192 Graves Hold the Strength of a Nation

by Kenneth Rayman on November 13, 2019
Of the war’s 27 million casualities, close to a million lay where I now walk. The figure is always debated, but I only see the human experience in the number. Regardless if it’s less or more, 800,000 people lay here in 192 grassy mounds. This is a huge scar in the psyche of Russia and Russians, but for St. Petersburg, for those who lived through it, it’s another thing entirely. They lived it and are reminded, to this day, anytime unexploded German ordinance is found, with the stories told where tourists frequent; as well as the museums that all have a Siege experience that they can tell, such as St. Isaac’s Cathedral taking 18 years to restore though it never took a direct hit or the Cathedral on Spilled Blood’s role as a morgue and all the palaces in the countryside being torched and bombed. I did not know of Piskaryovskoye until a year after my first visit. I knew of the mass graves to the war and those to the Stalinist oppression, yet I was thinking like a tourist that first trip. I wanted to see the Russia of my story, learning more as I went. With every place I went having a Siege story, though, I became more entranced as the trip awakened my creativity. I became interested in anything to do with where I felt “my soul resides” and the Siege itself.

I spent the next year in deep study, watching countless movies, documentaries and reading books, for a potential trip back. When I signed up for Mindvalley University in Tallinn, I saw St. Petersburg was only an 8-hour train ride which I could make a weekend trip out of. Telling the travel agent my desire to devote this weekend to the Siege she booked the State Museum of the Defence and the Siege of Leningrad and Piskaryoskoye. Unfortunately, I misjudged travel and conference time, which didn’t allow me to empathetically connect to the cemetery. This time, even if I had to decipher the metro map on my own, I would get enough time there.

The organizer wanted us to get a sense of the magnitude of the impact the event has on the Russians themselves, as a symbol of cultural influence. A feeling of calm and retrospection came over me as I exited the bus and I, as if on autopilot, broke off from the group and walked towards the eternal flame. I wanted a moment alone with my soul’s heartbreak and to have a personal moment of silence at the eternal flame. It started to sprinkle as I approached to record the flame, but the co-host of the trip redirected me to the little museum for the guide’s talk. With my prior visit and research, I took pictures of the exhibit while the rest listened intently. After taking pictures, the guide’s explanation was a nice refresher as I rejoined. While listening to her talk about an 8 year old girl who recorded only deaths of her family members in her diary, a gentleman I befriended who had gone to the flower shop when I broke away, saw me without a flower and gave me a red carnation.

The sprinkle had turned to a light rain as we left the exhibit, with me returning to the silent daze I had been seized with. I walked to the Mother Russia statue with full reverence of the history I was stepping past with each mound. I took pictures of the stone markers with the year and whether it was a civilian grave or soldiers’ grave, a star for military or hammer and sickle for civilians. A knot was in my throat as anyone in the group tried to talk to me. Everything I read or watched was weighing on me, that first winter after the supply stores had been burnt on September 8th when the attack began, the film imagery of people, like in “Attack on Leningrad,” sitting down and not having the strength to get up again or of the reports of cannibalism because they lacked proper nutrition for so long. The diaries in Alexis Peri’s “The War Within” recounted the avoidance of mirrors as they began to not recognize themselves with the effects of such poor nutrition and the mental coping that saw them avoid using the first person and instead recount their daily struggles through works of diarist fiction. But there was one memory that I held on to that no one else in the group had. They had just heard the story of the child diarist that only recorded family deaths, but they probably had never heard the “heartbeat of Leningrad” like I had. The Siege Museum played for me an actual recording of the metronome used as a sign of defiance, kept constantly working, which let the German army know that the city was still alive. The heartbeat’s significance, both literal and figurative, here at Piskaryovskoye was not lost on me. I placed my carnation below the Mother of Russia and bowed my head with a intense swell of gratitude being shown this hallowed ground.

A documentary I watched, from the BBC, called the “Betrayal of Leningrad” told how after their mighty stand against Nazism, surviving 900 days of siege, the leadership of the country felt that the 900 day cutoff from official oversight was too much and began a secret campaign to punish the people and leadership of the city. Stalin, it seemed, felt that they were granted a sense of freedom from the Communist ideal and the Stalinist line and thus were contaminated politically. He would suppress the city’s official records of the siege period and took revenge on his now political enemies, including Leningrad party head Andrei Zhdanov whose failing health was willfully neglected by government doctors. Our guide from the exhibit confirmed that Leningrad survivors were barred from higher education and Communist Party membership, essentially leaving them to destitution, due to the “exposure to idealism,” fascist or otherwise. 

I left Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery feeling that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders having been able to properly honor those that lost their lives, both militarily and civilian, with such a simple gesture as the laying of a flower. By studying who they were in that time, I felt St. Petersburg could be understood not just as a tourist destination, but real people with a real loss. St. Petersburg gave me what I lacked in 2017, a vision and direction; St. Petersburg, and Russia itself, in 2019 gave me closure to move forward with 2017's direction with a look at the citizen experience and the mindset it influences to this day.
Cemetery mass grave mounds (left side)
Cemetery mass grave mounds (right side)
Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery (Siege of Leningrad mass graves)