Ellen Revisits Russia Through the Magic of Books
Those of us who grew up during the Cold War learned of a dark and dangerous Soviet Empire led by power-hungry and slightly crazy rulers who had their fingers poised above the red button threatening to unleash nuclear missiles at the slightest provocation. They were the ‘other’ superpower in world politics who beat us in the race to space and in school we practiced what to do in case they attacked us with a nuclear bomb by hiding under our desks.
Therefore, when I visited Russia in March of 1989 as a chaperone to a group of high school students, I was shocked at what I saw and learned about the people of Russia. While the Soviet government was threatening the US with mutually assured destruction in the 1960s, the people of Russia were still trying to recover from their brutal experiences at the Eastern front of WWII where they lost almost 25 million people, mostly civilians. It felt to me like a Third World country in many ways, not the threatening superpower of the American Cold War propaganda. Ever since that 1989 visit, I have been intrigued by Russia, her history and her people.
This past winter as the Olympics were being held in Sochi, I revisited Russia in my reading. John Boyne’s novel, The House of Special Purpose, caught my attention because it featured the czar’s Winter Palace, now the world class art museum known as The Hermitage which we visited in 1989. In The House of Special Purpose, the reader experiences the contrast between the poverty-stricken lives of the Russian peasants and their powerful czars through the eyes of the main character, Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev, who is randomly plucked from his poor village to live and work for the czar’s family. As Georgy grows to manhood in the service of the Czar’s family, he and the reader get to know Rasputin and the family of Nicolas and Alexandra. This is also a heart-breaking love story spanning several decades, told in a series of flashbacks by Georgy as he contemplates a return visit to the Russia he and his beloved wife escaped during the Russian Revolution. This is a lovely book for those interested a sweeping love story set in revolutionary Russia, as long as they aren’t bothered by some serious artistic license taken by the author.
Another improbable love story set in war-torn Russia is The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. Also told in a series of flashbacks, this book tells the story of the Marina who was a tour guide at the Hermitage when the Germans surrounded and attacked the city for over three years. Her job then was to remove and memorize where she stored the invaluable Madonna paintings in the lower level of the museum for safekeeping, a dangerous job as bombs fell all around them and food supplies dwindled to nothing. When I visited St. Petersburg, we toured Piskaryov Memorial Cemetery, now a memorial to the 470,000 civilian and 100,000 soldiers, where the victims of the Seige are buried in mass graves. The Madonnas of Leningrad helped me begin to understand what life was like during the three-year long Siege for those who lived through it and made me think about the strength and courage of the Russian people who survived.
Finally this winter, I revisited Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, after first reading this book about 30 years earlier. The first time I read this book, I was swept up by Anna’s courageous attempt to claim love for herself outside a loveless marriage. This time, I was more interested in the politics and lifestyle of Anna and the other characters of the tsarist high society. For them, the recently freed peasants, were from another world completely and their interactions were proscribed by propriety. Tolstoy’s genius, for me anyway, is his ability to bring his characters to life. I felt Anna’s pain and understood in a way I couldn’t thirty years early, why hers was a doomed romance. If a reader is a bit leery of such a huge novel or intimidated by trying to remember those Russian names, I would recommend this book on audio.
Someday, I would love to return to Russia and re-visit its beautiful museums and churches. In the meantime, reading about her remarkable people has been quite satisfying. Next I’m planning to listen to Robert Massie’s biography Catherine the Great---A Portrait of a Woman.