Russian solidarity in Airdrie and Coatbridge during the Second World War: the Leningrad Album in context

The Discovery Room at Airdrie Local Studies houses the facsimile of the Leningrad Album, a collection of letters, watercolours, prints and lithographs compiled by the women of besieged Leningrad. Addressed to the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge, the album was created in response to the friendship and solidarity exhibited by these women during the Siege of Leningrad. The existence of the Album is a symbol of the resilience of the people of Leningrad; it was created within the most horrendous conditions, with over a million people dying from starvation and the cold while German troops surrounded the city.

The Siege of Leningrad

In the early hours of 22 June 1941, German forces invaded the Soviet Union, launching a surprise attack along an 1800-mile border. Within a week, at the rate of 30 miles a day, German troops of ‘Operation Barbarossa’ had advanced some 200 miles into Russian territory. Through the use of blitzkrieg tactics, the Soviet Air Force was almost obliterated by the second day, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner. By mid-August, Army Group North, led by General Wilhelm von Leeb, had overran the Baltic States and advanced towards Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The German troops surrounded the city, cutting it off from the rest of Russia. Three million people were trapped. There was no public transportation, no heating, no water supply, and minimal electricity; food rations were 125 grams of bread a day. The winter of 1941-42 had been the worst on record in 20th Century Europe, and by the end of 1941, tens of thousands of people were dead; within two years, that number increased to over a million.

The siege continued for 900 days. Yet the people of Leningrad never surrendered.

The Two Albums

Their resilience inspired Britain. Many groups and organisations were established, participating in local and national campaigns intended to convey admiration and solidarity through the raising of funds or sending of supplies. In Airdrie, the Russia Today Society decided to collect the signatures of local women to send to the women of Leningrad. Through the establishment of the Airdrie and Coatbridge Housewives’ Organisations, volunteers approached local women’s groups, factories, churches and cooperative societies, collecting over 6000 signatures in just two weeks. They were compiled into an album, which was illustrated and bound by local art teacher Margaret Plant; she included a thistle on the cover, alongside the Buchanan tartan, and incorporated the verses of Robert Burns and Janet Hamilton throughout the work.

In December 1941, the Airdrie and Coatbridge album was presented to the Soviet Embassy in London by Agnes Maxwell, secretary of the Women’s Anglo-Soviet Committee, and four other housewives, on behalf of thousands of women. Somehow, the album made its way through supply routes to the women in Leningrad, who greeted it enthusiastically, despite struggling with hunger, disease and death. In response, they put together an album of their own, containing many beautiful letters, watercolours, prints and lithographs. After the Leningrad Album arrived in Glasgow in 1943, it was then featured as the focal point of an exhibition in Airdrie, held at the Sir John Wilson Town Hall. ‘Russia Week’, the last week of February 1943, paid tribute to the people of Russia and their courage, with displays of photographs of the Soviet Union, and the Red Flag flown above the Town Hall. Since then, the Album has been under the care of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow.

Airdrie Anglo-Soviet Women's Committee, 10 October 1942.

Airdrie Anglo-Soviet Women’s Committee, 10 October 1942.

Further Solidarity

Elsewhere, the Red Army persisted in fighting the German troops. Alongside the collection of signatures, sent to Leningrad in the spirit of solidarity, the people of Airdrie and Coatbridge still wished to convey further admiration and support for the wider Russian population. They enthusiastically heeded the call for assistance by Lord Kinnaird and Clementine Churchill, and contributed to campaigns such as the Russian Red Cross Fund, the ‘Help for Russia’ Fund, and the National Anglo-Soviet Medical Aid Fund.

Medical Aid – The Airdrie Women’s Anglo-Soviet Committee – headed by Agnes Maxwell, Janet Neil and Agnes Hughes – coordinated local efforts to assist with the National Anglo-Soviet Medical Aid Fund and the Joint Committee for Soviet Aid. In June 1943, as part of a nationwide campaign to provide for a £75,000 wing at Stalingrad Hospital, the local Women’s Committee raised over £150 for a new hospital bed, which had a plaque bearing the inscription “from the people of Airdrie”.

Informative and entertainment events were held to raise funds for, and awareness of, the Russian cause. There were a wide variety of events, to cater for all – from film showings and charity concerts, to dances and exhibitions.

Cinemas – Cinemas were used to promote the cause, host charity events, and show informative films about Soviet Russia. In October 1941, a week-long collection drive was held in local cinemas, in aid of the Russian Red Cross Society, with the film ‘Salute to the Soviet’ shown each evening. At the Ritz in Cambuslang, attendees were asked “to be as liberal as possible with their donations”, and at the Regal in Coatbridge, “prominent citizens” from the area appealed for funds every night (Cambuslang Pilot, 17 October 1941, and Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, 25 October 1941).

Mr. MacColl reminded his audience that the Scottish people had never failed in helping those in despair and suffering. […] Throughout the week, the special film ‘Salute To Soviet Russia’ has been screened, while members of the local Red Cross detachment have taken up collections from the audiences

Coatbridge Leader, 1 November 1941

Concerts – In aid of the local ‘Help For Russia’ fund, there were multiple concerts held in Coatbridge in the winter of 1941. The Coatbridge Co-operative Society’s Junior Choir gave their first public performance on 16 December 1941; the choir sang “Uist Tramping Song” and “The Faery Chorus”, alongside duets, piano solos and readings. On 28 December 1941, the Glasgow Orpheus Choir played a large concert at Coatbridge Town Hall, organised by the Coatbridge Co-operative Society; pieces sung by the choir included “Aye, Waukin’ O!”, “My Ain Hoose”, “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers”, and “O, Men From The Fields”.

Knitting Circles – Since the First World War, the knitting of ‘comforts’ had been a popular method of supporting soldiers, sailors and prisoners of war. The winter of 1941-42 was one of the coldest in Europe, which exacerbated the terrible situation in Leningrad. As a result, local knitting circles – such as those formed in Greenhill and Sunnyside – produced hundreds of socks, scarves, gloves and other garments, to be sent as parcels via the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, or sold to raise funds for the Russian Red Cross.

Clarkston Knitting Bee, 13 April 1940.

Clarkston Knitting Bee, 13 April 1940.

Dances and social events – Social events, such as dances and whist drives, were often used to lift people’s spirits and to help raise funds for the wider war effort. Dances in aid of the Russian Red Cross were held at the Miner’s Institute in Baillieston, and at the St. Andrew’s Church Hall in Gartcosh. Such events would often be rowdy, and sometimes followed by letters of complaint in the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser!

Beyond The War

The relationship between Russia and North Lanarkshire continues to this day. In 1985, the original Leningrad Album was exhibited in Airdrie and Coatbridge, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War; while the album from the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge is preserved in St. Petersburg, at the Peter and Paul Fortress, State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg.

In 1995, the St. Petersburg Forum was established, to coordinate and celebrate links between Scotland and Russia. Members of the Forum have travelled to St. Petersburg to celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns, and have hosted visits by young Russian students to North Lanarkshire and Glasgow.

Pupils of School 61 in St Petersburg viewing the facsimile of the Leningrad Album at Airdrie Local Studies.

Pupils of School 61 in St Petersburg viewing the facsimile of the Leningrad Album at Airdrie Local Studies.

Finally, there is the twinning relationship between Coatbridge (later, Monklands District), and Gatchina, in Leningrad Oblast, Russia. There are several items in the Museums Collection, gifted to the Monklands District from Gatchina; some of these can be viewed at the Leningrad Album display in Airdrie Local Studies.

View the Leningrad Album and associated material

The original Leningrad Album is at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. The facsimile of the Leningrad Album as well as the local newspaper coverage of the fund raising events in Airdrie and Coatbridge can be viewed at Airdrie Local Studies, in Airdrie Public Library. The collection of photographs of the Airdrie and Coatbridge album as well as the associated correspondence of Agnes Maxwell (Collection Reference U197) can be viewed at North Lanarkshire Archives, North Lanarkshire Heritage Centre, Motherwell. Please contact us at HeritageCentre@culturenl.co.uk.

About the Author

Hannah Henthorn has been the Local Studies and Archives Assistant, working at Airdrie Local Studies and North Lanarkshire Heritage Centre since July 2018.