As the coronavirus pandemic forces half of the world’s population into lockdown, many of us are experiencing for the first time the sense that we are living under a kind of siege. The streets of New York, Paris, London, Delhi, and other major cities around the globe are deserted, as citizens isolate themselves in their homes; flights are grounded; and businesses large and small are shuttered.
In this time of crisis, we turn to art and history as a way to understand the reality of the present moment. This May marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, a global conflict that led to horrific violence and unimaginable suffering. To commemorate this important anniversary, we are offering an exhibition of rare vintage photographs of the Siege of Leningrad, the longest, costliest, and destructive siege in modern history. This anniversary reminds us how vital it is both to learn from the past and to draw strength from the lessons of history, in order to persevere through the difficulties that we face today. Blockaded by the military forces of Nazi Germany from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1944, the citizens of Leningrad were trapped in their own city without food, heat, or electricity for 872 days. Estimates of the death toll range up to 1.5 million people, more than one third of the city’s population, mostly from starvation but also from the extreme cold and from shelling. In the words of one anonymous poet, quoted by Polina Barskova in her book Besieged Leningrad: “The living wander like phantoms, / And so many dead are carried away on sleds! / At the morgue they’re stacked like sticks of firewood. / I can’t describe this! My words are too weak!”
Despite the horror of the siege, many did try to describe it — poets, writers, painters, photographers, and other artists. This exhibition presents a group of photographs of Leningrad taken in 1941 and 1942 and exhibited in the United States during the war, in a show organized by the American-Russian Cultural Association; several of the photographs were reproduced in the official bulletin of the Embassy of the USSR in Washington, DC in 1943. The official government policy was to show only uplifting, optimistic images, especially to the West; even Russians outside Leningrad did not know the true extent of the devastation. Despite the fact that these images were commissioned for propaganda purposes, they still evoke the atmosphere of Leningrad during the siege, and capture the remarkable extent to which social, economic, and cultural life was continuing in such extreme circumstances. The photographers capture the printing and sale of newspapers, so crucial for information to the trapped inhabitants; the war factories producing weaponry for use at the front; citizens performing “the city’s morning toilet,” clearing the streets of snow; readers in the Leningrad libraries; painters, writers, and poets at work; the staging of plays and ballets; and nurses administering treatments in the city’s hospitals. This rare discovery comprises forty-one vintage gelatin silver prints, beautifully printed with a wide, subtle range of tones on warm paper.
Looking at these images during the current pandemic and quarantine, we feel more than ever the intensity of human suffering throughout history, the preciousness of human life and human creativity, and the vital role that art plays in helping us to process moments of crisis and trauma.