Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2019

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad was another impulse loan from the library: the title struck me as incongruous (Religious iconography/Soviet name for St Petersburg), so although the blurb on the back was just the sort of generic praise you expect from an American ‘national bestseller’ I was intrigued enough to read the inside blurb:

Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina’s grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children’s lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.

In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signalling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city’s inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum’s priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls—a symbol of the artworks’ eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe’s bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brushstroke by brushstroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a “memory palace,” a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . .

I borrowed the book, half-expecting to be disappointed.  I opened it late last night, to see if I should include it with books for return to the library today – and kept reading, finishing it just before lunch this morning.  The book succeeds on three levels: it is an authentic portrayal of a family coming to terms with a parent ageing with Alzheimer’s; it brings to life the spirit of the people during the 1941-44 (872 days) German Siege of Leningrad during WWII, and it is a magical evocation of the Hermitage artwork which was stored for safety during the bombardment.

The luncheon (Tres hombres a la mesa ) by Diego Velázquez c1617(Wikipedia Commons*)

The book begins with a very short scene with an unforgettable image. Visitors to the Spanish Skylight Hall in the Hermitage are standing before this painting.  It is The Luncheon (Tres hombres a la mesa) by Diego Velasquez, easily located via Google.  The guide’s description focusses on what they are eating:

Over here, to our left, is a table with a heavy white cloth.  Three Spanish peasants are eating lunch. The fellow in the centre is raising the decanter of wine and offering us a drink. Clearly, they are enjoying themselves.  Their luncheon is light—a dish of sardines, a pomegranate, and a loaf of bread—but it is more than enough.  A whole loaf of bread, and white bread at that, not the blockade bread that is mostly wood shavings.

The other residents of the museum are allotted only three small chunks of bread each day.  Bread the size and colour of pebbles.  And sometimes frozen potatoes, potatoes dug from a garden at the edge of the city.  Before the siege, Director Orbeli ordered great quantities of linseed oil to repaint the walls of the museum.  We fry bits of potato in the linseed oil.  Later, when the potatoes and oil are gone, we make a jelly out of the glue used to bind frames and eat that. (p.1-2)

The text then switches to the thoughts of an elderly woman in America.  Marina is in her own kitchen but she doesn’t know why.  She can’t remember if she’s had breakfast but she starts to poach some eggs anyway.  Her husband Dmitri comes in with dirty dishes, sees her confusion and gently steers her out of the kitchen.  They need to get ready for a wedding…

And so the story progresses.  In the present the narrators extend to include Dmitri, struggling with the gradual loss of his beloved wife, and their daughter Helena who hasn’t seen her mother for a while and is shocked by her deterioration.  Marina cannot make new memories any more, and lives increasingly in her traumatic past.  It is Helena, puzzled by snippets leaking into the present, who reveals that her parents have never talked about their life in the USSR or how they came to America after the war.  Helena is baffled when her mother talks about living in a cellar under the Hermitage, or about eating glue.  Helena represents an America which knows nothing about the Soviets turning back the Nazi advance in WWII: the silence about this is because of Cold War (and persisting) denialism about the debt the West owes to the USSR for the defeat of Germany.  Most poignant of all, Helena is also ignorant about mythology: she doesn’t recognise the significance of her mother’s belief that her brother Andrei was conceived with Zeus in a shower of gold.

Marina’s narrative mostly comes from her ‘memory palace’, a technique taught to her by the babushka Anya, who has used it herself to remember the days of the Hermitage under the Romanovs.  The technique consists of imagining a palace whose rooms are furnished with items of memory.  Marina’s memory palace is the Hermitage itself, and as the museum’s treasures are crated up and evacuated to safety she fills each room with her memory of the paintings that she used to show visitors when she was a tour guide.  The slideshow below shows you (most of) the paintings that are referenced, but trust me, you do not need to know these paintings to enjoy the book: Debra Dean’s lush descriptions make the reader ‘see’ the paintings, as Marina sees them even though they are no longer on the walls, and as she later sees them when her memory is all but gone.

The Leonardo Room is as hushed as a nursery.  Here there are no frames, only the two freestanding panels that held Leonardo’s Madonnas.  Marina pauses at the first panel and recites. “The Madonna and Child, known also as the Benois Madonna, by Leonardo da Vinci.  An early work of Leonardo’s, one of two Madonnas begun by him in Florence in 1478.  This is one of the few undisputed originals by the master.”

Of all the Madonnas in the museum, Marina could never forget this one.  She loved this mother and child and misses them with a particular ache.  The Mary is completely human, not a remote beauty but a young girl delighted with the surprise of this child, and the Christ Child is so fat and dimpled, a fleshy baby like Misha when he was younger.  He perches on little Mary’s lap, his pudgy fingers grasping at the flower she holds up to his gaze and studying it as a scientist might.  Secretly, she thinks of this painting as hers.  With Mary’s high forehead, they even resemble each other, and Marina has sometimes fantasised that she herself could be the model. (p.78, Misha is Marina’s cousin, evacuated with other children to the Urals.)

The slide show is just an indulgence for myself.  For photo attributions, see below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I could also have added images of the still life paintings referenced in the book because they figure more prominently as the siege intensifies: there are lavish descriptions of fish, geese and game and the profusion of fruits and vegetables that characterise still life.  Hitler’s clear intention was to raze the entire city and there was to be no surrender: he was indifferent to the gruesome fate of its starving inhabitants. The official death toll was 632,000 people but this does not include people who died at home or on the street and whose bodies were never found.  In the novel Marina gives food to a starving woman on the street knowing that she will die anyway; though she becomes used to the staggering death rate she does not lose her humanity.  If she does not share what she has the last bit of her that is human will die.  

The paintings, as I saw for myself when I visited the Hermitage in 2012, are only half the magic.  This short film was part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s promotion for Masterpieces from the Hermitage, in its 2015 Winter Masterpieces Exhibition,  and it gives an idea of the scale of the palace, the architecture within, and some of the sculptures.  And while guides were required to recite the Soviet propaganda, for Marina, these were not empty words.

“In pre-Marxist society, this was considered the private property of the ruling class, but after the Great Socialist Revolution, it was liberated and returned to the workers who created it.” Her sweeping gesture would direct their eyes down the grand staircase and back up again to the soaring ceilings.

“Comrades, this is all yours.”

This is the official welcome, lines scripted by some Party functionary, but for her it is not empty propaganda.  She herself is still amazed: they are her paintings.  She is like a lover who still sees her beloved in the trembling golden light of their first meeting. (p.27)

There are other novels that I know of that reference the Siege of Leningrad. Two are about the composer Shostakovich and his famous 7th ‘Leningrad’ Symphony: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes and The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley. There is also The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine, Translated by Geoffrey Strachan which is also about a survivor who lives on into old age, but in his case, he is a relic of the past living in the glitzy ‘new’ Russia.  Andreï Makine is a Russian émigré whose fiction is melancholy and elegiac, while Dean’s novel—perhaps because it is written at greater distance— finds beauty, joy and humanity even in extremis…

Remarkably, from the author’s note at the back of the book, it seems it is true that the staff of the Hermitage left the empty frames on the walls, and…

… Though there was nothing left to see, visitors continued to show up at the museum throughout the war, and one of the curators occasionally gave tours, leading ragged groups of starving Leningraders through the deserted halls and describing the paintings that once hung inside the frames. It was said he described the missing paintings so well that his listeners swore they could see the images. (P.S. at the back of the book, p.12)

I think you can tell that I greatly admired this book!

*Image attributions

The Luncheon by Diego Velázquez Public domain, Wikipedia Commons

Slideshow (all in the public domain.)

  • A Woman in Blue (Portrait of the Duchess of Beaufort) by Thomas Gainsborough, Wikiart
  • The Stolen Kiss by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Wikipedia
  • Metellus Raising the Siege by Armand-Charles Caraffe  Wikipedia 
  • Judith by Giorgione – Hermitage Museum, Public Domain, Wikipedia
  • Assumption of Mary Magdalene into Heaven by Domenichino Wikipedia
  • Martrydom of Saint Peter by Lionello Spada, Wikigallery
  • The Holy Women at the Sepulchre by Annibale Carracci, Wikipedia
  • Madonna (half diptych) by Simone Martini 1373-1452, Wikimedia Commons
  • The Perspective View of the War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace, by Grigory Chernetsov, Wikipedia 
  • Hall of Heroes, the 1812 Gallery at the Hermitage, photo by Lisa Hill, taken on my 2012 trip to St Petersburg.  It shows empty frames for heroes who died in the Napoleonic War without ever having had their portraits painted.
  • Benois Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci, Wikipedia
  • Litta Madonna by Leonardo da Vinci, Wikipedia
  • Saskia as Flora by Rembrandt van Rijn, Wikipedia
  • Old Woman with a Book by Ferdinand Bol, Art Hermitage
  • The Myth of Danae by Rembrandt van Rijn Wikipedia
  • The Bean King by Jacob Jordaens Art Hermitage
  • Conestabile Madonna by Raphael 1502-4 Wikipedia
  • Alba Madonna by Raphael 1510 Wikipedia.  (This is one was sold by Stalin to fund rapid industrialisation, to an American art collector.  In the story, Anya remembers it but Marina doubts her.  I haven’t included any of the others that Anya remembers, but you can find them via the link.)
  • Raphael Madonna with Beardless Joseph by Raphael Wikimedia

BTW At the top of this post I have chosen to highlight the cover image from the original 2006 William Morrow edition (ISBN 9780060825300) because I think the Harper Perennial paperback cover design (at left, ISBN 9780060825317) is so awful, surpassed only in awfulness by the one at right, featuring the completely irrelevant naked back female cliché in the Harper Perennial edition with ISBN 9780007215065. My cynical guess at the reasons for this spectacular awfulness is that the marketing department at Harper Collins thought that a mass market readership wouldn’t ‘connect’ with the image on the original cover, which although not great artwork, at least conveys an aspect of the story. Narcissism has a lot to answer for.

Author: Debra Dean
Title: The Madonnas of Leningrad
Publisher: Harper Perennials, Harper Collins, 2007, first published 2006
ISBN: 9780060825317
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Madonnas of Leningrad $24.22



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this review. I was able to visit the Hermitage a few years ago and, like you, associated it with the siege of Leningrad. I learned the history of that siege from Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days. He was a reporter in Moscow during the war and, when the siege was lifted, he went to Leningrad and interviewed the survivors. The emotions I learned from David Benioff’s City of Thieves, a picaresque novel of a young man trying to stay alive..Terrible times but wonderful writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wouldn’t you love to go back! We had a whole day there, so we did a morning tour with a guide and though he was really good, we barely scratched the surface. We spent the afternoon downstairs with the antiquities because The Spouse was studying Ancient Greece at university. (He’s just graduated, after 9 years part time!) I reckon I could spend a week there and still want to go back afterwards.
      I was so tired by the end of the day that we had to take one of those yellow cyclos back to the hotel even though it was only a 20 minute walk away.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love it when a random find turns out to be brilliant, and actually this sounds very much like the kind of thing I would like. And totally agree with you about the covers – those bottom two!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the review, Lisa – I read The Madonnas of Leningrad several years ago and enjoyed it quite a lot. It’s a haunting story and nicely told. You did a super job on the review. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Becky, I just love all those different Madonnas:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Now tell us what you really think, Lisa! Haha. You put a lot of effort into this post getting all those gorgeous pics together.

    I’ve never heard of Debra Dean but it sounds like she’s written a beautiful book. Would you read more by her?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think I might, if one turned up at the library. She’s published 4 books now (Madonnas was her debut) and one of them is an historical novel called The Mirrored World, set during the reign of Catherine the Great. I’m not sure if I would like it as much: I thought the three strands of this one were woven perfectly together, but maybe a straightforward historical novel might not be as good. The most recent one, The Tapestry, is about a Flemish-American artist called Jan Yoors who (according to GR) was a resistance fighter during WW2 and ended up in a ‘polyamorous’ family. The other one might interest you: it’s a collection of short stories:)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Lisa. Funny how many authors there are out there that we just dont know, isn’t there?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes indeed. Sometimes I hover over the Readings Catalogue but decide that I’ve reached my buying limit (#FeebleAttemptToReinInBookBuying) but I don’t ever remember seeing this one.
          I know I’ve focussed on the art in this review but the story of the family’s journey with Alzheimer’s is so true to life, it has articulated the pain of the husband and children in ways that I’d like more people to understand.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. This post is a great treat – including the wonderful slide show.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful review. So much in this book. Library surprises are good fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And so often it’s just a case of library staff re-shelving on the outward-facing shelf at the top of the stacks because it’s less trouble than finding the right spot on the shelves below. (I know this because I used to do it myself when I was busy.)
      So when a book that’s been borrowed comes back, if it gets re-shelved in the same way, someone else will find it there and the book gets a new life:)


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