This old photo I recently came across fascinates me. From 1937, it depicts a gas mask drill and the participants are the Pioneers of Leningrad. The Pioneers were a Soviet youth organization similar to the Boy Scout movement of the west. They learned skills related to civic and social cooperation with social gatherings and summer camps in order to create good, loyal Soviet citizens.
Beyond the obvious weirdness of the image, the photo carries the haunting thought that just four short years later many of these young people would most likely perish in the Siege of Leningrad.
For 900 days, the Nazis held Leningrad, which it had been unable to take by force, in siege attempting to starve the city into submission. Over a third of the city’s population- over 800,00 people– died during the Siege. Most died from the depths of starvation that found the citizens eating anything at their disposal– sawdust, wallpaper, and any and all pets.
It’s a horror that is hard for us, so far removed from that place and that war, to fathom yet it happened just a little over 70 years back. Some of those children in the photo, if they were fortunate to survive the war and the siege, could easily be alive today. I am sure when the photo was taken they felt strong and prepared to face whatever adversity lay ahead. They had no idea what the future truly held.
For today’s Sunday morning music I am using a song that relates in a way to the photo. It’s Red Army Blues from the Irish band The Waterboys‘ 1985 album, A Pagan Place.
The song tells the story of a Soviet soldier in WWII who somehow survives the war and comes in contact with American troops. Joseph Stalin felt that troops who were taken prisoner were weak and traitors to the Soviet state and that troops who came in contact with Allied troops were in danger of being Westernized. So after the war, many Red Army troops who had been held as POWs or had much contact with western troops were considered a threat to the state and were sent directly to the gulags where many would die while working and starving in forced labor camps. We’re talking in the millions here.
I bring up this dark page in history because of our current head of state’s recent warming up to Russia where Vladimir Putin has began reintroducing Stalin era thinking to that country. Time and fading memories have made the horrors that Stalin inflicted on his people somehow palatable. The gulags, the purges, and the artificial famines that killed millions of Soviets seem to be a distant memory now and there is actually a bit of nostalgia for Stalin. Hence, Putin’s rise.
But the memory of these things, these atrocities against his own people and humanity, should never be relinquished. If forgotten they are only a moment from becoming the present.
This is a pretty interesting video of Red Army Blues with a lot of great Soviet footage of that time which means that some of it is grisly and disturbing. Unfortunately, that is what much of our history entails. It’s worth a listen and a view.
Have a great day