In June 1941 when German troops attacked the Soviet Union the staff of the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Hermitage 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 (Yekaterinburg) in the Urals, but the Germans closed the circle around Leningrad as the third train was being prepared.

With only a skeleton staff left behind, it was difficult to protect the vast buildings and their sumptuous interiors against snow, wind and rain. They were busy packing up the items left behind, as well as taking in objects from the suburban palaces. 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.

From early September 1941 the city was besieged and was to remain so for 872 days up to 27 January, 1944, during which hundreds of thousands of people, including Hermitage staff, were to die of starvation.