The city of Leningrad endured more suffering and hardships than any other city in the Soviet Union during World War II. Hunger, malnutrition, disease, starvation, and even cannibalism became common during the siege, which lasted from September 1941 until January 1944. Many people lost weight, and grew weaker and more vulnerable to disease. If malnutrition persisted for long enough, its effects were irreversible. People’s feelings of loyalty disappeared if they got hungry enough; they would steal from their closest family members in order to survive.
Only some of the citizens of Leningrad survived. Only 400,000 were evacuated before the siege began; this left 2.5 million in Leningrad, including 400,000 children. Subsequently, more managed to escape; especially when the nearby Lake Ladoga froze over and people could walk over the ice road—or “road of life”—to safety. Those in influential political or social positions used their connections to other elites to leave Leningrad both before and after the siege began. Some factory owners even looted state funds to secure transport out of the city during the first summer of the war. The most risky means of escape, however, was to defect to the enemy and hope to avoid governmental punishment.
Most survival strategies during the siege, though, involved staying within the city and facing the problems through resourcefulness or luck: for instance by securing factory employment, because many factories became autonomous and possessed more of the requirements for survival during the winter, such as food and heat. Workers received larger rations than other civilians, and factories were likely to have electricity if they produced vital goods. Factories also served as mutual support centers, and had clinics and other services like cleaning crews and teams of women who would sew and repair clothes. Factory employees were still driven to desperation on occasion and people resorted to eating glue or horse meat in factories where food was scarce, but factory employment was the most consistently successful method of survival, and at some food production plants not a single person died.
Survival opportunities open to the wider Soviet community included barter and farming on private land. Black markets thrived as private barter and trade became more common, especially between soldiers and civilians. Soldiers, who had more food to spare, were eager to trade with civilians who had extra warm clothes to exchange. Planting vegetable gardens in the spring became popular, primarily because citizens could keep everything grown on their own plots. The campaign also had a potent psychological effect and boosted morale, a survival component almost as crucial as bread.
Many of the most desperate Soviet citizens turned to crime to support themselves. Most common was the theft of food and of ration cards; this could prove fatal for a malnourished person if their card was stolen more than a day or two before a new card was issued. For these reasons, the stealing of food was severely punished and a person could be shot for as little as stealing a loaf of bread. More serious crimes such as murder and cannibalism also occurred, and special police squads were set up to combat these crimes, though by the end of the siege, roughly 1,500 had been arrested for cannibalism.