RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
Anna Klementyeva, 90, knows what war is first-hand. Born in Leningrad – now St. Petersburg – she was evacuated to Yaroslavl with her schoolmates as German troops approached after invading the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. However, she fell seriously ill and was sent back to her home city that September.
"On September 8, 1941, our train was attacked by two fascist bombers," she wrote in a letter to RFE/RL's North.Realities from her home in Spain. "Our train turned out to be the last one to enter Leningrad. The circle had been closed and the blockade had begun."
"I am a war orphan," Klementyeva wrote.
Her mother and sister were killed trying to leave the city on the so-called Road of Life across Lake Ladoga when the truck they were in was struck by a German bomb. Her father was called into the army to defend the city and was killed in his first battle.
"They are all dead," she wrote. "But I am alive. And, more than anyone else, I have the right – and it is my duty to them – to speak out against war."
Klementyeva is one of several survivors of the 900-day siege of Leningrad, which left an estimated 900,000 civilians dead, who have spoken out against Russia's war against Ukraine. Since Russian forces launched a large-scale invasion on February 24, they have besieged Ukrainian cities and bombarded civilian targets, including schools, theaters, apartment buildings, and shopping complexes. Although the United Nations has recorded about 1,000 civilian deaths, it says the actual toll is probably much higher.
The Ukrainian government has said at least 2,300 people have been killed in the besieged Azov Sea port of Mariupol alone, with tens of thousands of others trapped without basic necessities like water, food, and fuel. Civilian areas in several other cities and towns across much of the country have been hit hard.
"Citizens of Russia, how is your blockade of Mariupol different from the blockade of Leningrad during World War II?" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked in a March 17 statement. "We will not forget anyone whose lives were taken by the occupiers."
Leningrad blockade survivor Marharita Morozova, 87, has lived for the last six decades in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest, which has seen heavy bombardment throughout the war.
"I could never imagine that a new war would start in my old age," she told Reuters in a video interview on March 20. "In my worst nightmare, I could not even imagine that such massacres would be repeated."
Born in Leningrad in April 1941, Lyudmila Vasilyeva was about 5 months old when the siege began. More than 80 years later, she has been detained by police for protesting against the war three times since it was launched, the first time on February 25.
"When they detained me, they asked for my passport, and I said: 'Look at when and where I was born.' They took a look and got a little anxious. Later, they drove me home in their own car and even came inside for a visit. The next day, they told me that I had never been detained and that they just offered me a ride home. As if nothing had happened."
Vasilyeva was detained again on February 27, along with her adult grandson and granddaughter. When police again offered to release her, she insisted that she wouldn't leave without her grandchildren. Eventually, her granddaughter – who has since left Russia, like tens of thousands of mostly younger people aghast at the war in Ukraine and worried about the future as the Kremlin steps up its clampdown on dissent and the economy is hit by sanctions over the invasion -- was allowed to go home with her.
WATCH: As Russian forces continue to pound the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, an estimated 300,000 trapped residents are struggling to survive. Food is running low and there is no running water or electricity.
Vasilyeva was detained a third time on March 6, but after a conversation with officers, she was released without being taken to a police station and made her own way home on the subway.
She told RFE/RL that she has the habit of "educating people from the perspective of my advanced years," including the police.
"I was telling them all the time: Don't carry out criminal orders. It won't release you from responsibility," Vasilyeva said.
When police asked her to sign her detention report, she refused.
"'I am not going to sign anything or write any explanation,'" she recalled telling them. "This is my city. I lived my entire life here – and I'm supposed to ask you where I can walk?'"
Vera Somina, 83, has lived her entire life in St. Petersburg as well.
"I survived the war and the blockade as a small child and I was certain that nothing like that could ever happen again," she told RFE/RL. "My generation had to go through it, but now it seems that such horror is possible for the generations of my children and grandchildren."
Although living in Spain, Klementyeva follows events in Russia closely and watches Russian state television.
"When I see all the faces on our television just twisted up with hatred, and when I hear the slogan, 'We can do it again,'" she wrote, referring to a Kremlin slogan to the effect that the Russian Army could roll across Europe and defeat an enemy there, as the Soviet Army did in World War II, "I understand with horror how alive the virus of fascism is. We defeated it, but we ourselves were infected.
"Yes, they are doing it again," she continued. "The war has started, and I curse those who started it. And I know how it will end. Some girl who is now 9 years old will repeat my words when she is 90: Be damned. No, you are already damned."
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