Harrison Salisbury discusses his book "The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad" and Isabella Zorina discusses a trip to mass graves
BROADCAST: Jul. 1, 1982 | DURATION: 00:38:46
Harrison Salisbury discusses his book “The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad” and the lasting impact of the siege on the Soviet Union and life in Leningrad during the siege. Salisbury reads a poem by Olga Bergholz.Isabella Zorina discusses a trip to mass graves, including the many young people who were also visiting, some as part of wedding ceremonies, and the music played at the graves. Terkel plays Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, at the end of the program.
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Studs Terkel This is one of those propitious moments, I think, where we, that is Harrison Salisbury and I, at this moment are in Leningrad, in the Hotel European, Evropeiskaya, and I assume this hotel of some faded elegance, is a late nineteenth century -- obviously it was a very posh one indeed. And I imagine the hotel of a great deal of intrigue once upon a time, and gambling and high living indeed, and I was thinking it's Leningrad and Harrison Salisbury is here as the chairman of a delegation of American writers visiting Soviet writers on this summer day, 1982. [car horn] I think, being in this hotel right now at this moment 1982, has a certain significance for you, Harr-, who have been just about everywhere in the world, at certain moments when history was sort of changed or made. You covered, you covered the -- you were one of the very first to speak of the Sino-Soviet split. You were bureau chief here in Moscow for some 6 years. But anyway, so, what are your thoughts at this very moment seated here, in your suite at the European Hotel?
Harrison E. Salisbury Well I'll tell you Studs, you said something, a beautiful summer day. It is that, but coming to the end of a summer evening we're still in those long white nights, which begin in Leningrad toward the end of May and they run on through the summer solstice on the twenty-first and twenty-second of June, toward the end of July. And I can't help thinking in Leningrad at this moment about the Leningrad of 41 years ago, when the Germans had attacked Russia in June on that solstice evening, when the sun does not set in Leningrad all night long, that wonderful, beautiful Sunday morning of June twenty-second, 1941: the skies clear, the day quiet, all Leningrad in a holiday mood because it always is at that time of the year. School's out, the girls in their pretty white dresses and the young men in their white ice cream pants--
Studs Terkel Mhm.
Harrison E. Salisbury As they were in those days, walking all night long, singing songs with their arms entwined along these streets. And then most of them not going to bed at all and still out on the streets and getting a little tired perhaps, and suddenly around, oh I think it was 11 o'clock in the morning, there was, maybe a little after, the loudspeaker system in those days, there's all Russian Soviet cities had loudspeakers on the streets, and all of a sudden the voice kept saying "vnimaniye, vnimaniye. Attention attention. An important announcement will be forthcoming." And about noon that, that got their attention, and they turned away from the markets and the parks and places like that, and they listened to the loudspeakers. It was Molotov, old Molotov who was then the foreign minister, announcing to the people of Russia what most of them did not know, and the people in Leningrad did not know, except for a few connected with the military, that Hitler had attacked, that his armies had crossed the Russian frontier, around 4 o'clock that morning, that many cities had been bombed, and World War II had hit the Soviet Union in spite of Stalin's rather preposterous efforts to make a pact with Hitler and escape it. And so in that one, single moment on a day not unlike this day in Leningrad the whole world changed, and these young people went off to war, went into the army. And by this time of that year, that is to say by the end of July 1941, Hitler's armies were already approaching and had broken through the outer fortifications, the so -- the the the the Luga line so-called, which was supposed to be the fortified line to keep them out of Leningrad proper. They were driving forward, seeing no way of stopping them. And hundreds of thousands of these marvelous young people were already dead, or captured, or would soon die in what turned into one of the greatest military experiences which any people had ever gone through. For the people of Leningrad it was the siege of Leningrad, the 900 days that were to begin about the seventh of September and go on unrelenting until very nearly the end of January 1944.
Harrison E. Salisbury You commemorated this and memorialized it, or celebrated it, I might say in your book "900 Days." Nine hundred days. This very day, about 3 hours before this conversation, the evening here in this hotel, you and I and some of our colleagues visited the mass graves. Would you describe that and explain it to us, perhaps? I know I have never seen anything quite like it.
Harrison E. Salisbury Very hard for me to describe that, Studs, I'm so moved by it. You see, by the time this 900 days were over, no one knows how many people in Leningrad had died. It may have been -- and was surely a million people. It may have been a million two, a million three, million five. When I first saw the city in January in 1944, there were people in Leningrad who thought 2 million people had died, but nobody to this day knows. You can't imagine that number of people dying in a city, a city which had had a population when the war started, of three million three hundred thousand. You see, this means that almost half the people of the city had died. Imagine living in Chicago or New York and half the people of that city die in, actually in a few months because most of the deaths occurred in November of '41, December '41, January '42, February '42, March and April of '42. They were months of of horror of the kind that I simply can't -- I tried to describe them in "The 900 Days" but they they they're beyond me, they're beyond anyone's ability to to talk about, really. So we went today to the Piskarevskoye Cemetery, where an unknown number of these bodies have been gathered, they say 450,000, there may be 600,000 nobody knows because, these were bones and remains of people which were and had to be scooped up by any possible means at the end of this siege, mo-many of them in the spring of '42, because they, they were stacked higher than buildings at the entrances to cemeteries, around hospitals, just in side streets, they were in houses, they were in apartments, they were everywhere, because nobody had the strength to move them. But they had to be moved or the whole city was going to die of some kind of disease. And so the first task as that spring finally broke. These feeble emaciated starving people had to get the dead and put them in places like the cemetery we saw. And so they're there and nobody knows the names, or who's in one place or another, they're buried in great trenches you don't see them. Now [the lay of?] the ground is all covered with beautiful grass and lovely red flowers and, and I think a striking war memorial. I'm not much of one for war memorials or memorials of any kind. But this is one where you, you come in from a distance and you walk along a long, long walk up up to a most simple kind of a monument and beside you you see the dates. The dates of the, of the years--
Harrison E. Salisbury That, that went by in this terrible time, and then on the, on the granite wall behind a figure which I suppose is, I don't know, Mother Russia, Mother Heroine, or whatever it is supposed to be, there are carved some words, and the words which I think are the, are the most striking of all are the words: let, let no one be forgotten and let no one forget what happened here. And that, I don't think anyone has been forgotten, and I hope that no one will ever forget what happened in Leningrad, what happened as a result of a merciless war. The stupidity of men, the stupidity of leaders, the vanity of leaders, these men who thought they could move their nations and win world renown and world glory. And what happened? They killed people. That's what the only result, they killed people and destroyed both of their countries. Germany, thrown back to the Middle Ages practically by Hitler. Russia, left at the end of the war a bleeding corpse. It's taken generation after generation to come back. And you can't bring those people back. There's no way in which you could ever say that the losses of that war were made good by anything. They were not.
Studs Terkel As you're saying this, Harrison, that you said Russia bleeding corpse. The war to us is rather a vague memory, United States that it is. We lost 400,000 good, courageous, and gallant young men. Normandy--
Harrison E. Salisbury That's
Harrison E. Salisbury It is. You see, you used the word 20 million. That may be right. I happen to think the figure probably comes close to double that. But when you get to figures like that, they're meaningless to you and me or anybody else. They're not meaningless to the people who went through them. I had a word with our lovely guide today, who is a Leningrad girl. She was born after all of this was through. Her mother and father were young adults in the war. Practically all of her grandfather's generation, her grand-, both her grandfathers and one of her grandmothers died in Leningrad during the war. Her father was killed at the front during the war. She is one of the few survivors of what had been a large growing and talented family. The only thing that differentiates her biography and from that of millions, hundreds of thousands in Leningrad, is that there is a survivor. She's alive, a beautiful young woman. For most of these families, there's no one alive. They're gone. They're just gone. Those lines have come to an end. They all died here, or they died at the front, or they died in all the different kinds of ways that you can die in a war. I think no one can come to Leningrad, it's one of those great spots like, Hiroshima is another one, where you see what war does to people and you can't leave Leningrad without knowing that it's a tragedy for anyone, that no one gains from it. I don't see how anyone can leave that Piskarevskoye cemetery without--
Studs Terkel [unintelligible]
Studs Terkel I was thinking, if we can just recreate this day, or that place today. We saw a remarkable number of people, primarily young and a good number of them were wedding parties. A girl, the bride was there with a veil extending to the ground, and the young, handsome, sort of bashful groom, very dignified. Now why a wedding party at this cemetery?
Harrison E. Salisbury Well Studs, that's the most interesting thing and I've never seen this phenomenon before because it hasn't existed before. In the first place, in the long years when I was in Russia, they did have marriage halls, or wedding halls, or something like that where you could celebrate your marrying, very few people did it. It's gotten to be quite a big thing now, when you go to this hall, which is, well let's say it's a little bit like a rather plain church or a fancy ballroom something of that kind. You've gotten your certificate of marriage at the from the city clerk, and you go there and you have a ceremonial and you're married. And the custom now is for the bride to be dressed like a bride anywhere with the most full gowns and veils and everything else. The young man wears a very handsome suit, his best suit, usually something bought for the occasion. And the wedding party is very much like a wedding party anywhere. And one of the amusing things is that they hire cars, unless they have them themselves, which are decorated with flowers and cute little bunnies or, or little bears and rabbits, very amusing and sort of childlike thing. And you have a procession of these cars. And then on the day of the marriage, the wedding party with the couple at its head, makes a pilgrimage from one great monument of disaster to another. To one place where heroes have given their lives. It is a it is a most symbolic and significant ceremony. It is, it's quite clearly, although I don't know that anybody quite appreciates this, but it is a ceremony of of life going on in spite of these terrible blood sacrifices that have literally rent this nation from century, after century, after century. We first encountered them, you'll remember, at the grave of revolutionary heroes in the [Champs de Mars?], next to the Winter Palace, where there is also a trench with with an unmarked grave of a number of heroes. What was it, a hundred and twenty eight or something like that, whose lives fell in the revolution against hundreds and hundreds of thousands, millions that fell in the war. They pay a visit there, then they pay one to Piskarevskoye. I don't know where else they may go. But it gives you - gave me a rather curious feeling I must say, to see this symbol of eternal life in human form, in in what is essentially a monument to eternal death.
Studs Terkel You know, something you, you said. That you almost play the image I have in my head, [didn't say?]. Just that. They're celebrating life, this young couple, and the mother and very often too, there was a party along with them, all dressed [unintelligible] a little
Harrison E. Salisbury Yes.
Harrison E. Salisbury Yeah.
Studs Terkel As you say this, and nobody better than you knows of this, your six years here, your knowledge of, God knows Soviet politics and power and shifts in power and depredations of course. Hasn't that something to do with this 20 million deaths or more, with the, that certain kind of fear of it happening again from the outside, can create a sense of wanting more security and that leads to internal security and that leads to some, put it mildly civil liberties.
Harrison E. Salisbury Well you put your finger on it. There's no question about it, the there is a sense of, there always has been from the time of the revolution, a sense of insecurity. I know Lenin himself danced in the streets when the when the Bolshevik regime had endured one day longer than the Paris commune. He never really thought that he had it made. I don't think the the rulers of this country have ever thought that, they've always thought that the force was going to arise in the West or someplace that would sweep over them, and and wipe them from the earth. For a long time Stalin, who was the most paranoid of rulers-- [construction noises]
Harrison E. Salisbury Thought that that a new revolution might even be born in Leningrad. And he was afraid of Leningrad, it was a city of revolutions, and it had overthrown the tsar, it might overthrow him. I think there is still a little bit of that in the psychology of the leadership. And with that they naturally have a strong suspicion, which is not entirely unjustified, of the possibility of some force arising outside their, beyond their borders. And this feeds into these difficulties between the Soviet Union and the United States, the lack of trust and the worry about inspection of arms and all that kind of thing, that makes it so difficult to achieve fruitful negotiations. And even when you get so-called detente as we had for a while, under Nixon of all people, still the Russians are suspicious, like many people in the United States are suspicious about the Soviet Union. And then you get a period of tensions, that we have now and those suspicions just go up, and you look back, and you can see why this is true. You may you may wish it were not true. But, any country which has suffered the enormous tolls of death that they suffered in World War II, and then that they suffered in World War I and most people don't even know what happened to Russia at that time. But Russia has always been so [construction noises] badly led, badly organized. And the death toll in World War I was far higher in Russia than it was in any other country. Enormous toll in the revolution and particularly the civil war between the Reds and the Whites and interventionists. And then you go right back in their history, one enormously bloody invasion after another, Napoleon sweeping right in and burning Moscow. And Russians remember, as though it happened only 50 years ago. The Mongol invasions which destroyed their country. So, you've got, you know, and when you're dealing with Russia you're dealing with people who have an ingrained, almost a blood fear that something is going to come over the horizon and do them in.
Studs Terkel So also, as we think of this fear that reaches proportions that seem beyond reality and yet life is real, nature of things. You, you've been observing this scene -- well before I ask you that. Coming back to Leningrad, which you have observed so carefully and done so much research on, the endurance of the human spirit. And I've talked as you probably know to a number of survivors. One was a small boy, now a poet, Oleg. And he said, they ate grass. The kids today boiled grass. An old man in a park bench yesterday, at the drop of a hat, they'll talk about it. He said his throat was the size of a thumb, meaning he was that thin. And they thought of one thing only: food. The best time of the day was morning, when he thought he might get something to eat. And this goes on of course. And you spoke of the winters.
M5 Oh yes. Imagine. Imagine if you will, living in a city where there is no heat and the temperature outside is 20 below 0. And there is no way of heating those buildings, except possibly if you're fortunate you have an old tin drum, you can break up your furniture, you can tear up your books, you can pick up the ruins of the building next door which was bombed out entirely. Get a little bit of heat. And you yourself are living on quite literally about a slice and a half of bread a day and that bread is made out of sawdust and glue and the content, the actual edible content is so small it isn't enough to carry anybody through. There's no light. When the sun goes down it's dark. Now, what time do you suppose the sun goes down in Leningrad in that winter of '41, '42? The sun goes down after 1 o'clock in the afternoon and it only rises about 11 o'clock. So the city is totally dark most of the time. It is below freezing. Humans can't live in those temperatures. There's nothing to eat, there's no transportation of course. No such thing as streetcars, they've all gone out. Streetcars stopped running in Leningrad at the end of October. Before it really got cold. A few trucks to carry army supplies, but nobody gets a ride on them, they're full of stuff. To get around, you walked. You just walked, that's all. There was no water. If you want water you go to the Nevsky, that great street. It is the Fifth Avenue of Leningrad, one of the great streets of the world. And here and there a water main has been opened up and all around it it's as icy as a glacier. And you have your pail and you make your way and stand in the queue and you fill your pail full of water, and then you got to go 3 blocks and lug it up 4 stories to your apartment, and you haven't eaten for 2 weeks. Well how do people live under those conditions? I don't know. I know I couldn't do it. I don't know many people who could but the people in Leningrad did. Half of them, the other half died of course. It was a fantastic feat.
Studs Terkel Yeah, something else you pointed out in your book, "The 900 Days." And so did this young poet, he's now 45 or something. When he's a small boy, he spoke of a certain medium: radio. When radio, the radios were on. And he said when the music wasn't on, there was never sounded, was a heartbeat, a metronome. And he's, as as though the city were beating or even on over that aspect. [phone ring] That was keeping the city alive, he said.
Harrison E. Salisbury That's absolutely true. And I remember that the great Leningrad poet Vera Inber, who herself often broadcast on Radio Leningrad, when the radio went off, and there was no sound not even that tick tick tick, which was like the beat of the city's heart, she felt that was the darkest hour, the darkest hour. When there were no newspapers of course, there were no lights, no transportation, no food, no water, no heat, and without even that tick tick tick of the metronome, then you lived on whatever faith you had inside yourself, because there was no outward sign that this city was alive. There was no one on the streets, and in the buildings they huddled over these tiny little fires or they simply froze to death in the night.
Harrison E. Salisbury [unintelligible]
Harrison E. Salisbury She was on the radio. And she wrote the poem which I, which they put on the walls, or part of it is on the walls, and which always seemed to me to epitomize Leningrad and its spirit better than any other words that have been written about it, and many words have been written about it. And here is what she said. And it was right that it should be put on those walls. "Here lie the people of Leningrad. Here are the citizens, men women and children, and beside them the soldiers of the Red Army, who gave their lives defending you, Leningrad, cradle of revolution. We cannot number the noble ones who lie beneath the eternal granite. But of those honored by this stone, let no one forget, let nothing be forgotten." And I think that is the story of Leningrad.
Studs Terkel As we say goodbye now, on this still light night in Leningrad, during the seminar, of which you were chairman, the American chairman with American-U.S.S.R. poets, something Robert Bly read, a Japanese poem before he left. And it occurs to me, thinking about U.S. and Soviet relations, he said, and the poem was, I remember it, was "snail snail slowly slowly climb Mount Fuji." Which it was another way of George Kennan saying patience, when he [unintelligible]
Studs Terkel [background noise, conversations throughout due to hotel lobby setting] Sitting in the lobby of the European Hotel in Leningrad on this July day, I'm thinking I'm thinking of a visit earlier in the day to the mass graves in Leningrad. The scores of thousands anonymous, who died during the siege. The end of the year 1941 to the beginning of the year in 1944, do you believe it? It was 900 days. And we visited, how would you de-? Isabella is with me now. Isabella Zorina is with me, [Paviano?] Zorina, who lives in Moscow, is in Leningrad, works for the writers' union as one of our hosts, hostesses. Isabella, describe the place where we were this morning.
Isabella Zorina It's rather diff- First of all I want me to be excused for my bad English, because I can read, I can write even, but my, have not enough practice to speak. So excuse me please for, and for having not enough words to express what what it was. Because it was, I was also impressed together with our guests, American writers by this picture. It was rather a kind of park, where big graves were situated one after another. You cannot even imagine what kind of graves it is. It is as large as a big hall, and nobody knows how many bodies are buried there. And you go on this central pavement, roses blooming in on both sides of you, and whi- and to the left and to the right, we see these big huge, even huge graves, and only one grey stone is on each grave. It is with a sign: 1942, 1942, 1942, 1942. Mr. Terkel ask me, '42, where is '43? Many of these graves they are marked by 1942. But they're 1943, too. And behind these ones we saw next row of this huge graves and suddenly we saw, it was a bright sunny day in front of us. We saw a figure of a mother, of a woman. Sto- it is a sculpture. She's in a long dress, and in her arms, she took she holds flowers. Her face was, it is not only sad. It was, it had a very peculiar expression. And when you you saw the sky moving above her head, you see that it seems to me, for instance, that she was breathing, too. And this very sad and good music was her her listen--
Isabella Zorina Yes.
Isabella Zorina Some,
Studs Terkel But most, as you were saying, I saw '42 and where's 1943? Why these are graves, as far as the eye can see. Lengthwise and in width. And there are mounds, and there must be hundreds of these mounds. Now within each of these green, grassy mounds, underneath them, may be several thousand.
Isabella Zorina Maybe,
Isabella Zorina Yes.
Isabella Zorina Yes.
Studs Terkel All out of the siege. So you're, I was thinking, we saw something else there. Lots of young people bearing flowers, and particularly wedding parties. The bride in her gown and the groom, freshly scrubbed face--
Isabella Zorina [unintelligible]
Isabella Zorina We saw one pair of these new married young people. They were a little bit, the flight of sadness was in their eyes. They bear flowers, red flowers, very beautiful in their hands. And we came to him [unintelligible]--
Isabella Zorina To them. Yes. Congratulate them with their ceremony, with their event. It was very important event in their life. And I introduced Mr. Terkel, this is a very well-known American writer, whom you must know, also he was published in a foreign literature magazine, [laughter] and they shyly began to smile, saying hello thank you for congratulations. Then Mr. Terkel asked them, why you are here. They said, we usually come to this place, and now in these day we also wanted to come again. Why? They were common people. They, it was difficult to them to, they were shy, and they were -- it was difficult to them to express their peop- feelings, but the only answer was, not to forget. And Mr. Terkel said, to remember.
Studs Terkel Yeah. You know, I was thinking, a good number of these couples in the wedding party, and you could see by the hands of the young groom, that he works hard. These are ordinary hardworking people, they're not sophisticates.
Isabella Zorina Yes.
Isabella Zorina May--
Isabella Zorina It may be, yes. And not all of, it is a new tradition to come to the Grave of Unknown Soldier in the Moscow. The new married, newly married people came, used to come there. And here also, we see the same newly tradition newly sprang to life. Not all of brides came here of course. But some of them, maybe they have their parents or grandparents lying here, or they were damaged by the war, because we know that almost every family in our country was suffered from the war. One way or another. So when we have holidays on if we're celebrating first the day of victory, then on the ninth of May, we're told there on that the cemetery, that a lot of people came here, thousands or and thousands of people came here [unintelligible] flowers and bread. They are bringing bread to those who died, not only from the being shooted, not only because they were shooted by the fascists, but because they were dying of starvation. It was a difficult, very difficult and terrible time.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Isabella Zorina She suffered the siege years, and now she she's old enough enough. About 80 years old. And she couldn't, cannot throw away even a little piece of bread. She gathered all the pieces of bread and put them into the bag and keeps them in her home. And we, the youngsters, we tried to put them somewhere for animals, for birds,
Isabella Zorina Right.
Isabella Zorina Of life. One cannot but think about this because they are so happy and so sad at the same time. In this day, being in this cemetery. This white gown is white and blue we have seen, yes? Gown with the, how do call it?
Studs Terkel As we entered the place, the party of us, and we see this mass grave, it's something, we saw the, all the young girls in white, and they were the brides. And along came [unintelligible] see their fathers and mothers and
Studs Terkel Coming along. In their Sunday best. They were there in their Sunday best. And so that's Leningrad. Of course we talk now about, what what's it now, '44? Thirty-eight years ago. So here we go again. You were saying how [good?] we conceive of war. Isabella, is this known to every, every school child in the Soviet Union?
Isabella Zorina Oh, yes. But do remember you asked, though, that were couple of young men. How did they learn about this years of siege. What, it was your question. They said, parents told us, at school we know, we know it from school, from books. Do you remember?
Studs Terkel It's a question to ask a good part of the world, do you remember? And of course, if you don't, and of course the younger generation hasn't and hasn't been taught, this of course is the question, isn't it? A piece of history that has to be, and that's what you and I experienced this morning here in Leningrad. Isabella thank you very much. [pause in recording] And so two conversations in Leningrad. You heard the voice of Isabella Zorina remembering. And before that, Harrison Salisbury. The siege of Leningrad, back in the early 40s during World War II, and in the time remaining I thought it might be appropriate to play the second movement of Beethoven's Third, the "Eroica." I, we should point out that music was heard very quietly at the mass graves in Leningrad, and you heard very quietly, the piano of "Moonlight Sonata," and bit of Chopin's "funeral march." But in this instance I thought we'd play the "Marcia funebre" of Beethoven's Third. Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, to complete the hour.