Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Madonnas of Leningrad

Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad (New York: Harpers Perennial, 2011), 231 pages plus 16 pages of interviews and notes

Last fall, I heard an interview with Debra Dean on National Public Radio.  Her book about a woman who had worked at the Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad during World War II and was in the present suffering from Alzheimer’s sounded intriguing. When I heard the interview, I had just returned back to the United States after an incredible round-the-world trip which included a day (not nearly long enough) of admiring the vast art collection at the Hermitage.  There were several other reasons I was drawn to the book. As a teenager, I had read The 900 Days, a book about the siege of Leningrad, and some of the suffering they endured has always haunted me. Furthermore, I now have a mother with Alzheimer’s, which gave Dean’s story a personal interest.  I put her book on my to-be-read list. Finally, at a conference two weeks ago at Calvin College, I met Debra Dean, had her sign the book and immediately begin to read it.  It was a quick and enjoyable read.    

Hallway inside the Hermitage
Marina is a young woman employed as a docent at the Hermitage, which was called the State Museum of Leningrad in the 1940s.  Her parents, intellectuals, had both been taken away during Stalin’s purges.  She lives with her uncle, a famous archeologist.  When the war breaks out, her boyfriend, Dmitri, volunteers in the army and sent to the front.  As the Germans approach, the staff at the Hermitage works around the clock to secure the vast collection (taking the paintings out of the frames and packaging them and shipping them by rail to a safe spot in eastern Russia.  Two trains, each of 20 cars, haul away art.  A third train doesn’t make it out before the city is encircled by the Germans.  Marina spends the day packing and the nights on air raid lookout in a tower above the Hermitage where she reports the location of planes and fires for the bombing.  In time, things get worse and food runs short.  She learns her boyfriend’s unit was wiped out by the Germans and she also discovers she’s pregnant. 

Dean alternates between Marina’s life in the past and what’s happening in the present in which the story is told through her daughter, Helen.  Helen comes to visit the family in the Seattle area in order to attend a wedding.   From the very beginning of her visit, she realizes there is something wrong with her mother by the questions she asks (this was déjà vu for me, for my mother went through a period of questioning).  While there, she learns the awful truth of her mother’s illness, which had been hidden from her.  Then her mother disappears, which results in a crisis a after the wedding which adds tension to the story.  Although her mother’s illness is difficult for Helen to accept, she does begin to learn a little about her parent’s life before they came to the United States.  However, there are still questions as somehow her parents had been reunited in Germany and were able to resettle in the United States.     

            I enjoyed this book.  At the end of the book, there is an interview with Dean and the story of her traveling to St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) to see the museum.  This visit occurred after she had completed the book, for Dean wrote the book without having seen the Hermitage.  In the book, Marina, with the help of another older Russian woman, had memorized many of the paintings as a way to keep the museum alive during the war.  This technique allows Dean to work in the details of many of the paintings, a detail that makes the book more interesting.  I recommend this book.  
Outside the Hermitage


  1. What an incredible archway! And the book. Lives that are foreign to me, but ones I'd like to know better.

  2. Not to be picky, but that's the Winter Palace. The Hermitage proper is next door and next door but one. I believe more for ease of marketing the entire complex is named for the museum.
    Did you get out to Tsarskoye Selo.

    1. they have this in my local lib'. I get it next day I'm in town.

      It's far older that Amazon indicates.

  3. Happy to see what you've been reading! What an interesting story too, and the supporting photos are exceptional. I hope spring is blooming around your place! Take care, Karen

  4. I think I might like reading that one. Thanks for the review.

  5. What a lovely sounding book about a beautiful place.

  6. Thanks Jeff, maybe this one will go on the pile.

  7. Sounds good. It reminds me of this book I've read a couple of times.


  8. The story sounds good. Thanks for sharing Sage.

  9. It sounds like an interesting book! Maybe I'll check it out...