More than a million people died in the imperial capital of the Soviet Union in a little more than two years — between September 1941 and January 1943. Russia was yesterday observing the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Hitler’s troops lay siege on the city, now called St Petersburg, forcing people into starvation and misery.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words were revealing: “The courage and heroism of the Soviet people and residents of Leningrad” should never be forgotten. The former KGB director was speaking at a commemoration of the tragic event that saw German President Jochim Gauck formally regret it by issuing a statement expressing Berlin’s “deep sadness and shame”.
The German president, who occupies a position of moral authority and responsibility going by the country’s tradition, said that Germany recognises its historical responsibility for the suffering inflicted on the people of Leningrad and for the brutal warfare of its soldiers, commandos and SS formations.
“I tell you and your people that we share the pain for the losses and sympathise with the survivors who are still suffering from the aftermath of the war,” Gauck wrote in a letter. Putin’s speech on the occasion revealed the pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands of survivors. Revealing that 360,000 civilians were killed in four months of the siege and underscoring that Britain lost almost the same number during the whole war, the Russian leader — often at loggerheads with the West— made a clever comparison.
The siege, which is considered the worst in history, made residents of the city so desperate that many were forced to eat pets, and some even resorted to cannibalism.
A contrite Germany tried to ease the memories of pain as Putin spoke amid survivors of the siege in his native St Petersburg. The Russian strongman’s brother, who was killed during the siege, is buried in a mass grave in the city. Germany’s regret, often observed in the contrition of its leaders, deserves to be appreciated. Sitting on a history from the Second World War that is often seen as reprehensible by the world, Germany doesn’t lose any opportunity to express its regret.
The anniversary of the lifting of the siege — observed every year — is specially symbolic today when Russia’s neighbour Ukraine is undergoing an upheaval that has pitched the authoritarian rule of Viktor Yanukovich against thousands of demonstrators who want their country to choose the road to the European Union. Yanukovich, who has been at the receiving end of the West’s ire over the incarceration of Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko, chose to sign a Customs Union agreement with Russia instead of joining hands with Brussels for its Eastern Partnership programme. The Leningrad siege took place more than 70 years ago. How does the world see the ‘siege’ of Ukrainian capital Kiev where thousands of protesters are braving the bitter cold and police batons?