War becomes such a larger than life affair that the everyday struggles of civilians are often forgotten or overlooked in its flash-bang nature. Yet, it is these civilians who, come war, hail or high water, are the ones who plod through their daily lives while the fight rages on around them; and in the end are the ones most affected by it too. Perhaps it strikes too close to the truth of our everyday existence, and so we choose to focus on the forest instead of the trees. But there are those even among the teeming masses whose stories stand out and make us look beyond the heroes to those beside them.
The Madonnas of Leningrad is one such tale of an ordinary citizen surviving the daily horrors of war, blending not just the past and present, but also youth and old age, and the ravages of time on every single one of us. Though primarily set in the World War 2 period, the central theme is not that of war. It is of an every-person living through conflict that they neither asked for nor wanted, and the toll it takes on them many years into the future as their mind slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s, to the point where they can no longer differentiate between now and the times gone past. Debra Dean builds up the story based on her personal experiences with her grandparents who lived through the war and through Alzheimer’s, and her descriptions of the way the past takes over the present at any time without warning will be all too real for those who know of or care for Alzheimer’s patients.
It is also one of the few books that show the Russian perspective; more importantly, the perspective of the Russian common person. Marina is a docent at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and a large part of the story is dominated by her experiences during the Siege of Leningrad (originally St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, and now St. Petersburg again). Although not as well-known as the siege of Stalingrad, it was nonetheless equally brutal and harrowing, particularly for the civilian population. The near-starvation level rations, the frugal living conditions, the apathy developed over time towards suffering and death, all are painted in stark relief by Dean.
The story begins with Marina and Dmitri, her husband (and lifelong friend) preparing to travel for their granddaughter’s wedding. Both are well into their sixties, and though she does a good job of pretending it doesn’t exist, Marina has been diagnosed with first stage Alzheimer’s and dementia. The only other person who knows is their son Andrei. Pretending is more difficult when she simply drifts from the present into the past without any warning, as it happens during the packing. The suitcase triggers memories of the Hermitage for Marina, with visions of all the precious paintings and statuary being crated and shipped away from the city to keep it out of the hands of the advancing Germans. She also remembers Dmitri enlisting in the People’s Volunteer Army, made up of civilians taking up the defense of their city. As the city slowly gets surrounded by the Germans during one of the worst winters in history, Dmitri proposes marriage to her one day before shipping out, and it is the first and only time they make love before the war ends.
Marina and Dmitri are both children of parents who have been arrested and eliminated during Stalin’s Great Purge. While Dmitri grows up in an orphanage, Marina is adopted by her uncle Viktor, an archaeologist who works at the Hermitage. A survivor of the Purge, Viktor has learned to toe the official Party line, and enforces the same doctrine on Marina and his own family. At the same time, he ensures she gets a good education and is responsible for getting her hired at the Hermitage as a docent. Despite the different upbringing, Marina and Dmitri stay the closest of friends due to their shared tragedy.
The journey to the past is interrupted by the arrival of Helen, Marina’s daughter, who is escorting them to the wedding. She is also there as an unwilling accomplice to her brother Andrei, who has been unsuccessfully trying to convince Marina and Dmitri to move to an assisted living home where they would be looked after – instead of by themselves – and who is planning to reopen the conversation post his daughter’s wedding. Though she can’t exactly pinpoint it, Helen is perceptive enough to understand all is not what it looks like with her mother; signs like asking after Helen’s husband when they have been divorced for about ten years now, and offering to make tea for her minutes after she has refused it. Her questions to Dmitri are met with evasive answers.
As they move out in Helen’s car, her father’s evasiveness causes her to recollect another strange aspect of her parents – they never talk about their experiences; not with their children, and certainly not with anyone else. She has only seen it in small habits they cannot shake off, like never throwing anything away, repairing clothes and machinery instead of replacing it, or making sure no food is ever wasted. Growing up, it irked her. Now, she understands it is a result of the experiences they choose not to talk about. And indeed, as they line up to board the ferry that will bring them to Andrei’s place, the sight of the line itself begins yet another trip for Marina.
She sees herself with her uncle Viktor, his wife Nadezhda and their children standing in line for the buses that will be taking the children out of the war-torn city, deeper into Russian territory as yet untouched by the Germans. Nadezhda is reluctant to let the children go by themselves, but Viktor insists it’s for their own safety. Marina helps keep the children calm, and once they are aboard the bus, the three of them head to the Hermitage, where all employees of the Museum are living together in the vast basement. This, according to the Party, will be safer and the employees can continue their duties, such as they are. Marina, since there are no more tours to be conducted, is one of the designated night-time air raid wardens, and in her spare time during the day roams around the empty museum rooms as a means of getting away from the crowded basement.
During her walks she strikes up a friendship with Anya, one of the babushkas who work in the Museum. Anya has been a part of the museum from when it was the exclusive property of the Tsars, and regales Marina with tales of the gatherings and the paintings that existed before the Communists came to power. Her favourites are the Madonnas, which are among the Hermitage’s prized collections, and on whom she can spend hours. She also drops hints about some of the ‘missing art work’ ostentatiously declared to have never existed at all, but in fact sold off by the Communists on the international art black market during the early days of their coming to power. Marina marvels at her eidetic memory when it comes to recalling the artwork no longer present, and Anya shares her secret of having created a ‘Memory Palace’ many years ago that allows her to visually recreate the entire Museum from scratch. She starts teaching Marina the same technique, insisting that someone ‘remember the place as it was’.
The process is grueling, specially when hunger and discomfort are constant companions who make it an effort to focus on anything else. But Anya and Marina both persevere at the task; Anya because the legacy needs to be continued, and Marina because it gives her a sense of purpose beyond the everyday hardships. Their daily routine consists of walking through every room sequentially, where Anya describes the artworks that hung there, including the intricate work on the frames and the history of the piece itself. Marina commits it all to memory, and when the exercise is repeated the next day, she can for the most part remember what was told; her retention strengthens with each passing day, and even Anya is pleased with the results.
In the present, Marina, Dmitri and Helen reach Andrei’s house, where they take part in the wedding rehearsal. As the rehearsal ends and the wedding party relaxes, Marina has another of her flashbacks, where during the siege she discovers she is pregnant, an event that gives her more will to survive and be reunited with Dmitri once the war is over. Only this time, her daughter-in-law Naureen notices it. Being aware of her diagnosis through Andrei, Naureen helps ease her abrupt transition to the present by conversing with her until her disorientation passes. For Marina, who has always been proud of her memory, “More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places.” It causes her to sadly compare herself to the Museum during the spring thaw, “I am becoming like the museum. Everything, it is leaking. It is horrible.”
The events of the day result in Helen calling out Andrei for not telling her about Marina’s condition. At first defensive, he finally admits he should have, and the siblings and Naureen have an open conversation about their parent’s habits and reminiscing about how much they have been influenced by them.
For Marina, the day ends with another flashback in the middle of the night. As the ever-patient Dmitri cajoles her into sleeping again, he recollects his reunion with her, which he regards as nothing less than miraculous. Liberated at the end of the war from a German POW camp, he has no idea of what has happened either to his city or to Marina, when they suddenly meet each other in the camp premises. Through his years of imprisonment, his imaginary conversations with her have kept him sane and strong enough to survive, but he thinks he has finally snapped and is hallucinating. His doubt vanishes quickly enough, and he sees she isn’t alone; he meets his son for the first time. He learns from Marina that she too was taken prisoner while evacuating Leningrad, and ended up here. We realize here why they prefer to not talk about their war time experiences with anyone; Dmitri faked their identities as Polish Ukranians to migrate to America since admitting they were Russian would have made it impossible for them to do so.
The depth of Dmitri’s love for Marina is as evident as his raw sadness and frustration at the fact that he once found her in the face of impossible odds, but now, “She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves.”
The next day, the wedding goes off smoothly, but the sight of the food heaped on the tables during the wedding reception brings Marina back to Leningrad. After more than a year of living in the basement of the Hermitage, with ever shortening rations, her uncle Viktor is slowly starving to death. Marina remembers undertaking the herculean task of going back to their apartment to retrieve a block of chocolate that was left behind to feed him. She finds and brings back not only the chocolate but a letter from Dmitri, more than a few months old, that tells her he has been taken prisoner; but despite her efforts, Viktor dies the next day. As she and her aunt carry away Viktor’s corpse, she remarks to herself of her inability to cry, so inured is she to the everyday occurrence of death.
Soon after, as the Germans draw ever closer, the city is being evacuated of all non-essential personnel. The Museum orders Marina and her aunt to evacuate, but Marina insists on staying back out of a sense of duty; the Memory Palace isn’t complete yet. She argues and pleads with the museum Director that she be allowed to stay back. The Director argues back that someone needs to accompany her aunt, as she is frail and needs looking after; but it becomes a moot point when Nadezhda too passes away, within a month of Viktor’s death. With no family to speak of, and nowhere to go, the Director allows Marina to stay back, an arrangement that pleases both her and Anya.
Present day, the peace of the night after the wedding is shattered when Dmitri wakes up to find Marina missing from their room. Helen contacts the police, and as the night turns to day without Marina being found, the task turns into a large-scale search and rescue operation with volunteers pouring in from the entire town and beyond. The local elementary school becomes an impromptu command center, with Helen and Andrei accompanying the search teams and Dmitri and Naureen assisting the returning teams with food and drink as they await any word of rescue.
Far removed from all the activity, Marina is in a world of her own. Wearing just a nightgown, her muddled mind associates the cold she feels with the perpetual cold of Leningrad, and she relives the last tour she ever gave of the Hermitage. It is spring time, she is heavily pregnant with Andrei, and as she and Anya walk in the museum gardens converted to vegetable patches, she comes across a group of soldiers, not much more than boys, who have been helping with the cleaning of the museum. She offers to give them a tour as a means of expressing her gratitude for their help. As she moves from one room to another, describing to the soldiers the paintings that only exist in her memory, her past and her present overlap to where she can no longer tell the ending of one from the beginning of the other.
As she paints vivid pictures with her words for the boys who have never seen such beauty before, her eloquence and fervor make them almost see and touch the precious artworks themselves. And as she points first to one wall then the other, she is discovered thus by one of the searchers, who though he cannot understand her is nonetheless overwhelmed by her intensity. Years later, as Helen sits with Marina in the assisted living home, she remembers clearly what the searcher said as he brought her back, “You had to be there. She was showing me the world.”
Dean’s book is a beautiful, raw accounting of life during the war, but what makes it poignant is the beauty that exists despite the war standing out without being obvious. The choices people are faced with, the purpose they build for themselves, and the love that persists regardless of distance and regardless of life itself, is moving without being kitschy. The suddenness of the past edging out the present with no control over it gives the reader an inkling of what it is like to live in Marina’s world, and the feeling lingers with you long after you have finished reading. Though a bit of a heavy read due to its various art references, it is a book I would recommend to all readers.