Leningrad Blockade Museum
A museum about the nearly 900-day WWII
siege of Leningrad (today's Saint Petersburg
), the USSR
's second largest city. The story of the siege and defence of the city is still a defining characteristic of its psyche, but unfortunately this museum expresses this rather poorly, being rather old-school and with a focus more on military aspects than civilian hardships. A missed chance really.
More background info:
When Nazi Germany
launched its attack on the Soviet Union
in “Operation Barbarossa” in the summer of 1941, it took only three months before WWII
had reached Leningrad, the former Imperial capital (then – as again now – called St Petersburg
). Taking the city would have been of great symbolic significance, and the Nazis even had plans to all but annihilate this European masterpiece of a metropolis. Yet they encountered resilient defenders and the expected speedy surrender did not come.
Yet as the main aim of the invasion was to conquer the capital Moscow (and – for symbolic significance – Stalingrad, see Volgograd), the Nazis (and their Finnish allies) decided not to take Leningrad outright by military force, but to lay it under siege.
The Germans cut off all roads and launched a constant barrage of artillery fire and bombardments, but they never actually entered the city. Instead they waited for either a surrender or for the whole population to starve.
Indeed, the blockade meant an increasingly severe shortage of fuel and food. One thin supply line was kept open – the legendary “Road of Life
”, by which the Soviets managed to get at least a minimum of supplies to the besieged inhabitants – and also managed to evacuate some of them out of the city along the same route. But there weren't enough vehicles or trains and only small boats to cross Lake Ladoga to connect to unoccupied territories of the USSR
. In winter, no boats could cross, so vehicles had to drive across the frozen lake surface at great risk. All that meant that not enough food or fuel (especially needed in the cold winter) could reach the desperate population. Many succumbed to the cold or died of starvation.
People ended up eating virtually anything, including grass, pets, rats and some allegedly even resorted to cannibalism. Over 700,000 are believed to have died during the siege, which finally ended in early 1944. This makes it not only one of the longest sieges in modern history (cf. Sarajevo
) but also one of the costliest in terms of human lives ever.
But in January 1944 the advancing Red Army managed to break the blockade ring and liberate the city. A large-scale museum about the defence and the blockade of the city was set up almost immediately, i.e. while the war was still on (it took more than another 15 months until the Red Army's final victory in Berlin
's unconditional surrender). The first museum was much larger than today's and featured several large exhibits such as captured tanks and planes, but also countless items donated by the civilian population.
Yet in 1948 Stalin
had the museum closed, its director shot and the exhibits either destroyed or redistributed to various other locations. Apparently he thought it presented too much of a unifying symbol for the resistance and independence of the city, which he was intent on repressing.
It took until the time of Glasnost and Perestroika under Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s for the idea of a blockade museum to be revived. And so the present museum opened in September 1989 – on a much smaller scale, but again based on countless donations from survivors and their relatives.
The full official name of this institution is Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad, but I'll stick to the handier shortened name used in the title of this chapter.
What there is to see:
The entrance to the museum is marked not only by the name above the door (in Russian, of course) but also two anti-aircraft guns pointing upwards, which are in turn flanked by another pair of old-looking cannons (presumably pre-WWII
After you've entered the large foyer, where you pay for your admission and put any bags and coats in the cloakroom (which is compulsory), you have to head up the stairs to the second floor to get to the main exhibition space. En route you already pass some displays of guns and photos as well as large oil paintings of generals etc. on the walls of the grand staircase.
The exhibition proper is mainly in one large hall with a roughly rectangular circuit through it along different groups of displays. Each section has a short introductory text in English (just one paragraph usually), the rest, the labelling of exhibits, the texts and original documents etc. are all in Russian only. So if you do not know the language you may want to use the audio-guide that is now offered (see below
). I did not use one, so can't vouch for the quality, but it will have to be better than nothing. When I visited the museum (in August 2017) I just relied on my Russianist wife to translate bits for me that I was intrigued by.
That didn't happen all that often, though. Most of the displays are weapons, shells, bombs, models of tanks and boats, charts and maps, photos, flags, propaganda posters, uniforms and medals and such like. Overall the focus is very much on the military aspects of the Blockade and the defence of the city. After having read about the museum and the way it describes itself, I expected much more on the hardships of the civilian population. But in actual fact there is rather little on that – a few artefacts such as children's toys, a depiction of the meagre food rations and a crude metal oven fashioned from an oil drum, as well as a series of photos and a sculpture of a freezing child in a winter coat clutching a small piece of bread. But all that together forms just a tiny fraction of the museum's contents.
But you get whole sections about the Navy, about the Air Force, about the “home front” production of ammunitions etc., and lots about the Soviet
military glory of defending and recapturing the city from the German Nazis
. A few Nazi objects, such as swastika flags are also on display.
The largest artefacts are lined up at the far wall of the hall, including a German motorbike and some artillery. And above that hangs an oversized painting of a winter battle scene. The “Road of Life” is also covered, depicted on a large map with the land routes and the crossing of Lake Ladoga clearly marked. And there is a chart that depicts all the war monuments that can be found all around St Petersburg. (Some of those I saw on my Road of Life tour
the next day.)
Plenty of newspaper cuttings and Soviet propaganda posters are on display too, even a mock-up of an entire party office, complete with a Lenin
statuette and a Stalin
portrait on the wall.
Yet the most interesting objects I spotted were actually rather small: two fake “iron crosses”, obviously not genuine Nazi medals of this (in)famous type, but cynical copies, as it it says in them: “für Raub und Mord” ('for plundering and murder').
Overall, however, I found this museum rather disappointing. I expected more, somehow, and more on the darker aspects of the Blockade. It's probably just due to the fact that I'm less interested in the glorification of the military aspects. But for those more into militaria – and those willing to use the audio-guide – visiting this museum may well be much more worthwhile than it turned out to be for me.
at 9 Solyanoy Pereulok, in central St Petersburg
, about a mile (1.5 km) north of the city's main boulevard Nevsky Prospekt.
Access and costs: Fairly easy to get to; not expensive, but not really cheap either for what you get.
The museum is within St Petersburg
's Tsentralny district, close to the historic heart of the city. From, say, the Hermitage or Nevsky Proskekt, it is walkable – e.g. along the Moyka embankment heading east, then cross the bridge over the Fontanka River into Ulitsa Pestelya and take a left turn one block on, the museum entrance is some 250 yards further on. The metro is of little help in this case, with the nearest stations being Nevsky Prospekt to the south and Chernyshevskaya to the east, both about a mile (1.5 km) away.
Opening times: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays to Sundays, Wednesdays 12:30 to 8:30 p.m., last admission an hour before closing. Closed altogether on Tuesdays and on the last Thursday of each month.
There can be additional closing times. When I first went there, some event was taking place in the museum and I had to return another time. I also read in reviews about unexpected closure times. So it's probably best to be a bit flexible with your plans.
Admission: 250 roubles (students 60 roubles)
Audio-guide hire: 300 roubles (available in Russian, English and German)
Time required: Very much depends on whether you can read Russian and/or whether you want to use an audio-guide – and also in how interested you are in the military aspects. If so, you'll probably need more than an hour, otherwise you may be out again in less than half an hour.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
In general see under St Petersburg
There's a second museum of sorts on the same topic, namely at the grand Monument of the Defenders of Leningrad
on Moskovsky Prospekt south of the city centre. Visually that one is actually more appealing than this more centrally located one. They also show a film there and all exhibits are labelled/described in English too.
Yet, as a museum this too is rather “static”. A much more rewarding combination is taking a guided tour on the topic of the siege along the old Road of Life
, which passes numerous monuments along the way and includes a couple of extra specialized museums on the shores of Lake Ladoga and the banks of the Neva outside the city itself.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
See under St Petersburg
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 01 - outside
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 02 - the main exhibition is upstairs
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 03 - inside
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 04 - rather old-fashioned exhibition style
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 05 - artefacts with descriptions all in Russian only
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 06 - toys
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 07 - crude shelter, but with music and Stalin
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 08 - cold
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 09 - oven
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 10 - German Krad and other stuff
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 11 - guns and big painting
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 12 - Road of Life map
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 13 - air force
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 14 - navy
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 15 - Soviet office
- Leningrad Blockade Museum 16 - cynical fake Iron Crosses