Like all people of good will, I carry a heavy heart watching the horrors of war unfold in Ukraine and the daily genocide of so many innocent Ukrainian people. As a student of history, I reevaluate events of the past to better understand what is happening today, and to gain insights into what might take place tomorrow. That set me to thinking about one of my research trips to St. Petersburg, home of the Hermitage Museum – and birthplace of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
In 1941, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ordered his forces to do to Leningrad (as it was known at the time) what Vladimir Putin is today doing to portions of Ukraine. Hitler’s heartless order was simple: erase Leningrad from the face of the earth. For the avoidance of doubt, he added: “We have no interest in saving lives of civilian population.” German artillery failed to crush Soviet resistance. When indiscriminate bombing of the city didn’t break the will of the city’s residents, Hitler ordered his forces to encircle St. Petersburg and use starvation as a weapon. By the end of 1941, starvation claimed the lives of more than 3,000 citizens per day. Within one year, that number more than doubled and included the much older brother of Vladimir Putin, Viktor, who died of disease and starvation at the age of two. One resident described life this way:
"The city is dead. There is no electricity, no trams. Warm rooms are rare. No water. Almost the only form of transport is sleds, carrying corpses in plain coffins, covered with rags or half clothed. Daily six to eight thousand die. The city is dying as it has lived for the last half year - clenching its teeth.”
The “blockade,” as it is often referred to in Russia, lasted almost three years and claimed 700,000 to 1,000,000 people, most of whom lived in agony before dying of starvation. One afternoon, I walked the grounds of Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, located just a few miles from the Hermitage. This park-like setting belies the gruesome events that took place there from 1941-1944, when citizens died in such large numbers that the entry gate registrar couldn’t keep up with recording names of the dead. They were buried in mass graves, each containing about 10,000 bodies. The only distinguishing mark from one mounded burial site to the next was a hammer and sickle (for civilians), and a star (for Soviet Red Army soldiers). I will never forget seeing thousands of cameos nailed to trees throughout the cemetery. Each one serves as a reminder: loved ones are buried at Piskaryovskoye, but their family members and friends have no idea where. Seeing all those faces was jarring.
At the end of the long walkway, beyond the last burial mound, stands an imposing wall. Incised in stone are words that give context to the bravery of the citizens of St. Petersburg in defeating their Nazi invaders. One sentence stood out in my memory. “Sooner death will be scared by us than we will be scared by death.” Today, in an ironic plot twist of history, those words perfectly describe President Zelensky and the courageous people of Ukraine. Their actions are providing the world with a continuing education course in bravery and fortitude against all expectation that Ukrainian government leaders would flee and their nation be subsumed by Russia. That has not happened. Their determination reminds us that freedom is not free. Gaining it requires painful and prolonged sacrifice. Of particular note to Americans: keeping it also comes at a cost.
Putin’s invasion of a peaceful country, one with a rich shared history, is criminal and inhumane. It is also an insult to the memory of the Russian people – including his own brother – who died because of the ambitions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Vladimir Putin is now the face of evil, with weapons of mass destruction that threaten our world in a way that Hitler and Nazism never could. The seventy-five year peace dividend bought and paid for by World War II veterans has now been used up. We are not going back to the world order my generation knew. What lies ahead is a much more dangerous world, one that will test democracies and those who enjoy its freedoms like nothing has since World War II.