Books set in Russia – Helen Dunmore takes us to Leningrad…
Well…by now you have no doubt realised that the correlation between the proper month for our World Party Reading Challenge and the corresponding blog post is completely up the spout. But never mind – we shall ignore the fact that it is no longer June and move swiftly on…to Russia.
There are mountains of books set in Russia you could read for the Challenge. You might want to go traditional and ambitious with something like Anna Karenina or War and Peace, or you may want to immerse yourself in the darkness of dissident writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Or perhaps for a change of pace you might consider the Cold War spy novels of John Le Carre or the Soviet crime fiction of Tom Rob Smith.
But for this challenge I decided to delve into a bit of Russian history by reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. Actually I had already read this novel a few years ago, but with the release of Dunmore’s sequel The Betrayal, it seemed a good opportunity for a re-read, and then to move on to the second book.
The novel is set in the north-western port city of Leningrad (which has now reclaimed its pre-revolutionary name of St. Petersburg). In 1941, as WWII began to bite, Leningrad was almost surrounded by German troops and their Finnish allies. The city headed into the winter of 1941 a victim of German shelling, with its supply routes to the rest of the Soviet Union cut off and its residents falling to starvation, exposure and disease. By the time the Siege was fully lifted in January 1944, it had claimed more than 600,000 lives.
In Dunmore’s novel we meet 23-year old Anna Levin, who is determined she and her family will survive as the city becomes surrounded. Along with her dissident father and five-year-old brother Kolya she hoards food and fuel for the bitter winter ahead. There is some joy for Anna in her relationship with Andrei, a doctor who works for days at a time in the hospital – but while this IS a love story, it is under such extreme circumstances their relationship is stunted for much of the Siege. Anna and Andre are forced to live a romance of pragmatism rather than of passionate sentiment.
This novel is filled with the realities of famine. At one stage Anna must pull apart Kolya’s papier-mache castle, so that she can extract nutrients from the paste that had held it together. Another time, she boils strips of leather to make a broth. It is impossible to imagine how anyone survives in these circumstances and Dunmore does not spare you anything in her detail.
Eventually, the Russians were able to transport some supplies over the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga, the massive lake to the city’s East – but this too was fraught with danger. The operation was not always as successful as suggested in this extract from an American film which shows footage from the time. (It also has some great graphics showing the city surrounded!)
Given there is a sequel to this novel, I am not spoiling anything by telling you that Anna and Andrei survive – but the path to that survival makes for some pretty unforgiving reading.
Dunmore’s follow up The Betrayal is set some ten years later. The war has ended but for Andrei and Anna there is a new fear; Stalin’s Ministry for State Security. They live in a world of trepidation and caution, doing their best not to be noticed by anyone who can do them harm. Andrei is now a respected physician, but when he is asked to treat the seriously ill son of a senior secret police officer, their carefully constructed world is threatened.
The Siege and The Betrayal are very different novels from each other, and each can easily stand alone. But I like the device of telling a city (and country’s) history through one family, even if the plot and style is quite different. And it reminds us that this was what it was like for millions of Russians who lived through decades of such hardship; they had to deal with one crisis and then another, with barely a moment of reprieve along the way.
Dunmore’s prose is matter-of-fact and brutal. She does not let you escape the impact of starvation and fear on the mind and body. And yet still, we see that survival is possible; that Anna and Andre do it, that thousands of others have done it, that time and time again people manage to overcome the most desperate of circumstances. It is a story of the miracle of the human ability to endure.
You could do far worse than visit Anna and Andrei’s world for our Russian challenge – but if the thought of putting yourself through their ordeal does not attract you, there are many other books set in Russia you may want to consider.
I look forward to hearing your suggestions and comments, and please feel free to link to any reviews you decide to write.