Putin and the Siege of Leningrad

Two days ago, I had a post in honor of VE Day that had a few quotes from a Russian language article by Russian President Vladimir Putin. I did not yet have a complete translation, and promised to post again when I did. Well, it’s now available online. Here are some key excerpts that provide some insight into Putin’s world view:

[During the Siege of Leningrad, my father] was dispatched to an NKVD sabotage squad. It was a small contingent of 28 people who were sent into the nearby rear to carry out acts of sabotage – blowing up bridges, railway tracks, etc. [to hinder the Nazi advance.] Almost immediately they ran into an ambush … Of the 28 people, only 4 crossed the front line back to our side. The other 24 were killed.

They were then reassigned into the active army and sent to the Nevsky Pyatachok. It was probably the most violent spot during the whole of the Siege of Leningrad. … My father told me how he was wounded there. The wound was severe and he lived the rest of his life with shrapnel in his leg as not all the fragments could be removed. His leg always ached and he could never straighten his foot properly afterwards. They chose not to touch the small fragments to avoid shattering the bone. And thank God, they kept his leg when they could have amputated – he had a good doctor. … 

My mother told me how she visited my father at the hospital where he lay after he was wounded. They had a small child [Putin’s older brother] who was only three years old at the time …  [who] was taken from her … in an attempt to save small children from starvation. The children were brought to orphanages for subsequent evacuation. The parents weren’t even asked. He fell ill there – my mother said it was diphtheria – and didn’t survive. My parents were not even told where he was buried, and they never did find out. … 

After my brother was taken away and my mother left all alone, my father was finally able to walk with crutches and returned home. When he made his way to his building, he saw that there were orderlies carrying bodies out of the entrance. He identified one of them as my mother. He approached them and it seemed to him that she was breathing. He told the orderlies: “She’s still alive!”

“She’ll pass away along the way”, they said. “She’ll not survive now.”

He then attacked them with his crutches and forced them to carry her back into the apartment. They told him: “Well, we’ll do as you say, but know that we will not come here for another two, three, or four weeks. You’ll have to deal with things yourself then.” My father nursed her back to life. She survived. She lived on until 1999. My father died in late 1998. … 

[My father] had six brothers, five of whom were killed in the war. This was a disaster for the family. My mother’s relatives also died.  … Our situation was not unique. There was, after all, no family from which someone didn’t die or which didn’t suffer grief, misfortune, and tragedy.

However, my parents still harbored no hatred for the enemy, which is simply amazing. To be honest, I still cannot fully understand it. Mama was generally a very kind and gentle person. I can remember her saying: “Well, what kind of hatred can one have toward these soldiers? They are simple people and they also die in the war.” It’s amazing. We were brought up on Soviet books and movies… and we hated. But she somehow did not have it in her. I can still clearly remember her words: “Well, what can you have against them? They are also hard workers, just like us. They were simply forced to go to the front.”

These are the words that I remember from my childhood.

Skeptics will question the accuracy of Putin’s remembrances, and there is the possibility that, as with many family stories, some embellishments may be found. But such questions miss the important point. Even in the unlikely case that Putin’s father lost “only” three of his six brothers, rather than five of them, would that change the horror of what they lived through and the debt of gratitude we owe them for helping defeat Hitler? And, I doubt that Putin would err on such an easily verified fact.

The first comment on Putin’s article is from a German named Bernd who adds a valuable, different perspective:

This story or a very similar one could have been told in my parent’s house or in the house of millions of other Germans. Despite all the hatred and enmity of people at the time (hopefully not today) these kind of stories bind together former enemies, bind together aggressor and victim.

In many German houses, in fact in millions of them, the stories sometimes extend to 1955, until the last Gulag prisoners came back from the Soviet Union. All in all about 1.5 million German prisoners perished in those Gulags. Including the post war ethnic cleansing in the East, about 12 to 14 million Germans lost their lives. I know the figure to be even higher for the Soviet Union, where the number of victims exceeded 25 million human beings.

The amount of sorrow and pain these two peoples – Russian and German – inflicted on each other is unfathomable and impossible to believe. I am fully aware that the aggressor was the German side, however, the pain is the same.

I am puzzled that the German Government (which regrettably thus is also my Government) today is once again making aggressive noises towards Russia, faithfully aided by a belligerent and warmongering media. This can only be the case, because the people running any of these institutions only have a theoretical concept of a human being and a theoretical knowledge of humanity.

I fully agree with Bernd, that only by having merely “a theoretical knowledge of humanity” can people join the drumbeat to another potential war. Thirty years ago, in May 1985, I wrote an OpEd “The Nazi Within,” which argued that it was time to stop demonizing one another. After noting how the Nazis demonized my own Jewish people, I pleaded with my nation to stop demonizing Russia and tend to our own mistakes. Today I repeat that plea. If enough of us will do that, not only can we avoid a nuclear disaster, but we can build a world that we can be proud to pass on to future generations.

Martin Hellman


About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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2 Responses to Putin and the Siege of Leningrad

  1. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:


    Thanks for your comment. You’re right that warfare has been used to achieve political aims throughout recorded history. But, if we keep doing that, how long do you think we can go before one of those wars escalates out of control and destroys us? As Einstein said at the dawn of the nuclear age, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our mode of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Conversely, if we would think things through and change our mode of thinking to be consistent with the realities of the nuclear age, we can not only avoid unparalleled catastrophe, but build a world we could be proud to pass on to future generations. If you haven’t already seen it, take a look at my 10 part series on avoiding needless wars.


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