The Siege of Leningrad lasted for 872 days and resulted in the deaths of (estimates vary, but probably in the region of) one and a half million people, most of them civilians. Many of them starved to death. The power was cut off, leaving very few sources of heat during three bitterly cold winters. Homes and historic public buildings were destroyed. But Leningrad didn’t surrender. Only a Russian city (and I’m saying “Russian” rather than “Soviet” because I’m also thinking of the bravery of the burning of Moscow in 1812) could have withstood something like that. And look at the beautiful, amazing city that St Petersburg is today, after everything that the Nazis did to it … and, indeed, everything that Stalin did to it. Incredible.
On August 9th 1942, Hitler had planned to hold a victory banquet in Leningrad’s Astoria Hotel. Instead, on that day, a makeshift Leningrad Radio Orchestra, starving and suffering, conducted by Karl Eliasberg, performed Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, in what’s now the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall. It was broadcast on loudspeakers across the city, with some of the loudspeakers turned towards the German forces as a sign of defiance.
No-one really knows whether or not Shostakovich intended the Seventh Symphony as a symbol of wartime defiance, and it’s difficult to evaluate the psychological effects of the Leningrad Premiere on either the Germans or the Soviets, but it was a unique and very special moment at a horrific period in history. The BBC, in addition to telling the story, interviewed several people who were actually at that concert. It was very moving.
I think this is something which could only have happened in Leningrad/St Petersburg. The music is very St Petersburg, the defiance uniquely Russian. I’m not quite sure why BBC 2 chose now to remind us of this story, but I’m very glad that they did.