To the Hero Fish, with Thanks (August 19, 2013)

[Part 14 of 14.  Solovki 2013]

In the day before heading north from St. Petersburg to Solovki, several of us spent a lovely afternoon visiting the town of Kronstadt just outside of St. Petersburg.

Kronstadt is a naval town—the equivalent of Annapolis in the US, or Portsmouth in the UK—and was a closed city in the Soviet days, so I had never been there before even though I’d visited Petersburg (and Leningrad when it was called Leningrad) many times over the years.

The town and its quiet streets have much to offer and are steeped in history.   It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, was the site of a famous rebellion against the Bolsheviks, and has truly remarkable shipyards and shipbuilding facilities.

There is a pleasant beach, where swimming is not recommended but one can find a very nice glass of Kvas, Russia’s beloved soft drink.

It was also here, as many plaques remind the casual walker, that the radio was invented by Aleksandr Stepanovich Popov.   [Popov, generally unknown in the West played a very important role in the process, although he was hardly alone.]

But, for me, the most memorable part of the day was a modest plaque standing inconspicuously by one of the canals giving tribute to all-too-often forgotten heroes of World War II:   small fish.   If the Soviets in many respects won the war in Europe (and by inflicting 80% of all Nazi casualties in the war and holding off the German onslaught for months alone, there seems little argument that they did), then it was fish that made much of that victory possible.

During the 900-day siege and blockade of Leningrad, food supplies were at such a low level that inhabitants were rationed to 125 grams of “bread” a day (quotation marks because much of the ingredients weren’t bread as traditionally understood, including a fair amount of sawdust).   In these horrible circumstances, protein fished from the waters was a crucial supply of calories for the sailors and civilians to survive on.

The same was true further east, where fish were being scooped out of rivers and lakes at unprecedented rates to feed the hungry Soviet people and soldiers.   In many respects, the fish stocks of Lake Baikal (the world’s oldest and largest lake in terms of depth and water volume) have never fully recovered from the extraction of fish during these years.

And it is nice to see, for once, a memorial to all the fish who gave their lives so that humans might live; a testimony to all the animal victims who suffered the extraordinary destruction that humans unleashed on each other.

A Plaque to the fish

To the Blockade Stickleback

The shelling has fallen silent and the bombing too,

But, to this day, praise is sounded

To the blockade little fish

That helped the people to survive

                        — M. G. Aminova

                        –plaque erected for the 300-year anniversary of Kronstadt.