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Leningrad Siege Survivor Left To Die In Her Apartment

  • Tatyana Voltskaya
  • Claire Bigg

Samiya Khalikova as a young woman in Leningrad

Samiya Khalikova as a young woman in Leningrad

ST. PETERSBURG -- Samiya Khalikova survived war, starvation, and the Great Terror.

In the end, it was the authorities' indifference that killed her.

Khalikova, who lost most of her family to Stalin-era repressions and the World War II siege of Leningrad, died a lonely death in a state hospital earlier this month, aged 92.

She was hospitalized in April with severe pneumonia after lying on the cold floor in her St. Petersburg apartment for two whole days simply because authorities could not be bothered to open her door.

"She was treated for pneumonia and she was cured," says Elmira Urusova, a St. Petersburg resident who had helped Khalikova in the last years of her life. "But she died of heart failure -- her body didn't cope."

Urusova, the chief bibliographer at the Russian National Library, first heard about the Khalikov family from her son, an Islamic scholar.

Khalikova, herself a former National Library employee, was an ethnic Tatar.

Her father, Yakub Khalikov, was once a prominent figure of St. Petersburg's Tatar intelligentsia. A respected Muslim cleric, he was the first mullah to head the city's mosque when it opened in the 1920s. A 1928 issue of the Soviet magazine Ogonyok shows him receiving an Afghan prince at the mosque.

Three years later, Khalikov was detained and sent to a Gulag prison camp on charges that remain murky.

Today, few people remember the Khalikovs and their fate -- unique in the details, but broadly similar to that of countless families devastated by the war and the repressive Soviet machine.

Khalikova on an official document from the 1970s

Khalikova on an official document from the 1970s

In Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, more than 1 million people died from starvation and shelling during the 872-day Nazi blockade, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history.

A Soviet Survivor

Khalikova was a volunteer for the Soviet Army during the blockade.

Childless, she lived a quiet life after the war, enduring the "stagnation" under Brezhnev, the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the rise of Vladimir Putin, who officially was born in Leningrad in 1952 and has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 2000.

While Putin has been accused of seeking to tighten the Kremlin's grip with top-down rule, critics say his style of governance has only exacerbated the corruption, irresponsibility, and negligence that contribute to accidental deaths in Russia and hamper its progress.

Urusova says police reacted with indifference when she called to alert them that Khalikova was not opening her front door or responding to phone calls.

A police officer arrived several hours later but refused to open the door, instead sending Urusova to the prosecutor's office to obtain a warrant. Prosecutors redirected her to the Investigative Committee, which, in turn, sent her back to the prosecutor's office.

Desperate, Urusova turned to the head of Khalilova's housing cooperative. His answer left her stunned.

Uncaring Officials

"He told me he would not allow anyone to open the door," she says. "He said he would open it only when the place starts to smell."

Urusova was able to enter the apartment only two days later. She found Khalilova collapsed on the concrete floor near the balcony, wearing only a nightshirt.

Khalikova wasn't at the end of her ordeal.

Paramedics refused to put her in their ambulance on the grounds that she had suffered neither a heart attack nor a stroke. Only when she was burning up with fever, her breathing shallow, did they agree to drive her to a hospital.

Seven weeks later, on June 12, Samiya Khalikova died at St. Petersburg's St. George Hospital.

She was buried on June 18 in the Muslim section of the city's southern cemetery, with the help of the mosque where her father had once been a mullah.

No relative came to bid farewell to Khalikova. The elderly woman appears to have been the last surviving member of her family.

Among the handful of former colleagues and acquaintances who came to pay their respects was historian and ethnographer Amira Tagirzhanova.

Family Tragedies

Tagirzhanova said Khalikova's circle of relatives and friends was decimated during the 1930s in what she describes as a Kremlin campaign to crush ethnic minorities.

Khalikova's brother and her sister starved to death during the siege of Leningrad. Her only surviving sibling, a sister, died several years ago.

"The Tatar intelligentsia was almost entirely wiped out," said Tagirzhanova. "Most of those who survived were children who grew up in an atheist environment and villagers who had little education."

The grandfather of Tagirzhanova's husband, a prominent Muslim theologian, had known Khalikova's father. This connection is immortalized in a photograph preciously kept in the Tagirzhanovs' family archive.

Tagirzhanova says Yakub Khalikov's 1931 arrest may have been connected with her husband's family.

"I knew that her father had been repressed and that the crackdown had been very harsh," she said. "Several people were detained that night shortly after my husband's grandfather illegally left the country."

Father's Persecution

Khalikov was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. Khalikova's uncle on her mother's side was soon arrested, too, followed by her grandfather, Ibrahim Batyrbayev.

Batyrbayev was another noted Muslim figure in St. Petersburg known for having been decorated by the emir of Bukhara, the head of the defunct Emirate of Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan.

None of them returned from the camps.

Batyrbayev's son Suleiman was also detained, dispatched to the Gulag in Magadan, in eastern Siberia, and executed.

While Soviet-era repressions swept across the vast country regardless of class, background, or age, historians say educated non-Russians were systematically targeted.

"The national intelligentsia was destroyed in all the republics: Ukraine, Belarus, Buryatia, everywhere," said historian Yakov Gordin. "Soviet authorities understood that these people carried a national identity, a certain sense of cultural, spiritual, and national independence. This could not be encouraged. Any independent cultural movement was perceived as a threat to the central government."

Among all the tragedies that marked Khalikova's life, there was one heartwarming piece of news. She was able to find out that her father, believed to have died in the camps, actually survived and was released in 1937, at the height of Stalin's Terror and four years before the end of his sentence -- nothing short of a miracle at the time.

Yakub Khalikov, however, never made it home.

To the end of her life, his daughter never found out what happened to him.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​