Siege of Leningrad
Nazi Germany invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 — for the Soviet Union, marking the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. A second front was opened after the Soviet bombing on June 25 of several towns in Finland, leading to the Soviet-Finnish Continuation War. By August, the Finns had reconquered the Karelian Isthmus, threatening Leningrad from the West, and were advancing through Karelia east of Lake Ladoga, threatening Leningrad from the North. The Finnish headquarters rejected however German pleas for aerial attacks against Leningrad (with the exception of a sole incident by a single aircraft which killed a lone elephant at the Leningrad Zoo) and did not advance further south from River Svir in the occupied East Karelia. German progress was rapid and by September the Wehrmacht had invested Leningrad. In the North Finnish forces continued their advance until reaching River Svir in December, 160 kilometers north-east of Leningrad.
Unable or unwilling to press home their advantage, and with a hasty but brilliant defence of the city organised by Marshall Zhukov, the German armies laid siege to the city for 900 days. They largely surrounded the city, blocking off all supply routes to Leningrad and its suburbs except for a single corridor on Lake Ladoga named the Road of Life (Дорога жизни in Russian, Laatokan elämänlinja in Finnish). The carnage in the city from shelling and starvation (especially in the first winter) was appalling but Adolf Hitler was never able to hold his proposed victory party in the city, nor carry out his planned destruction of this jewel of European civilisation.
The siege continued until Operation "Spark" — a full-scale offensive of troops of the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts — started in the morning of January 12, 1943. After heavy and fierce battles, the Red Army units overcame the powerful German fortified zones to the South of the Ladoga Lake, and on January 18, 1943 the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts met, opening a land corridor to the besieged city. In January 1944, a Soviet offensive drove off the besieging Germans from the southern outskirts of the city, ending the siege. Later, in the summer of 1944, the Finns were pushed back in the North towards the pre-Winter War border.
In the chaos of the first winter of the war no evacuation plan was available or executed and the city and its suburbs quite literally starved in complete isolation until November 20, 1941 when an ice road over Lake Ladoga, the so-called Road of Life was established. One of Nikolai I. Vavilov's assistants starved to death surrounded by edible seeds so that the seed bank (that included more that 200 000 items) would be available to future generations.
The bravery of the city's defenders was an important symbol of the Soviet will to resist - in the first few weeks of the war the British had been so disheartened by the collapse of the Soviet armies they thought a Nazi victory was all but inevitable. Most famously Dimitri Shostakovich's Seventh or Leningrad Symphony was written and first performed in the besieged city in 1941. The symphony became immensly popular in the United States and, as weapon of propaganda, was a highly effective symbol of the by then global struggle against fascism.
The warnings to citizens of the city as to which side of the road to walk to avoid the German shelling can still be seen (having been restored after the war).
The ultimate number of casualties during the siege is disputed. After the war, The Soviet government reported about 670,000 deaths from 1941 to January 1944, mostly from starvation and exposure. Some independent estimates give a much higher death toll of anywhere from 700,000 to 1.5 million, with most estimates around 1.1 million.
Leningrad became the first Soviet city to be awarded the title Hero City.
As a sad postscript, Stalin had the leaders of the city executed on various pretexts after the war — they had, through their bravery and courageous defence, earned a respect of the citizens that the dictator resented and feared, and became too independent in their actions. For example, in 1944 several streets of Leningrad were renamed back to their historic names, including "Prospect of 25 October", which reverted back to its previous name, Nevsky Prospekt.
The Siege of Leningrad was commemorated in late 1950s by the Green Belt of Glory , a circle of trees and memorials along the historic frontline.