It is 70 years since the lifting of the siege of Leningrad. It is a time to remember the dead and to honor the many survivors who still live in the city, which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, reclaimed its pre-revolutionary name.
So for those who came through the worst that Hitler’s armies could throw at them, who endured almost unimaginable suffering during that dreadful 900-day ordeal – in which some people had to eat the corpses of those who died – officials in St. Petersburg came up with what they thought was a suitable gesture: a two-week ban on outdoor advertisements for German goods and services.
The city may have won back its old imperial name, but surely the idea of a ban on ads for German exports was a throwback to the worst of Soviet-era totalitarian thinking.
Two weeks before the 27 January memorial date, City Hall sent a letter to local advertising agencies ordering them to remove any posters or advertisements containing material promoting German products.
“This must be done in order to avoid stirring up social conflict,” said the letter, signed by Yury Burunov, head of the department that oversees outdoor advertising. “The ads are to be replaced by posters informing residents about the cultural program in town over the memorial days.”
The idea did not sit well with some of the recipients. “If City Hall is confident that such ads irritate siege survivors and war veterans, why allow them at all?” a representative of one St. Petersburg advertising company told me. “After all, over the years, people have been seeing these ads day in and day out.”
By the logic of St. Petersburg’s government, a decree should have been issued asking all drivers with BMWs and Volkswagens to leave their cars at home during the memorial days and take the bus instead.
And for good measure, why not pull down the shutters on all shops selling German produce for a couple of weeks, switch off the taps pouring German beer in the bars, and forbid the sale of German pills and medications in the pharmacies?
To ensure that no part of German culture offended the sensibilities of Russian residents, the authorities could perhaps have advised the Hermitage Museum to throw shrouds over German Romantic paintings and order the Mariinsky Theater to play no Wagner or even Carl Maria von Weber, at least for January.
It didn’t take long for St. Petersburg bloggers to point out the ban’s absurdity.
“When the city of Kazan marks the day of its capture by the Russians,” Alexander Mityushkin wrote, referring to the fall of the great Tatar city to the tsar’s forces in 1552, “the local authorities must remove all Russian ads – or the Tatars will be gravely insulted.”
Another blogger suggested, “The high-speed Sapsan trains should be brought to a standstill – they are made by Siemens, and it is a German company.”
Alexander Lobkov, head of the St. Petersburg government’s media committee, felt compelled to respond to the wave of ridicule unleashed by the proposed ban. He argued, feebly, that although Burunov’s letter was indeed sent, it had not called for an embargo, and its purpose had been simply to allow more space on the billboards for notices publicizing the municipal commemoration activities.
Lobkov also said it was not the administration’s intention to discriminate against German businesses and he pledged that whoever in the city government had sent out the order “misleading advertising agencies and the press” would be reprimanded.
When it comes to elderly consumers likely to have endured the siege, the most important German brands are not the luxuries many of us would think of. Military veterans and siege survivors are presumably among the users of, for example, orthopedic shoes, many of which are made in Germany.
Perhaps the city’s elderly should have been asked to take off their German-made shoes and confine themselves to bed, voting with their feet to remind modern-day Germans of the cruelties inflicted by their Nazi-era forbears.
It is ironic that what may have most upset siege survivors this week was a state-sponsored exhibition in front of the Winter Palace and on some nearby streets.
The outdoor show was meant “to re-create the spirit of the siege” as the City Hall’s PR gurus put it, and featured both tanks and anti-tank barriers installed at the heart of St. Petersburg – despite the fact that during the siege the anti-tank barriers were not placed at the city center but rather on the outskirts.
“This is insane. A reconstruction of the siege means essentially mass deaths, cannibalism, and corpses pulled around on sledges,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly from the liberal, opposition Yabloko faction. “Nobody does reconstructions in Auschwitz or Buchenwald, and for good reason. An honest reconstruction of the siege would involve putting local residents on a diet of 125 grams of bread per day. This installation is a regrettable farce.”
Perhaps St. Petersburgers should be grateful that the event did not involve bombings, electricity cuts, and the forced eating of pet animals. The cost of the “siege reconstruction” came to 8 million rubles ($231,900). However, no financial award or pension bonus was made to surviving victims of the siege to mark the anniversary.
On top of these blunders, City Hall festooned the streets with thousands of stickers and posters containing a grotesque mistake. The posters reminded readers of the end of the ordeal 70 years ago but, incredibly, forgot to mention the liberators, the Soviet army. As a result, due to a grammatical error, the posters seemed to suggest Leningrad was freed by the Germans.
The ill-conceived posters were soon taken down but images of them flooded the Internet, drawing furious comments. Again, officials attempted to explain: the mistake had been caused by the recent renaming of the memorial day, from which mention of the Soviet army had been removed in case that was seen to discriminate against the many civilians who also showed great heroism.
Amid such clumsiness, there was no attempt to give people an actual sense of the siege by spotlighting the recollections of the survivors.
The voices of ordinary people who went through hell are just what the Russian authorities managed studiously to ignore. Trying to learn from history is impossible if you leave ordinary people out. It leads to a pathetic masquerade, where, instead a lesson in history, we get a blend of gratuitous insult and incoherent political gobbledygook.