How the brutal WWII siege of Leningrad explains Putin's thinking on Ukraine

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WASHINGTON — Speaking from the Latvian capital, Riga, on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine, citing in particular the siege of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov.

To make his point, Blinken appealed to the personal history of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose public image is tied closely to another siege — that of his native Leningrad by invading German forces during World War II.

Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Rzeszow, Poland, on Thursday. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

That siege is central to understanding the outlook on the world Putin shares with many Russians. Described by historian Anna Reid as “the deadliest blockade of a city in human history,” the siege lasted 872 days and took as many as 1.5 million lives.

“We’ve seen scenes like this before in Europe,” Blinken said. “Every Russian has lived or learned about the horrific siege of Leningrad during World War II.”

Those lessons are deeply personal for Putin. He was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) eight years after the siege was lifted in 1944, but the fate of Leningrad more thoroughly defines him than any event in Russian history. He even lost an older brother, Viktor, in the siege.

Blinken referenced young Viktor’s death on Monday in what seemed like an emotional plea to the increasingly remote Russian leader. “That siege affected millions of Russian families, including President Putin’s, whose 1-year-old brother was one of the many victims,” Blinken said before returning to the current situation in Ukraine.

“Now Russia is starving out cities like Mariupol. It’s shameful. The world is saying to Russia: Stop these attacks immediately. Let the food and medicine in.”

Putin is not known as an oversharer, and as his grip on Russia has grown stronger, he has retreated ever deeper into the walled recesses of the Kremlin. Recent photos show him meeting with advisers across tables of almost comical length, reinforcing the notion that he is somehow removed from reality. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters have gathered in St. Petersburg and Moscow to denounce his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Among the arrested has been Yelena Osipova, a 77-year-old blokadnik — that is, a survivor of the siege.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in an event on Feb. 23, Defender of the Fatherland Day. (Alexei Nikolsky/Tass via Getty Images)

It is impossible to understand Putin without appreciating how deeply World War II informs his thinking — how the siege of Leningrad is seen as singularly heroic in the Russian psyche, endowing (with good reason) anyone affiliated with resistance to the Nazis with a halo of moral authority. In my house in Washington, D.C., hangs the framed medal my grandfather received for defending Leningrad: “Our cause was just. We won,” the medal says. The pride is deep and genuine, reaching across generations.

For Putin’s family, the war meant the siege in Leningrad. For other Russian families, it is the defense of Moscow, the block-by-block fight in Stalingrad, the rout at Kursk, the final triumph in Berlin.

In the summer of 2020 Putin wrote an article in the National Interest, an American publication, that seems especially haunting today, as Russian tanks roll over Ukraine for the first time in 80 years. Whereas they were seen as liberators then, today Putin is the invader. Some have even compared him to a 21st century Adolf Hitler, though the comparison seems inexact.

The National Interest article is extraordinary, outlining what would be Putin’s pretext for invading Ukraine. “Desecrating and insulting the memory is mean,” he wrote in an apparent reference to Ukraine and its alleged erasure of Russian contributions to the war and embrace of Nazi ideology. These fears would serve as his pretext for the invasion of Ukraine two years later, despite the fact that the country's Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had a grandfather who fought in the Red Army. Other relatives died in the Holocaust.

The invasion has earned Putin worldwide condemnation, leaving the country almost as isolated as it was during the chilliest Cold War years. The child of a besieged city, Putin has turned Russia into a besieged country.

The searing story of Leningrad helps explain his thinking. Given the devastation World War II caused — an estimated 26 million Soviets lost their lives — such stories are widely available to the average Russian. While the Kremlin has faced intense condemnation in recent days, a deep undercurrent of patriotism continues to flow.

In a series of remarkably frank interviews with Russian journalists conducted two decades ago, Putin described his family’s experience during the siege, which began in 1941, when Hitler’s Army Group North rolled toward the Baltic city where 3 million people lived.

Badly wanting to believe — despite obvious evidence to the contrary — that his nonaggression pact with Hitler would hold, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had not prepared Russia for war. And his brutal purges of the Red Army’s officer corps throughout the 1930s meant that once a defense was mounted, it was not mounted competently — facts that are largely forgotten in a country where, in part thanks to Putin, Stalin is seen as heroic again.

A half-million German troops would encircle the city, unable to overcome a fledgling resistance that improbably hardened over the brutal months into an unrelenting will to survive. People ate glue. Some resorted to cannibalism. There was no food, no heat and, during the especially brutal winter of 1941-42, not much hope.

Soviet troops launch a counterattack during the Nazi siege of Leningrad
Soviet troops launch a counterattack during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

As the siege began in the summer of 1941, Putin’s mother, Maria Ivanovna Putina, took Viktor — her second son; the first had died years before — from the suburb of Peterhof into Leningrad’s core. “Mama said that some sort of shelters were being set up in Leningrad in an effort to save the children’s lives,” Putin recalled. “It was in one of those children’s homes that my second brother came down with diphtheria and died.”

Putin would reference his late brother again in 2012, during an annual commemoration for victims of the siege. “My brother, whom I have never seen and did not know, was buried here, I don’t even know where exactly,” Putin said at the Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery, where visitors are greeted by the rousing words of poet Olga Bergholz: “Nothing is forgotten, nobody is forgotten.”

In the interviews shortly after he took power, which were published as an autobiography of sorts, Putin said that his mother nearly died during the siege, which Hitler launched in part because he wanted to completely obliterate the city where Russian communism was born. “She was on the verge of starvation,” Putin said. “People thought she had died, and they laid her out with the corpses. Luckily Mama woke up in time and started moaning.”

His father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, fought in a key battle on the banks of the Neva River. “They had almost no chance of surviving,” Putin recalled. “The Germans had them surrounded on all sides.” The elder Putin was heavily injured by a grenade, but survived.

Part of an exhibit called
A pile of German helmets surrounded by guns and equipment, which the Russian defenders of Leningrad seized and collected after their stand against the Nazis, was part of an exhibit called "The Heroic Defense of Leningrad." (Getty Images)

The siege was broken by Gen. Georgy Zhukov — a national hero — on Jan. 27, 1944. Vladimir Spiridonovich and Maria Ivanovna remained in the battered city, where one bridge over St. Petersburg’s stately canals still bears the ragged indentations of German shells.

They stayed childless until 1952, when Maria Ivanovna Putina gave birth —at the extremely late Soviet maternal age of 41 — to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He would be their only child.

Having once served as a top municipal official in St. Petersburg following the Soviet collapse, Putin remains closely linked to the siege — and the war of which it was a central battle. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, had looked insistently to the future, as did his successor Boris Yeltsin. Putin, on the other hand, reverted to the cult of the past, which is firmly rooted for most Russians in the glories of World War II.

“By making the war a personal event and also a sacred one, Vladimir Putin has created a myth and a ritual that elevates him personally, uniting Russia (at least theoretically) and showing him as the natural hero-leader, the warrior who is personally associated with defending the Motherland,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Elizabeth Wood wrote in 2011. “He has the glamour of the present, but he is also the hero of the past.”

The tendency can be explained by the fact that for many older Russians — who continue to watch state media and trust the Kremlin — the past made more sense than the present. It is a pitch many other nationalists are making throughout the world. Only few of them can lay claim to the kind of triumphant historical narrative Putin invokes.

Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian forces
A Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian forces in the Luhansk region, Feb. 26. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

The Soviet Union “saved entire nations from destruction, enslavement, and from the horror of the Holocaust,” Putin lectured the West in his National Interest article from two summers ago. “They were saved at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives of Soviet soldiers.”

Ukraine had been independent for parts of modern history, but had been subsumed into the Soviet Union following the Russian Civil War roughly 100 years ago. While there are obviously more immediate geopolitical concerns at work, the logic for the invasion resides with the psychology forged in Leningrad.

But whereas the narrative of the city’s survival is universally enthralling, turning the heroic story of repelling Hitler into justification for an aggressive war is a twisted logic that has isolated the Kremlin. “We Are All Living in Vladimir Putin’s World Now,” went the headline of a recent New York Times guest essay by a Russian political scientist. He worried that we may be living in that world for quite some time.

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