Siege of Leningrad Tour
(Road of Life)
An expertly guided day excursion from St Petersburg
, that follows the entire length of the legendary Road of Life with most of its memorials, including a dedicated museum, and also extends to the Nevsky Bridgehead where the blockade ring around Leningrad was finally broken. An intense full day of WWII
history that is well worth investing in.
launched its WWII
attack on the USSR
in 1941 it didn't take the Nazis
long to cross the Baltic states and reach Leningrad (today's St Petersburg) by August. As they were meeting with strong resistance it was then decided in September, instead of entering the city at all costs, to rather try and starve the population while continuing to bomb and shell it into submission (apparently on orders by Hitler
himself who wanted the city wiped off the map). Yet this submission never came. Leningrad never fell.
The Germans laid siege to Leningrad in a ring around the south and east of the city while their Finnish allies held the north-west. Thus all overland supply routes were cut off.
However, the land between Leningrad and Lake Ladoga to the north (the largest lake in Europe) was still in Soviet hands. So when supplies in the city were quickly beginning to run low, they used barges and boats on the lake to bring in fresh provisions from the opposite shores to the east that were also still in Soviet hands.
But winter was soon approaching and the vessels could no longer make the crossing due to ice. However, once the lake was properly frozen over, trucks were used to cross the lake in long convoys. Naturally this became a dangerous undertaking as soon as the ice started melting again in spring. Drivers would often steer their vehicles whilst half standing in the open door so that they had a chance of quickly jumping to safety if the truck broke through the ice.
Once on dry land the goods were transported onwards by truck and later also by railway. On the return journey, desperate people awaiting evacuation from the city would be taken along. Collectively these transport routes became affectionately known as the “Road of Life”.
Overall the city's population dwindled to just 600,000 by 1944 (from the 3 million before the war), but not just through evacuation. An estimated 800,000 to over a million succumbed to cold and hunger inside the besieged city despite the efforts of supplying them with food via the Road of Life. Yet without these immense efforts the city would not have lasted as long as it did and its inhabitants might indeed all have starved.
It wasn't until 1943 that the Red Army had gained enough strength to attempt a breaking of the siege and try to liberate the beleaguered city. The heaviest fighting took place at the Nevsky Bridgehead just south of the town of Shlisselburg at the mouth of the Neva River where it meets Lake Ladoga. The casualties suffered here by the Red Army were on a gigantic scale. Estimates range between 50,000 and as many as a quarter of a million. That would make it one of the bloodiest battle sites of WWII
Yet in January 1943 the Soviets managed to break through the blockade ring at this site, crossing the frozen-over Neva River and defeating the Germans on the other side. Thus a narrow land corridor was opened and a new railway line was laid to improve supply routes to Leningrad.
It wasn't until a year later, though, that on 27 January the siege was finally lifted and the Germans retreated westwards, almost 900 days after the blockade had begun. Without the Road of Life and the heroic efforts involved in keeping it going, Leningrad would have been lost.
Little wonder, then, that the story of the Road of Life and the crossings of Lake Ladoga entered the Soviet propaganda canon of war hero glorification after the war. Countless individual memorials were erected over the years, not just in the city itself but all around it (“The Green Belt of Glory” it is sometimes called), and especially all along the former Road of Life and at the Nevsky Bridgehead. Even these days, yet more museums and memorials are being opened.
But without a car and good local knowledge most of these sites would hardly be accessible for foreign tourists, so this is where the tour described below comes in. It provides a convenient and highly educational way of visiting many of these monuments and dedicated special museums and thus of getting a broader picture of the Siege of Leningrad and how the city
ultimately survived. A very special history tour indeed.
What there is to see: My tour was somewhat shorter (ca. 5 hours) than the normal arrangement (8 hours), since my guide, Alexander, was busy in the morning, but we nevertheless managed to cram most of the sites into the sped-up itinerary in the afternoon all the same. Normally, though, there would have been a more leisurely pace and more time at many of the stops, plus a lunch break.
Alexander picked us up at the agreed time from our hotel and we drove off in a regular passenger car. He had a driver arranged, so was himself free to talk to us all along the tour. He also had a tablet computer on which he immediately proceeded to show us maps, graphics and historical photos pertaining to the content of the tour.
Our first stop where we got out of the car was at Piskaryovskoye cemetery
on the north-eastern fringe of St Petersburg
. This is the place where more than half of the victims of the Leningrad Siege were buried: an unbelievable half a million, the vast majority civilians who had died from hunger and cold.
There are 186 separate mass graves, all marked by a plaque giving the year of the burials. At the entrance to the field of graves is a still burning eternal flame. And at the far end of the long central path stands a Mother Russia monument in front of a wall with various stone reliefs. To the side of the main mass graves are also individual graves in groves of birch trees.
By the entrance to the cemetery is a pavilion with a small exhibition, all in Russian only, but some of the exhibits such as photos, maps, ration cards and the pitifully small daily bread ration (125 grammes) speak for themselves. Also shown is some film footage from the siege (some material I recognized from the screenings at the Defenders of Leningrad Monument
Right behind the cemetery begins the road that today more or less follows the route of the original Road of Life. Milestones mark all 45 kilometres of the Road of Life, with Soviet five-point stars accompanying odd numbers and hammer-and-sickle symbols even numbers.
Along the way there are several individual monuments too, including some purely symbolic ones, such as a flower monument, an oak leaf, or various depictions of white cranes in flight. One monument is entitled Wings of the Baltic and is dedicated to the air-force support during the siege, as far as I can remember. The deeper meanings of all the other monuments will be explained by the guide anyway. No need to replicate all that here.
A couple of monuments are pretty self-explanatory anyway, though, such as the truck on a plinth
– obviously of the type used to drive supplies over the frozen Lake Ladoga and into the city (see above
). Another monument is a stylized depiction of a Katyusha
rocket launcher (aka “Stalin's Organ”).
Further on we stopped by a separate monument dedicated to less widely acknowledged groups of victims/heroes, such as female soldiers or soldiers who died of their injuries in hospitals rather than in the battlefields, or Leningraders who died during their evacuation rather than from starvation while still in the city.
At one point there was a stretch of the original route of the Road of Life visible by the side of the modern tarmac highway. Here you can see that the original route wasn't actually a “road” in the strict sense, just an unpaved track. Yet more memorial stones mark this stretch too.
Eventually we reached the shores of Lake Ladoga
. The spot between the road and the water is marked by one of the best-known monuments here: the Broken Ring Memorial
. It's a modern design with two half arches towering overhead but not quite touching each other – symbolizing the breaking of the German siege ring by the Soviet troops in 1943 (see above
Underneath the broken ring sculpture is a symbolic track leading towards the lake shore. Ironically, an eternal flame added later is awkwardly positioned right across the track, thus “blocking” it (i.e. undermining the original symbolism). By the eternal flame were some flowers and a rusty old rusty helmet. To the sides of the monument dozens of wreaths were placed. Near the monument, an old anti-aircraft gun provided a chance for the young to clamber about, as seems to be customary in these parts.
By the way, more items of artillery as well as some tanks are also dotted around the course of the Road of Life and the battlefield sites, too many to mention them all individually. Interestingly my guide remarked that some of them were “wrong”, meaning the tanks/guns on display were of a different type to those actually used back in the day at these locations.
After the stop at the Broken Ring Monument we drove a bit further north along the shore towards the train station of Ladozhskoye Ozero, past its surprisingly tall and magnificent lighthouse. At the train station a preserved old steam engine served as a monument to the role of trains in the supply of Leningrad during the siege. A separate monument consists of some war-damaged pieces of metal – including an old shell still embedded in the steel.
We also stopped at the Doroga Zhizni
, or Road of Life Museum
and I had the chance to go on a very quick loop around, despite our time limitations. The place is described in its own separate chapter
, as you can also visit it independently.
We then headed back south and then onwards towards Oreshek and Shlisselburg, with a quick stop at another train station with yet another steam locomotive and memorial monument, before reaching the pier opposite Oreshek Fortress. This fort on a small island guarded the entrance of the Neva River where it meets Lake Ladoga at Shlisselburg. The fort was apparently held by Soviet troops all through WWII
and while Shlisselburg itself was occupied by the Germans. The name is instructive, by the way: it's from the German “Schlüssel” and “Burg”, so it means 'key fortress', emphasizing the strategic importance of its location.
In theory you can visit the fortress. There is a boat service for ferrying visitors across to the island. But on the tour I was on there was no time for this. If you are here independently you could go and see the old fort and prison part (many a political prisoner was held here before the revolution of 1917). The site is open between 1 May and 31 October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission: 200 RUB, plus 140 RUB for the ferry. Oreshek Fortress is run under the aegis of the Museum of the History of St Petersburg (see spbmuseum(dot)ru).
We carried on further south to the Panorama Museum that celebrates the breaking of the ring around besieged Leningrad south of Shlisselburg. It's under the eastern side of the modern bridge across the Neva and includes an outdoor display of various tanks and armoured vehicles that allegedly were salvaged from the river where they had broken through the ice and sunk. There are also a couple of more modern tanks though.
The classic dramatic curved battle paintings of the panorama, with 3D replica trenches in front, show all the hallmarks of this particularly Soviet art form (cf. also the Panorama Museum
). Apparently there are even two panoramas here. The one from the 1980s that we visited was under the bridge ramp and additionally features heavy metal doors with reliefs depicting various war scenes. There is also a large separate round building sporting a bright-red Soviet star that I presume now contains the other panorama. But this was still in the process of being set up at the time of our visit, so we couldn't yet go in. I remember seeing the website of this place where there was also information about opening times and options for guided excursions in the area – but when I last checked that website was no longer available (instead redirecting to some obscure other site), so I have to leave this bit vague.
Afterwards we ploughed on south and drove through the town of Kirovsk
. This not only sports a statue of the namesake revolutionary (see Kirov Museum
), but also an especially flamboyant statue of Lenin
. Just south of the town we passed the power station
, which apparently played an important role in the war too. The present plant was rebuilt after the war to more or less the same design.
The final couple of stops were at the former Nevsky Bridgehead. We first stopped at a large monument atop red paving. In the fields just beyond, so our guide explained, various remnants of old trenches could still be found. If you look on google maps you can indeed see the lines in the ground from these old trenches. But at ground level anybody without the prerequisite trained eye for such things would probably not suspect anything out of the ordinary in the undergrowth.
Despite the heavy rain that had set in by that time, our enthusiastic guide led us further into the forest across the road where he showed us some battlefield archaeology sites with several recently excavated artefacts such as pieces of gas masks, hand grenades, leather soles of boots and plenty of shrapnel from shells. Dotted around are also some grave markers, apparently set up only recently after the remains of soldiers were discovered at these spots.
The official grave site of Nevsky Bridgehead is a little further north, and features a large area of mass graves, with the occasional plaque or cross dedicated to a few named individuals who perished here, and there's yet another classic obelisk-style monument too.
This basically concluded the tour and we drove back through Kirovsk and across the Neva bridge from where we took the faster highway (E105) back to St Petersburg
where we were dropped off at our hotel.
All in all
, I found this tour immensely interesting and enlightening. I didn't mind the faster pace due to our lack of time, but normally it should be a bit more leisurely (and with a lunch break). The narration and insights provided by the knowledgeable and very enthusiastic guide were superb and many of the locations would have been hard if not impossible to get to without such a tour. So it's a very valuable addition to visiting the Blockade
in St Petersburg
itself. Highly recommended.
various locations from the north-eastern edge of St Petersburg
up to the shores of Lake Ladoga and down past Shlisselburg along the Neva to Nevsky Bridgehead and back to St Petersburg.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: flexible, best booked well in advance; not cheap (unless shared amongst a larger group).
The tour has been devised and is conducted by one individual history enthusiast called Alexander, but is endorsed by the official St Petersburg
Tourist Information Centre. Alexander's command of English is excellent and his level of knowledge of historical details is astounding. You can contact him direct for a tour request at info(at)histours.ru.
You will be picked up directly at your hotel or any other convenient point you wish. You can also have your tour specially tailored. Just ask.
NOTE that the Road of Life Museum
is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (and the Panorama Museum on Mondays too), so it's best to pick a different day of the week.
Otherwise, tours can in theory take place any day of the year, but it is advisable to send a request well in advance to avoid disappointment. I had to make a compromise as my guide was busy in the morning on the day I requested the tour (and was completely unavailable on any other day during my stay in St Petersburg
), but he took us on a somewhat shortened afternoon-only tour (at a discounted price), with only brief stops at the museums and some of the monuments and without the lunch break that is normally included. That way we managed to cram most of the tour content into just a half day.
Cost: the price of the full-day tour depends on the group size. For just 1-3 participants (in a normal car) the price for 2018 is not cheap: 21,500 RUB (ca. 370 USD or 315 EUR). For larger groups (by van/minibus) the price increases by 3000 RUB per extra person, so it gets a lot more affordable if shared amongst a group.
In addition to English (and of course Russian), the tour can also be conducted in German, French, Finnish and Swedish, so the website claims. Whether these would be as good as the English-language tour I cannot say.
Time required: The full-day tour regularly takes about 8 hours (mine was shortened to ca. 5 hours).
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
parts of the tour include very scenic areas, especially along the shores of Lake Ladoga, so it's not completely dark, but for proper mainstream tourist attractions you should concentrate on St Petersburg
itself (and other tours from there).
- RoL tour 01 - eternal flame
- RoL tour 02 - at Piskaryovskoye cemetery
- RoL tour 03 - Motherland statue
- RoL tour 04 - reliefs
- RoL tour 05 - fields of graves
- RoL tour 06 - more graves in the woods
- RoL tour 07 - in the small exhibtion pavilion
- RoL tour 08 - bread ration during the siege
- RoL tour 09 - distance markers by the Road of Life
- RoL tour 10 - Wings of the Baltic monument
- RoL tour 11 - truck monument
- RoL tour 12 - crude Katyusha monument
- RoL tour 13 - leaves monument
- RoL tour 14 - symbolic white cranes
- RoL tour 15 - monument in memory of less acknowledged protagonists such as women
- RoL tour 16 - memorial by a stretch of the original road
- RoL tour 17 - Broken Ring monument
- RoL tour 18 - eternal flame blocking the symbolic road
- RoL tour 19 - Lake Ladoga
- RoL tour 20 - rusty helmet and flowers
- RoL tour 21 - playing with a big gun ... and phones
- RoL tour 22 - lake shore
- RoL tour 23 - lighthouse
- RoL tour 24 - beach
- RoL tour 25 - metal monument
- RoL tour 26 - with a grenade embedded in it
- RoL tour 27 - railway memorial
- RoL tour 28 - yet another memorial
- RoL tour 29 - Shlisselburg Fortress
- RoL tour 30 - boat service
- RoL tour 31 - Shlisselburg shipyards
- RoL tour 32 - roadside bunker
- RoL tour 33 - tanks outside the panorama museum
- RoL tour 34 - heavy door
- RoL tour 35 - with war scenes in metal reliefs
- RoL tour 36 - typical 3D-2D combo
- RoL tour 37 - crossing the river
- RoL tour 38 - heroic breakthrough
- RoL tour 39 - tank outside in winter white
- RoL tour 40 - roadside Lenin
- RoL tour 41 - Kirov statue in Kirovsk
- RoL tour 42 - rebuilt power station
- RoL tour 43 - roadside gun
- RoL tour 44 - roadside tank on a plinth
- RoL tour 46 - Nevsky bridgehead memorial
- RoL tour 46 - at another historic point
- RoL tour 47 - vague remnants of old trenches
- RoL tour 48 - nearby battlefield archaeology
- RoL tour 49 - objects dug up from the old battlefield
- RoL tour 50 - old sole of a shoe
- RoL tour 51 - improvised grave
- RoL tour 52 - more official memorial site
- RoL tour 53 - and yet another monument