Labour of love

Art in Russia - During the siege of Leningrad, staff at the Hermitage went to remarkable lengths to

In gallery number 214 of the State Hermitage Museum, in the city once more known as St Petersburg, a young woman is standing transfixed in front of Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna Litta. She wears a neat, taupe summer dress, but her flat brown shoes are dusty. A guide is telling her group the extraordinary story of the evacuation of the Hermitage's collection during the Second World War.

Almost 60 years ago, on the morning of 4 November 1945, Gallery 214 was reopened to the public, along with 67 others containing the Hermitage's most famous treasures. It was a momentous day for the city. Hitler had specifically decreed that Leningrad be wiped from the face of the earth, and the survival of its most famous cultural institution, against overwhelming odds, had come to symbolise its invincible spirit. Thousands of visitors came to pay their respects to the devoted staff who, during the war, had managed to spirit away into hiding more than a million and a half works of art - a labour of love that cost many of them their lives.

German forces invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The next day, the director of the Hermitage, Iosif Orbeli, summoned his workforce and issued a directive to evacuate the collection. The staff were joined by artists, academics, students and Komsomol members. Orbeli chronicled the event: "Everyone who took part spent no more than one hour in every 24 eating and resting. The Hermitage was dearer to them than their own health and strength."

First, paintings were removed from their mounts and packed away, beginning with the Leonardos, Raphaels, Rembrandts, Rubenses, Vandykes and Velazquezes. Next, the museum's priceless collection of crown jewels, diamonds, precious stones, rings, coins and Scythian gold was removed. One of the most fragile artefacts was the Chertomlyk amphora, a wine ewer made of delicate beaten silver, dating from the 4th century BC. Two devoted old ladies spent days feeding crumbled cork through a small fissure in its lip, teaspoon by teaspoon. After a frenzied packing marathon, more than half a million exhibits left Leningrad by train on 1 July. Inside the museum, exhausted staff wept at the sight of walls hung with empty frames.

The train was bound for Sverdlovsk in the Urals, 1,500 miles east of the city. On 20 July a second train was despatched carrying more than 700,000 items - but a third and final consignment could not be got ready in time. The German army captured a station linking Leningrad with mainland Russia, and the journey was considered too risky. The assembled crates remained on the ground floor of the Hermitage throughout the war, while the loose porcelain was moved to the basement and buried in sand. In the winter, freezing water from a burst pipe flooded the cellar. A team of elderly lady museum guides came to the rescue, descending to the ice-cold underground lake in total darkness, treading gingerly in rubber waders to avoid crushing the submerged vases, dinner services and Meissen shepherdesses underfoot.

Ludmilla Voronikhina, an Hermitage art historian, tells me their story in flawless, elegant English, learned as a young woman to enhance her understanding of Gainsborough and Hogarth. A radio quietly plays Charles Aznavour in the next room as she speaks of her devotion to the mus-eum's treasures, which matches that of her predecessors. "Many people look but do not see. Sometimes, when all the tourists are gone, I visit Rembrandt's Portrait of An Old Man in Red. It takes time with him to understand and absorb. One has to talk to paintings, of course, but more importantly, to listen to what they have to say."

This spirit sustained the museum through terrible suffering. From September 1941, Leningrad remained under siege for almost 900 days. The food ration could not sustain life. People ate dogs, cats, pigeons, rats (and worse); boiled shoes for soup; consumed wallpaper and the flour paste behind it. The Hermitage's cellars were transformed into bomb shelters housing more than 2,000 people. Boris Piotrovsky, who later became director of the museum, describes a birthday party for his brother celebrated with frozen breadcrumbs and furniture glue for dessert, washed down with a bottle of eau de Cologne. One of the principal ways many staff survived the war was by eating restorer's glue, served up as a kind of jelly.

Despite the rigours of the siege, Hermitage workers continued to study, to debate and to work on their theses, in the bomb shelters and on lookout duty. They were regularly reprimanded for filling their gas masks with books. Natalya Flittner, an elderly Orientalist, walked to all ends of the city to lecture in hospitals and military units long after Leningrad's trams lay abandoned, frozen and half buried under snowdrifts in the streets.

Hermitage guides gave soldiers from the front tours of empty picture frames, describing in elaborate detail the paint-ings they had once held. Most audacious of all was a literary conference held at the height of the blockade, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great Uzbek poet Alisher Navoi. Hundreds of starving people gathered, in the depths of winter, to listen to a poetry recital as shells shook the building to its foundations. The museum had been fortunate in having a store of lumber with which to make its evacuation crates. Afterwards, the surplus made coffins for its dead.

The pale young lady in Gallery 214 continues to stare at Leonardo's painting. The spell is broken only when a friend takes her gently by the arm and whispers: "Olya, my dear, what's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost."