1941: Beginning of the Great Patriotic War and evacuation of Hermitage collections to the Urals
On 22 June 1941 German troops attacked the Soviet Union and the country was drawn into the Second World War, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Hermitage staff and hundreds of volunteers began packing up the exhibits for evacuation to an as yet unknown location. Over a million works of art were sent in two special trains to Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) in the Urals, but the Germans closed the circle around Leningrad as the third train was being prepared. The city was now entirely besieged and was to remain so for 900 days, during which hundreds of thousands of people, including Hermitage staff, were to die of starvation.
The first trains arrived in Sverdlovsk in July 1941, and the renowned Hermitage scholar Vladimir Levinson-Lessing was appointed Director of the Sverdlovsk Branch of the Hermitage.
In Leningrad, staff were busy packing up the items left behind, as well as taking in objects from the suburban palaces (most of which were soon to be occupied by the Germans) and other institutions which had not been evacuated. Despite starvation and severely cold temperatures, the Museum continued its preservational functions. With only a skeleton staff left behind, it was difficult to protect the vast buildings and their sumptuous interiors against snow, wind and rain. Equipped with first-aid kits, wearing helmets and gloves, the Museum air wardens cleared away heaps of broken bricks and the remains of charred flooring after each bomb hit the building; they helped dig out the living and the dead and bandage the wounded after raids in the surrounding area. Twelve air-raid shelters were fitted out in the basements of the Museum complex and until the first evacuations were made in March 1942 there were 12,000 people housed there permanently, among them the Museum Director, celebrated Academician Iosif Orbeli.
Hermitage staff both in Sverdlovsk and in Leningrad acted as museum attendants, continuing their scholarly activity and lecturing in hospitals, holding conferences, writing scholarly articles. No items were lost during the evacuation.
The beginning of the Great Patriotic War and evacuation of Hermitage collections to the Urals