it was too late. France 24, for instance, tells the story of a Ukrainian woman who had the idea of sending her three children to Germany, but by the time she made the decision, foreign airlines suspended flights to and from Ukraine.

Russia continued its steady advance, but Ukraine’s mood was triumphant

Once the war started, Ukrainians, most of whom are urban dwellers, found it difficult to come to terms with reality that a full scale military offence would be waged on their eastern and southern cities. As many initially reacted with disbelief, their decision-making was further clouded by the information coming from Ukrainian media which broadcasted pictures of the Russian POWs and the tractors towing Russian tanks. Russia continued its steady advance, but Ukraine’s mood was triumphant. Apart from fact-free instant legends like Snake Island, little was said about the Ukraine’s casualties. The expectation of a quick and easy victory factored in the reluctance to leave.

Within a week, the hesitant civilians who were often fearful of abandoning their properties because they expected looting, found themselves trapped under the artillery fire in encircled or almost encircled, hard-to-leave the cities. Then disbelief gave way to panic.

Our family friends in Ukraine, most of them in the eastern city of Kharkov, were quicker to leave than most, but only a few acted immediately. Most of them eventually left, but some had great difficulties because many roads were already blocked but more and more refugees were trying to escape. The weeks that should have been used to prepare for war and to move citizens away from the danger were lost.

I am not a clairvoyant; I don’t know what motivated the decisions of the Zelensky government. At best, it seems a highly imprudent prioritisation of morale over speedy evacuation of non-combatants. Right now, the country refuses to surrender the doomed Mariupol where the Ukrainian forces, including the notorious neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, are fighting neighbourhood to neighbourhood, positioning themselves among the ordinary men and women.

Zelensky is an inelegant speaker; many things coming out of his mouth are frankly off-putting. He said, for instance, that in order to conquer Kiev, Russia would have to “kill us all”. I hope he merely failed to express himself clearly and doesn’t actually intend to use civilians as human shields.

Ukrainian leadership views its people as instruments to be used strategically

What is becoming increasingly clear is that Ukraine has not emerged as a radically different actor. It is fighting this war the way wars have been historically fought on this territory: using size as leverage. A war of attrition suits the second largest country (after Russia) in Europe with a population of over 40 million. Considering its ambition to enter the European Union and the long held desire to become a NATO member, a desire that Ukraine finds very difficult to give up, Ukraine needs to demonstrate that it’s a modern European power, one that values human life, especially that of its own civilians, above all. Yet it appears that the Ukrainian leadership views its people as instruments to be used strategically.

The Venn diagram of people who see Zelensky as an infallible commander in chief, and those who think that Stalin is partially responsible for the death toll in Leningrad, is a circle. Yet both left their own people behind. The very people eager to celebrate Ukraine as a modern European power player are compelled to disregard the country’s failure to prioritise human lives.

The desire to see Ukraine as a modern liberal democracy fighting the Russian orcs is understandable. But why should we cheer on the county to fight a dangerous enemy if its current government is merely a variation on the ancient theme, and the Ukrainian people are paying the highest price?

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