UCL News


Opinion: How Vladimir Putin failed to learn the lessons of Leningrad

21 March 2022

As haunting pictures show history repeating itself, Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies) examines Russia's faltering invasion of Ukraine.

Mark Galeotti

Of the many tales of Soviet heroism from World War Two, the siege of Leningrad – modern day St Petersburg – ranks high in the Russian psyche. 

For almost 900 days, between September 1941 and January 1944, the city’s three million inhabitants lived under constant German artillery and aerial bombardment.

Leningrad’s ‘Blokadniki’, the name given to survivors of the siege, suffered in freezing, filthy, and disease-ridden subterranean shelters. Some 800,000 died amid the rubble of Russia’s historic capital – 600,000 of them from starvation.

Every day was a battle against mental and physical collapse, with residents resorting to unspeakable measures – including cannibalism – to stay alive.

On January 27 every year – the anniversary of the city’s liberation – Vladimir Putin lays a wreath at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St Petersburg. It is a much-publicised demonstration of the centrality of the siege of Leningrad to the Russian president’s identity.

For Putin it is personal. He was born seven years after the war ended and raised in the still battle-scarred city.

His father had been seriously wounded during the battle to defend it, and his older brother, Viktor, had died from diphtheria during the siege at just one year old.

So his is a family truly scarred by the horrors of siege warfare – and yet, Putin has no hesitation in inflicting the same misery and suffering on innocent Ukrainians.

Indeed, last Thursday, in his daily address President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed directly to Russians: ‘Citizens of Russia! How is your blockade of Mariupol different from the blockade of Leningrad during World War Two?’

The parallels between Leningrad and Russia’s onslaught on the cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv are striking.

Ukrainian civilians are forced to cower underground to avoid incessant indiscriminate bombardment. Should they venture out they risk being shot or blown up in the street. Water, food, fuel, and medicines are being denied them. Bodies lie unclaimed. Mass graves are being dug.

And yet I believe that Putin, a terrible amateur historian – his rambling speeches and pseudo-historic essays saturated with the rhetoric of siege and the ‘Great Patriotic War’ – will not have made the connection. He is a man lacking any self-awareness, blinded by his own prejudices and vitriol, a man who once famously said that traitors, even worse than enemies, must be crushed.

And for Putin, that is exactly what Ukraine is. Not an independent sovereign nation, but a treacherous Russian territory that has betrayed its Motherland and must be punished.

The terrible civilian costs of siege tactics are not the only echoes of Hitler and Leningrad in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In the Fuhrer’s mind, Leningrad represented all things Bolshevik, a symbolic target that needed to be captured at all costs.

Wehrmacht forces should have moved on Moscow, but Hitler diverted vast amounts of resources and manpower to Leningrad.

A military miscalculation that marked a turning point on the Eastern front, hugely significant in Nazi Germany’s ultimate defeat. In Ukraine, Putin is making the same error, seemingly blinded to strategic reality by an irrational desire to capture Kyiv, a symbol of the modern Ukraine which he so hates. It is increasingly clear that the capital is unlikely to be entirely encircled. Russia’s manpower and supply lines will not stretch that far.

et, despite this, Putin remains set on Kyiv, diverting crucial assets that would be better used in the south and east, where Russian troops have gained some momentum. Putin believed his forces would capture Kyiv with ease, that the entire edifice of Ukrainian statehood would collapse at the first push, that he would triumphantly reclaim the historic cradle of Russian Orthodoxy. He refuses to accept that this is not to be the case.

It is a strategic miscalculation that once again demonstrates Putin’s complete inability to move beyond his own prejudices. It may end up costing him his war in Ukraine.

For a man who talks so much about Leningrad, he has totally failed to learn its most important lesson.

This article first appeared in Mail Online on 21st March 2022.