Living in Leningrad

I’ve been in Russia for slightly over a week now. After the initial disorientation, I’m starting to find my feet, and have worked out the essentials of how to live and work here. I haven’t really had the opportunity to relax much, or to get to explore the city, but I already know that I like St. Petersburg, and I like the Russians.

St. Petersburg, of course, was known for most of the 20th century as Leningrad, and that Soviet history is still palpable. I only realised today that a week tomorrow, the 27th of January, is a very significant date: it will be the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad.

That clip is slightly at variance with the facts; it suggests that the Germans were fought to a standstill around the city perimeters. In reality, they made the calculation that fighting their way into Leningrad would be too costly and, instead, decided to besiege the city and simply wait for the defenders and the civilian population to starve to death. For the next 900 days, the people of Leningrad lived on whatever food could be found. The ration for an ordinary, physically active, worker was 3 slices of bread per day.

3 slices of bread. Per day. In temperatures of up to -40°c, when there was no electricity, or mains water. For office workers, dependants, and children – it was less. Later, the rations were reduced, for everyone.

For days, and weeks, and months, this is what people lived on – if they did live, that is. Thousands upon thousands starved to death, to say nothing of the casualties of German shelling and bombing.

The city, and some proportion of its population, survived to be relieved by the Red Army.

That’s not something to be taken lightly, and of course there are still people living who experienced it. I’m seeing a lot of posters in shop windows, and on the Metro about it; I’m not sure whether there will be official commemorations, but I’ll ask in the office tomorrow….

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I’m living in an apartment that comes with the job. It’s in an area on an island to the west of the city, and was built in the late Soviet period – the 1980s or so. It’s small; there’s a small foyer, a cramped kitchen, a living room,  a tiny toilet, and a bathroom just big enough for a bath and a sink. The bedroom has two single beds pushed together, and a wardrobe unit that’s too big for the room; the bedroom door can’t be fully closed because the wardrobe gets in the way, while the wardrobe doors and drawers can’t be fully opened because the bed is in the way. The walls of the bedroom and lounge have rugs hanging on them for insulation, because the building is made out of uninsulated concrete. For all that, it’s warm; big cast-iron pipes pump out heat from the centrally-run furnaces.

As a singleton, it’s actually very cosy. The decor reminds me of my grandmother’s home. I’ve settled in, I genuinely like it here, and I have just enough space, by my British standards of personal space. Of course, when it was first built and occupied, the likelihood is that three generations would have been living here: grandparents (well, most likely just grandma), parents, and kids. The parents would have been on a list to get their own apartment, but if it ever happened at all it would have taken years, or even decades.

There are a couple of big takeaways here, which are important for all of us westerners.

The first is that the Leningraders of mid-1941 ate, and worked, and slept. They went to the theatre, and to concerts, and libraries. They went on holidays, to the extent that they were able. They had no conception that their lives were about to be turned upside-down, that their ordinary existence would collapse beneath their feet – and yet it did. I’m afraid that within our lifetimes, climate change and resource exhaustion will present us all with an equivalent challenge.

The second is to look at life under the Soviet system. Resources were scarce, and those that were available were under the control of an arbitrary and inefficient bureaucracy. To survive, Soviet citizens depended on informal networks of favours and obligation, a system known as blat. A similar system, known as guanxi, operated in China – and is still critical today. This system is missing in the UK, and yet it’s needed. I’ve already seen situations in which it would prove beneficial, and I’ve seen instances where entrepreneurs are struggling because they’re trying to build badly-needed services which are failing, because contemporary British society doesn’t have the necessary social relations needed for reciprocity.

However, that’s for another post. For the time being: I’m in Russia. I like it here.

Image credits: fusion of contemporary and historical photographs of St Petersburg, from www.go2life.net. Not sure about sharing rights: if you are the owner and are unhappy with me using this picture, please get in touch via the contact page.

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