Before the meeting, Vladimir Putin toured the Spark of the Leningrad Victory exhibition in the company of Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Northwestern Federal District Alexander Gutsan and St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov.
* * *
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.
First of all, I would like to address the veterans and to congratulate you on the landmark event, namely, the 80th anniversary of breaking the siege of Leningrad. This is a major event for all of us – not only for the people of Leningrad, not only for the city, or for the heroic defenders and residents of besieged Leningrad, but for the entire country.
We have just talked with the city leadership about what happened during the most difficult months of the defence of Leningrad, about the heroism of its defenders and what city residents did to bring about victory over the enemy. All of that will always be remembered by our citizens, and we must ensure that future generations know about and cherish the memory of that page in our history.
I would like to once again sincerely congratulate you on this event. Representatives of different generations, including grey-haired veterans and young people, sufficiently young, at any rate, are present here. It is very good to have such a line-up here today.
I do not want to make any lengthy opening remarks because this is not the right occasion. I would like to listen to what you have to say about what the state and municipal authorities are doing to perpetuate the memory of all those who took part in defending the Motherland during the Great Patriotic War. This will allow us to make any adjustments and to implement some additional measures in this field.
Congratulations on the 80th anniversary of breaking the siege of Leningrad.
Go ahead, please, I will be happy to hear you out.
Excerpts from the transcript of the meeting with veterans of the Great Patriotic War, residents of besieged Leningrad and representatives of patriotic public associations
(In her remarks, Chair of the Board of the Residents of Besieged Leningrad [St Petersburg public organisation] Yelena Tikhomirova recalled her participation in court hearings on the genocide of Soviet people, including residents of Leningrad. She said the court established that representatives of some 11 European states, rather than the Germans alone, were fighting against Leningrad. In addition, the court established that 1,093,000 people had died during the siege, but even this figure is not final or complete. Ms Tikhomirova believes it necessary to continue the work on preserving the memory of the war on a large scale and intensify the efforts to spread the historical truth.)
Vladimir Putin:To begin with, I would like to thank you for coming through such difficult trials in the past, for not giving up, for supporting each other, and in this way supporting the city and the country. I am also grateful for what you are doing today.
You have made a very important point. The issue on recognising the genocide of Soviet civilians is very important. Of course, this issue was reviewed in the past in Nuremberg and was assessed by and large. But it was done this way because it was impossible to imagine, or even discuss and present all the facts on this genocide. And, indeed, many things have been forgotten.
In fact, you know, I will say one unusual thing, although there is really nothing unusual about it. We have a natural protection mechanism. A person very quickly forgets the bad things; everything is forgotten very quickly. A new generation sees what happened before its birth as some prehistoric event that seems to have nothing to do with them. To help them understand that this is not the case, we should certainly deal with it.
On the one hand, it is good that people do not live under the pressure of hard memories – that would be impossible. It would be terrible to exist like that; it is even terrible to imagine it. But historical memory must be preserved with the express purpose of preventing a repetition of the tragedies like those our people went through during the Great Patriotic War. There is also a practical point in this – we must promptly react to the emerging threats against our country. This is a very important point. Therefore, we will certainly work across the board on this.
First of all, it is necessary to pay attention to young people, using, of course, the tools and means they are familiar with so they can access everything better. But the most effective approach in this respect is the memories of those who passed through these grievous trials. You are right in saying that life is life and many veterans are no longer with us, but there are some who are here and still strong. Of course, we should do all we can to make use of your knowledge. Because these are eye-witness accounts – not a book that can be rewritten or interpreted to someone’s benefit. This is my first point.
The second point is that we must also use the experience of our pedagogues, our teachers at different levels.
Now a few words on what you said about multi-ethnic occupation forces and those who fought against us, our enemies. Yes, this is right, and it has always been like this. Just look at Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He writes that it seemed like only the Napoleon-led French army attacked us, but in reality, this army represented all of Europe because by that time Napoleon Bonaparte had actually established control over all of mainland Europe. Tolstoy described how this happened during the 1812 Patriotic War. The same was repeated during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945 after Hitler had established control over mainland Europe as well. People from many European countries took part in the siege of Leningrad and committed crimes on the Leningrad Front.
Due to a certain tolerance or unwillingness to spoil relations or the background of our relations with many countries, we have not generally talked about this. But it happened not only in Leningrad, on the Leningrad Front or during the siege, it happened everywhere. It is enough to look at the Blue Division. They came to Leningrad, and were in Leningrad during the siege. They were from all countries, at least from many, anyway.
When you talk about the need to preserve historical memory, I wholeheartedly support this, as I said. We will do this at the government level and do it persistently to avoid anything like this in the future.
In the meantime, some people deliberately bury these facts in oblivion. As you have probably heard, we recently proposed a resolution at the UN, a document denouncing the glorification of Nazism. But 50 countries voted against it. Who would object to recognising the criminality of glorifying Nazism? What is going on? This is not simply some kind of historical or political amnesia. All of this is being moved here, to our time again. What for? To have a common front, to pressure our country based on the current political environment. So, unfortunately, not much has changed in this respect. This means that we must consistently protect the historical truth and do what you are suggesting. This is exactly what we will do.
(Nadezhda Strogonova, who is 102 years old, spoke about her work as a teacher during the siege. She began working in an orphanage. Of the first group of 200 orphaned children who entered the orphanage, only 37 could walk from the second floor to the dining hall. The rest were fed in bed. The orphanage operated from January 6 to August 26, 1942, and during this period, 625 children were saved and evacuated along the Road of Life. On September 1, a school opened there and classes began, even though every day schoolchildren and teachers had to hide in a bomb shelter during air raids. The school only lasted until April 16, 1943, when it was bombed by Nazi bombers. And so, it was necessary to look for a suitable building and start classes all over again. This is how the siege teachers worked despite the hunger and cold. Ms Strogonova expressed gratitude for the organisation of veteran teachers, but suggested that it include not only teachers, but other veterans who could help educate the new generation, passing on their experience and sharing their memories.)
Vladimir Putin: I have no comment. I just want express my deep respect for your heroic deed, for the deed of the people you have just mentioned.
Indeed, this is the most important thing I was talking about at the start of our conversation: testimonies. Face-to-face communication is the most penetrating, the most candid and the most truthful. So, thank you very much for what you have always done: both during the years of the siege when you were saving children, and after, in the course of your teaching career.
This year, the Year of the Teacher, it is all the more important to implement your ideas and proposals. We will definitely do it. I will discuss this with the Ministry of Education and the Government. With the support of the regions, we will certainly implement this idea of yours. So, thank you very much.
The teaching staff is indeed of vital importance. In recent years, we have tried to do everything to support teachers. But, of course, much remains to be done in all areas, primarily from the point of view of recognising the social significance of this work – the work of a teacher, a pedagogue. Without any doubt, we will definitely continue along this path.
Thank you very much.
(Leonid Govorov, grandson of Marshal of the Soviet Union Leonid Govorov, commander of the Leningrad Front, chair of the public council of the Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad, raised the topic of preserving memory, the topic of developing the museum, which for him, like for many people of Leningrad, is of great personal significance. He recalled that, thanks to the support of the President, the museum, opened in 1946, received a new lease of life in 2019. But unfortunately, he said, at its current size the museum is not able to do justice to the events of the Battle of Leningrad, the defence and siege of Leningrad. He believes it is necessary to expand the area of the museum using some premises of the Ministry of Defence, for which there already was an agreement with the Ministry, and to make it a national museum, research and education centre like the Victory Museum on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow, which works very closely with schoolchildren, youth and students, and hosts many interesting events.)
Vladimir Putin: Mr Govorov, you mentioned the museum on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow. Over the past few years, it has really changed and is doing a lot of education work, basing it on interesting, accessible and striking materials, and doing it with talent. Considering its material resources, I just have to remind you that the museum on Poklonnaya Hill was basically created from scratch and was conceived as a museum from the very beginning.
I have to recall the sad history of this centre. And it is sad and tragic because in the course of the Leningrad Case [in the late 1940s – early 1950s], the museum of the defence and siege of Leningrad, which had already been created by that time, was actually completely destroyed. Its recreation began somewhere in the late 1980s, in 1986 or around this time. And gradually the city and federal authorities rightly began to pay more and more attention to this.
In recent years, indeed, some premises have been handed over, and this, of course, is not enough. This process is not easy, and I hope that together with the city authorities we will work on this, we will proceed along this path, but now, it seems to me, we need to use the premises that have been handed over to the museum.
Of course, you are also right. We must proceed along this path: the path towards creating a great national centre here. We will proceed step by step, without prejudice to the interests of the Ministry of Defence. However, we will definitely help you in the future.
Leonid Govorov: Thank you very much. We have set ourselves such a task. It is clear that it will be solved gradually.
Vladimir Putin: We and the city authorities will support you.
Leonid Govorov: Thank you very much.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you for the work you are doing. Thank you.
You had an outstanding ancestor: your grandfather was one of the best military commanders of World War II; a scrupulous, very thoughtful, caustic commander and a true military mathematician. You have something to be proud of.
And thank you for doing this professionally and passing it on to us and future generations, to the whole country; and I understand that you work with your colleagues in other republics of the former Soviet Union as well. This is very important, very important.
Leonid Govorov: Thank you very much.
Sergei Machinsky: Mr President, may I?
Sergei Machinsky, special representative of the Leningrad Region Governor in the special military operation zone, member of the Search Movement of Russia.
There was Victory, there was a trial, there was a sentence. If I may, before saying that not everyone remembered this, I would like to ask you to direct your attention to the screen for a few minutes and watch an excerpt of the film “Nuremberg” created on your instruction, which tells about the things that should never be forgotten.
Vladimir Putin: With pleasure. Thank you.
(A video plays.)
Sergei Machinsky: I have been in the special military operation zone continuously since last June, communicating not only with our military personnel, but also with people who live there. They are being killed not just by shells, they are being killed simply because they think differently. The entire family of my friend, an LPR officer, was killed in 2014 by militants of the Tornado battalion just because his father, a Soviet officer, did not want to accept those who came to power in Ukraine. The crimes are committed by the same people, under the same banners, just as cruelly, and the public has the right to know about these crimes.
My fellow searchers worked with the Investigative Committee for a long time as part of the No Statute of Limitations project in Russia, on the crimes that were committed during the Great Patriotic War. They are ready to continue this work now on the territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk people's republics. I want to ask, we would all like to ask you to give instructions to the Investigative Committee to continue this work, so that people also learn about the Nazis’ present-day crimes, so that they also go on trial in due time.
And speaking about the information element, what we are talking about, what many people in Russia are talking about now: we need to talk about the war, we need to talk about crimes openly and honestly. Let it be scary, let it be unpleasant, many do not want to see or know this, but we must talk about it, in full, without hiding, without being embarrassed, naming the names of the executioners and murderers precisely so that this never happens again.
We should make films and we should write books. In addition to public activists, I would like the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Digital Development to take part in this. We need to bring home to every resident of our country that fascism is not just a word. We need to hammer all traces of it into everyone’s brains like with the films “Come and See” and “Ordinary Fascism.” Every TV screen must shout this to everyone.
And we should not feel sorry for our children – we should not spare them by hiding the truth about that war. We should not try to protect their psyche by not telling them about the crimes that are being committed now. They see more on the internet. As for these age restrictions on films about the Great Patriotic War, I believe it is not the films that need to be restricted.
I would also like to say that the majority of our young people that are there know what they are fighting for. It is necessary to make sure people here know and understand what they are fighting for there.
Thank you very much.
Vladimir Putin: Mr Machinsky, you have raised a very important issue, and we certainly need to watch the full-length version of this film. This is very important. Such films, such pieces preserve our historical memory. I have talked about the need for this.
As for the events you mentioned, the tragedy associated with the events in Ukraine indeed unfolded in 2014 after the anti-constitutional anti-state armed coup in Ukraine. As we know, we had to help the Crimeans in this context. Then the events in Donbass followed. In fact, the serious hostilities in Donbass have not stopped since 2014, and they included the use of heavy equipment, artillery, tanks and aviation. All this took place there.
Everything we are doing today, including the special military operation, is an attempt to end this war, as I have said many times. This is the essence of our operation. We also want to protect our people who live on these territories. These are our historical territories. As I have said, after the collapse of the Soviet Union… I will not give any assessments now – this is neither the place nor the time, but anyway, Russia accepted this situation despite the fact that these are our historical, Russian territories, but in terms of history we reconciled ourselves to it.
Nevertheless, we had to react to what was happening there after the coup d’état, when they actually began exterminating people living in those territories only because of their connection with Russian culture, Russian language and traditions of their people and their forefathers.
We tolerated it for a long time and tried to come to an agreement. As it has recently turned out, they were messing around with us; they were lying to us. This was not the first time this has happened to us. Yet we did everything in our power to settle the problem peacefully. It has become obvious now that it was an inherently impossible mission; the enemy was only preparing to bring this conflict to the hot phase. As I have said, there was no other way than to do what we are doing now.
As for crimes against civilians committed by the neo-Nazis, who have gained ground and are running the show in Ukraine, who seized power there as a result of the coup d’état… Everything that happened after that matters, but the initial root of the current power in Ukraine is the coup d’état. We must never forget this. But it is essential to record everything they are doing now, especially to civilians, and we will do it. Our Investigative Committee is doing this; it is not only recording facts but is also summing them up and giving it a legal assessment. We will certainly continue doing this.
Providing information support for all our actions and getting the truth across to people in Russia and in other countries, but above all to people in Ukraine is one of the main areas of our joint efforts. There are very many people in Ukraine who can see what is happening and have a correct understanding of the events, especially after what the current rulers started doing to civilians, when they created the so-called retreat-blocking detachments, like the ones used during World War II, and what they are doing to the Russian Orthodox Church. I have no doubt that they will not get away with it.
As for what you have proposed, this certainly must be done, and we will do it.
Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart. Let this be a lesson for all. Today marks 80 years since the siege of Leningrad was broken, and I would like to recite a poem about the medal For the Defence of Leningrad. It is also about your father, whose biography I know well, I have a book. Later, I will give you a report, so as not to take time today, from one of the organisations, the Eternally Living, in which we participate together with the city and district councils of veterans, and we are doing everything we can to bring up a generation that will defend us. (Recites the poem.)
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.
As for your war comrades-in-arms from different regions of the former Soviet Union, from different Soviet republics, and as for the attempts to revive Nazism in those places, this has been going on, as you know. There have always been collaborators, traitors, always and everywhere. Unfortunately, we had such people in Russia too, suffice it to recall the so-called Russian Liberation Army and so on. We have been there. But we must anathematise them, and honour our fighters, the real heroes, whom we should not forget and put them on a pedestal. And we will always do that.
However, unfortunately, many countries, including in the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, are glorifying Nazism now. Look what is happening in Latvia, for example. They hold annual SS marches there, openly, protected by the local law enforcement agencies. Those are former members of the SS units, and they are doing this openly, under the pretext – and I would like to emphasise this – that they allegedly fought for national independence.
Nothing can be an excuse for collaborating with the Nazis and fascists. Nothing at all. It is all a whitewash. In reality, they are traitors and Nazis. Their followers today are neo-Nazis. What else can be said about those who glorify Bandera in Ukraine, making him a national hero, and then march by the thousands through the central streets of Ukrainian cities? What else are they? This gives us every right to say that they are neo-Nazis because Bandera and his gang collaborated with Hitler and killed thousands of people. The German occupiers left them the dirty work; I will not list all the crimes that were committed by their hands. And what does this make those lauding them? They are neo-Nazis, and there is nothing else to say about them.
Thank you for preserving the memory of your comrades-in-arms, and we will do everything to take this baton from you.
Valentin Bogdanov: Mr President, I have one request: I have never attended the Victory Day parade in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin: I invite you.
Praskovya Vasilyeva: Mr President, allow me to follow up on what the Leningrad siege survivors said. They talked about the need for system-wide patriotic education of young people.
I am Praskovya Vasilyeva, and I represent the We Are Together campaign. You know this initiative well. In COVID times, we helped elderly people living alone, and now we help families of service personnel who are in the special military operation zone. It is essential for young people and the volunteer movement that we preserve the existing symbols of the Great Victory, including in Leningrad.
Mr President, during the latest meeting of the Russian Pobeda (Victory) Organising Committee, you supported the idea of drafting a comprehensive plan on marking the 80th anniversary of breaking the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Today, the day when the siege was broken, means the start to a new year for Pobeda volunteers, who will be guided by the slogan “Beyond May 9,” as is always the case. We will spend this year commemorating the lifting of the siege, with the final event scheduled for January 27 of next year, 2024.
It is critical for us, young people, to make sure that your instructions are heard, and that everyone gets down to organising these events in a responsible manner, putting their heart and soul into the effort. As volunteers, we can promise you that these events will certainly carry our personal touch.
Of course, young people today honour the symbols of the Great Victory. Still, we need new formats and information technology for promoting patriotic education of young people. For example, the Road of Life lifeline has become the main symbol of Leningrad’s victory. This road crossed Lake Ladoga. There were distance posts and commemorative signs installed along this road back in the 1960s. It has to be noted that the Road of Life has changed a lot for the better in recent years with the creation of outstanding facilities, including the Aviators’ House museum. It was created at your instruction, Mr President. It has emerged as a magnet, attracting young people and enabling them to get a feel for the history of the Great Patriotic War, including Leningrad under siege.
And now we know that the Road of Life will be modernised, to become a stunning, the world’s only open-air museum of this kind, where visitors will be able to learn personal stories of the people who lived under the siege, learn about the professions that were in demand in the besieged Leningrad, about the evacuation, about supplying Leningrad via the Road of Life and how the Road of Life saved thousands from starving to death. Modernisation of the Road of Life is an example of a symbol of the Great Victory becoming a unique, modern and interesting monument for Russians of all ages. It is a wonderful initiative.
But besides the big Road of Life across Ladoga, there was also a small Road of Life that very few people know about, across the Gulf of Finland. It connected two shores of the Gulf of Finland for civilians, but it also had great strategic importance for the military because it provided supplies for the islands in the outer part of the gulf. Thanks to supplies to those islands, our submarines and Soviet aviation were able to hold back the Finns and Germans at the western borders of Leningrad. Our volunteer movement would like to propose that, during the year when we mark 80 years since the complete liberation of Leningrad from the siege, the small Road of Life should become one more symbol of Leningrad’s victory and another widely known symbol for our younger generation.
Vladimir Putin: First of all, I want to note that I am very pleased that young people are equally involved in these issues as war veterans. It is worth a great deal because people of one generation understand each other better, hear each other and feel the strings that must be touched to create the right associations in a person’s soul. I want to thank you for doing this. This is the first.
Second, as concerns the small Road of Life on the islands of the Gulf of Finland, it is another heroic chapter in the history of the Great Patriotic War. Because the soldiers who defended our garrisons on the islands, including on Gogland (where I have been several times), demonstrated outstanding, extraordinary bravery. They were the last to leave and return to Leningrad. Those events are worth remembering and worth their own chapter in history. In fact, it was written by our heroic fighters during the Great Patriotic War. It just needs to be properly shaped and incorporated into the general context of the defence of Leningrad.
I fully agree with you. We will work on that, absolutely.
Shall we wrap up? No? Please, go ahead.
Valery Isakov: I run a private museum, Things from Besieged Leningrad.
I lived and went to School No. 181, which is not far from here, 20 metres across from the museum. My parents and I stayed in Leningrad during the siege. One day, I was admitted to the Botkin Hospital with a disorder caused by malnutrition. It was after the siege was broken. A German aircraft dropped a heavy 500-kg bomb on the hospital. Thankfully, it hit the garden outside the hospital, not the building itself. The hospital windows were shattered, and as a boy I had this spray of shards amid a beautiful sunny August day etched in my memory. Ten minutes later, my mother rushed into the ward. She saw the bent headboard of the iron hospital bed and a still hot fragment of the bomb on it, 10 centimetres away from my head. She kept it, and it started our museum called Things from Besieged Leningrad. We put my childhood toys and some of my parents’ documents on display as well. Then my wife, also a siege survivor, and I continued to collect items which formed the museum.
For 10 years now, we have been going to schools and vocational schools, which are now called colleges for some reason, even though we could have kept the Russian name, and speak to young people. This is important and something today's youth need, especially in our troubled times.
I always start by telling the children that unlike in other museums, they can and are welcome to touch things, because tactile memory – teachers will back me up on this – is important as well. We let children touch the exhibits, among them an authentic piece of bread from besieged Leningrad, which is a rare and valuable exhibit. We keep it in two jars, and it still smells. Children touch it. They touch that bomb fragment. Blockade ration cards, money from Leningrad, and toys from that time. Sometimes, we lend them to WWII-related exhibitions. We speak to children on holidays such as Defender of the Fatherland Day, the Day of Breaking the Siege of Leningrad, Victory Day and more.
Useful deeds are important for us, for the elderly if we want to prolong our lives and, of course, what we do is important for the younger generation. We tell them that they can throw away an old mobile phone, but never a piece of bread. We tell them to hold it in their hands. People died because they didn’t have enough of this bread. If you can’t eat it, give it to cats, dogs or birds. We teach them to be real Russians, real residents of Leningrad.
In this regard, I would like to see this patriotic work expand with the help of our outgoing generation. We, children of the siege, are the last generation that experienced this first-hand and maybe, thanks to my museum, someone else will remember more things and will let the youth know about them as well.
In this regard, I would like, first, to thank our regional administration, which supports the councils of veterans. I would like to say a few words about a new development, the “third-age” universities. That is, instead of wasting time sitting on benches, men playing dominoes, women gossiping, elderly people are busy attending all kinds of lectures by medical doctors, going on all kinds of tours, including tours related to the siege of Leningrad. There are all kinds of clubs which help prolong life and increase the average life expectancy in our country, which, unfortunately, was lagging for a long time. In addition, it is good for the young people, because communicating with living witnesses of historical events, such as my generation and older generations, lets them learn a lot. This is one thing.
Another thing I would want is to see the return of the books that our pre-war and post-war generations, the generation of Mr President, had to study at school, back into the school programme. I mean, to bring back to schools the books The Young Guard by Alexander Fadeyev, The Son of the Artillery Man by Konstantin Simonov, How the Steel was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky, Tales of the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Russian Character by Alexei Tolstoy, Hot Snow by Yury Bondarev, and The Brest Fortress by Sergei Smirnov. These works should not be optional and their choice should not be up to the teachers. They must be essential for developing the character and social responsibility of the young people, of the succeeding generations.
In conclusion, I would like to recall a poem by wonderful poet Vera Inber, who spent the entire duration of the siege in Leningrad. There is a line, “The history wrote the date January 18 in gold in the pages of its calendar.”
So let us remember this date, commemorate it and raise the future generations to be no worse than us and worthy of us. Let us be worthy of our ancestors’ memory.
And in conclusion, Mr President, here is a small gift for you: a copy of a permission to be on the street after the air raid alert and a ration card for bread, both from the siege times. This is a gift from our museum.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Thank you, Mr Isakov, for your work and for creating an entire private museum. St Petersburg has more than one private museum, which shows its residents’ special attitude to their city and their history. It means that they are more sensitive to everything related to the tragedy of the Great Patriotic War and the defence of besieged Leningrad. So thank you very much for that.
Naturally, I will talk to the Ministry of Education about the need to return Soviet classics, which form the public historical mentality of entire generations, to schools. You are absolutely right, we need to think about it and work on it.
Valery Isakov: Also, the support of the councils of veterans at various levels and the so-called universities of the third age, which is a wonderful thing of the present time. Both we and your parents will live long and be of use to the next generations.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you. We will do it. As for your wish to improve this work, we will consider it an instruction. We will work on it.
Once again, I congratulate all of you on this wonderful and important event, the 80th anniversary of breaking the siege of Leningrad.
Thank you and all the best.