Leningrad 1940, St. Petersburg 2010

7 May

Leningrad’s Past Comes Back to Haunt it
All too often we forget the hardship experienced by generations past, especially during certain wars, yet some people have a profound way of reflecting on times gone by, presenting their take on the world in a new light.

These haunting, hybrid images of past and present St Petersburg – formerly known as Leningrad – are the works of Sergei Larenkov. After studying old images of the city, Larenkov visited the same spots, capturing them on film. He then digitally superimposed the old image over new, producing these eerie and thought-provoking shots.

Like ghosts captured forever on film the scenes depict all too clearly a harshness that can result only from times of war. The 900-day Siege of Leningrad, also known as The Leningrad Blockade, lasted from September 9, 1941, to January 27, 1944 – just over 65 years ago – and was “one of the longest and most destructive sieges of major cities in modern history, and second most costly,” according to Wikipedia sources.

English Russia had a bit more to say:

“During nine hundred (!) days a few million people in the city of Leningrad suffered from cold and hunger, being deprived of almost all supplies of food and fuel. Many thousands died, those who survived remember this not very willingly. The situation with food was so heavy, no food was sold/distributed among people except a few grams (not even tens or hundred grams) of bread, and not each day, that people had to eat stuff that they would never eat in normal life, like making soups of leather boots (because leather is of animal origin) or boiling the wallpaper because the glue with which they were attached to walls contained a bit of organic stuff. Of course many occasions of cannibalism occurred.”

Although the blend of the two images seems natural, it’s hard not to ignore the colorful boundary of the present and focus totally on the black and white scene of the past. Each image demands the viewer to stop and contemplate what life must have been like in Leningrad during WWII. The difference between life now and then in these moving images is distinct, and deserves the attention of an undoubtedly more privileged audience.

The war was not yet over, but Leningrad had already started to recover from the tragic years of the Siege and all the damage it wrought on the city. Some of the city’s museums, such as the Cabin of Peter the Great for instance, reopened as early as 1944. By the time the victorious Soviet army marched back into the city, Leningrad looked fresh and clean, and the ruins of some of its most celebrated buildings had been covered with temporary cardboard walls, in an attempt to depicting their pre-war appearance. The whole city, the whole country, had dreamt of a revival and it did come.

Despite the enthusiasm of the people, a significant part of the national economy was ruined by the war and the population had to endure many more long months of harsh conditions and bleak prospects. Food rationing was a common feature throughout the 1940s and due to the destruction of 2.8 million sq. meters of city housing and the damage to a further 2.2 million sq. meters, housing became a major problem. Up until the 1960s most of the people Leningrad still lived in so-called “communal” (shared) apartments.

Against all the odds the city was transformed. Unlike many other cities Leningrad was not modernized, but restored to its pre-war Imperial glory. The palaces of Peterhof and Pushkin were almost completely destroyed during the siege and millions of roubles went into their meticulous restoration and reconstruction.

Some of the city’s suburban palaces, such as Aleksandrovsky Palace of Nicholas II in Pushkin, still await restoration. Leningrad’s museums reopened swiftly after the war, having undergone speedy restoration. But a carefully preserved blue Bombardment Warning sign, painted on the side of a building on Nevsky Prospekt, and the green mounds of the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery mass graves still remind us of the tragic past of the city.


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