Siege of Leningrad

A picture can tell a thousand words. Sometimes a number can give a good picture. In the example discussed here, a picture and a number can be combined to make history come alive.

I recently watched a World War II news reels on YouTube called FRONTLINE WWII: Germans Advance into Russia (720p). The video describes the operation called Operation Barbarossa, which was the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II and was launched on Sunday 22 June 1941. One of the three strategic objectives for the operation was to capture the city of Leningrad, now called Saint Petersburg. The German laid siege to the city for 872 days from September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944.

Early on in the war, the Germans believed that Leningrad would be taken easily. In fact, it has been reported that Adolf Hitler was so confident of capturing Leningrad that he had invitations printed with the victory celebration party to be held in the city’s Hotel Astoria. Later Hitler made the strategic decision to divert resources to other fronts. The plan for Leningrad was changed from direct attack and capture to a siege with the goal of starving the city into submission.

The siege of Leningrad was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in world history. The destructive impact on the city is detailed in the Wikepedia entry on the siege of Leningrad and in countless other sources. When I watched the YouTube video, one number stands out. During the siege, each soldier or worker doing critical work received 8 ounces of bread a day (and nothing else). The other residents of the city received daily ration of 4 ounces of bread. It did not matter if a resident was young or old, healthy or sick. If the person was not fighting, he or she only had 4 ounces of bread per day for sustenance.

To get an idea how much food is an 8-ounce piece of bread, the following is a picture of a loaf of bread that is found in any grocery store in United States.


The loaf pictured is a 24-ounce loaf. That means that the a Soviet soldier defending Leningrad received about one third of a loaf of bread for an entire day. Here’s the math: 24 oz x 1/3 = 8 oz. But that is only in terms of weight. The quality of the bread that a soldier received could not be compared with the loaf pictured above. The bread during the siege was made up of sawdust and other inedible ingredients (50 to 60%).

The loaf pictured above has 18 slices (you can actually count the slices). The daily ration is then 6 slices of bread for a soldier and 3 slices for everyone else (children and the elderly). Here’s the math: 18 x 1/3 = 6 slices. So a child or an old person subsisted on 3 thin slices of bread that was half saw dust!

The picture was indeed grim. The deaths in Leningrad peaked at 100,000 a month in early 1942, mostly from starvation. Due to the lack of fuel, the trolley service ceased to work for most of the siege. Just to get the meager 4-ounce ration of bread, people would need to walk to a distribution kiosk. In a typical winter in Leningrad, the temperature can drop to minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit). For many people, the walk to a distribution kiosk would be an insurmountable obstacle.

The Nazi siege of Leningrad that began in 1941 and ended in 1944 was one of the most gruesome episodes of World War II. Nearly three million people endured it. Altogether, the siege lasted nearly 900 days and resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million civilians. The siege of Leningrad was an epic story of sufferings and destruction and ultimately triumph. If the daily ration of bread piques your interest, there are many places to read more. Here’s some links.


Why Write about Numbers

This is a blog about making sense of numbers. The loaf of bread example shows that sometimes it is the other ways round – finding just the right numerical examples to help us understand a complex story or a complex phenomenon. Please feel free to browse the articles in this blog. Here’s are some articles that may be of interest.

Here are two posts on number sense. The first one is on stealth price increases. Some manufacturers do not raise prices but give you less. For example, a pack of peanut may have 16 ounces before and now weights 14 ounces but is charged the same price as a 16-oz pack. This post shows how to calculate the price increase. This post is a plug on quantitative literacy after an encounter with a store clerk.

I had written on lottery, especially how small the odds are. Buying lottery tickets as entertainment is one thing. Anyone buying them as investment or as quick ways to get rich should know that it will take buying thousands of tickets each week since the time of Christ to have a realistic chance of winning the Powerball lottery. The following are some of the most popular posts in this blog.


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