Pavlovian response

Ivan Pavlov’s research into classical conditioning and reflex systems made his pack of laboratory dogs world famous. However, not even their celebrity as stars of the scientific world could save them during the horrendous Siege of Leningrad. As conditions worsened, the successors to Pavlov’s original dogs were eaten by famished researchers.

Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist but is best remembered for his psychological observations that developed into classical conditioning theory. Pavlov had noticed that dogs in the laboratory would salivate when an assistant entered the room. Sometimes the assistants were bringing food, but sometimes they were not – the dogs would salivate regardless of any confirmatory sensations of food being present.

Pavlov asserted that the dogs had learned to associate the laboratory assistants with food, and to respond on sight of their white coats by salivating. Pavlov would go on to experiment with other, previously neutral stimuli. A metronome was put in motion and food was presented. After several trials, the dogs would salivate on hearing the metronome.

Pavlov and his dogs became famous throughout the world. Pavlov was the prime mover behind the erection of a ‘Statue to the Experimental Dog’, proclaiming canine service to biological science near the department of physiology. In addition, a statue depicting Pavlov with a dog was erected in Sukhumi. Pavlov died in 1936 at the age of 86 and was thus spared the horror of the Siege of Leningrad.

With pets, zoo animals and even vermin now on the menu, there was no escape for Pavlov’s dogs – no matter how famous they had been. In the end and somewhat ironically, staff, including those white coated assistants, at the Leningrad Physiological Institute would consume them – perhaps prolonging their own lives until the siege was lifted.

Ironically, another Pavlov was in charge of Leningrad’s food distribution system. Dmitri Pavlov was the wartime head of the national food supply agency. His job was a thankless task – too many people depended on the precarious lifeline that existed between the city and the rest of the country over Lake Ladoga.

More people died in the Siege of Leningrad than the combined World War Two losses of the United Kingdom and United States combined. The Siege, also known as the Leningrad Blockade, lasted 872 days and, according to some estimates, resulted in over a million deaths each from the Red Army and the civilian population.

Many of the civilian deaths came from starvation, particularly in the savage winter of 1941 – 1942. During this period, the official bread ration was reduced to 125 grams – the bulk of even this meagre sustenance comprising sawdust and plaster. It was estimated that the authorities could only provide roughly 300 calories per day to the majority of the population. Cannibalism became such a threat to morale that the Leningrad Police formed a unit to deal with cannibals.

Leningrad was rewarded with the Order of Lenin to commemorate its bravery. But it would take more than laudatory speeches and medals to restore the city – its population collapsed to 600,000 and only returned to its pre-war level of three million in the 1960s.

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