7.15.2014

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad
Alzheimer's is a devastating illness. Newer memories disappear, leaving only older and older memories. Marina Buriakova is slipping deeper into its grip as her husband takes her to their granddaughter's wedding. Memories that Marina has suppressed for sixty or more years are coming closer to the surface. Because she never told anyone that she was a survivor of the 872 day Siege of Leningrad, her comments serve only to make people worry even more about her state of mind. Debra Dean's hypnotic novella, The Madonnas of Leningrad, is a bittersweet meditation on the fickle nature of memory.

In the fall of 1941, Hitler's Wehrmacht storms across Russia's western frontier. The Red Army is losing men by the thousands. Marina works at the State Museum of Leningrad (the past and present Hermitage Museum) as a tour guide, but as the Wehrmacht closes in on Leningrad, she is pressed into service with the rest of the staff packing the paintings and statues for transport into safer territory. Marina then lives with her family in the bomb shelters under the museum during the long days of starvation, until the Road of Life was built over frozen Lake Ladoga.

Dean's protagonist's mind drifts between the Siege and the present. Short snatches of Marina's tour script make brief interruptions to share her love of the paintings that hung in the museum. Most of the short book takes place between 1941 and 1943. We see Marina become engaged to her future husband, Dmitri, before he left for the front. Dmitri spent most of the war in a German slave labor camp. It was a miracle that they found each other. Marina's great love in life, however, is the art she helped protect.

emptied of paintings for the duration.
Every day during the Siege, sometimes in the company of the babushka Anya, Maria walks through the empty rooms of the Hermitage. She knows the museum's collections so well that she can see the paintings and sculptures in her mind's eye. Anya teaches her how to build a memory palace so that Marina won't lose any of her mental collection. As the starvation and deprivation take their toll on Anya, the old woman starts to teach Marina about the paintings that disappeared before the war, sold by Stalin or claimed for the private collection of some apparatchik. There is an incredibly beautiful scene near the end of the Siege when Anya takes a group of very young conscripts on a tour of the empty museum and brings the paintings to life from her memory for them.

Of course, this scene grows tragic when you realize that none of her family know anything of Marina's sufferings during the war or of her deep love of art. The only way Marina could move forward was to lock everything away and never speak of it. When she reunites with Dmitri, all she does is to introduce their son, who miraculously survived the Siege with his mother. She made a home in the United States with her husband and son. Her daughter, who struggles to be an artist, knew nothing of deprivation. Now that Marina is faltering, Dmitri and her children take care of her.

I read The Madonnas of Leningrad partly because I recently read Robert Edsel's The Monuments Men and watched The Rape of Europa, a documentary on the theft of art from across Europe during World War II. All three works left me in awe of the people who were willing to die for the sake of Europe's art and architecture. Art is the height of human achievement. It's meant for future generations. Art feeds the soul. The people who worked to protect European art knew that, and it's thanks to them that we still have as much of our cultural heritage as we do. We owe them a debt that can never be paid back. Marina is fictional, but people like her lived. Her family's lack of knowledge about her past is much like history's forgetting of the Monuments Men and their allies. It was good to be learn their stories.

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