Galina focuses on the study and returns to the day by the lake. The geese are paddling and squawking. Sveta's cheeks glow in the warm sunlight. The oil paints glisten. Boris is nearby, settled on the blanket. The air is tinged with the scent of feathers and mucky soil. Taking a brush loosely between her thumb and index finger, she gently touches the bristles to the palette and lifts it to the canvas.
The Girl from the Hermitage by Molly Gartland (Lightning Books, out 14 September 2020) is a remarkable debut novel set in Leningrad (St Petersburg).
Its plotline spans from 1941 to the late 1970s and to the 21st C. The novel follows a life story of Galina, an artist and teacher at the Leningrad Art Institute.
We first meet 8-year-old Galya, amidst the siege of Leningrad, barely surviving with her father Mikhail, their nearest neighbour Anna and her daughter Vera in cold, unheated apartments.
Citizens of Leningrad are doomed to death from starvation, with a ration of a 125g of sawdust bread a day, and even that is not always available. Food supplies are so scarce, people are eating rats and make soup from the wallpaper.
Galya's Mum Roza stopped eating so that her child would have more. When she dies, her body is left in a stack of corpses outside the block of flats along the other victims of the siege. These are horrifying scenes of the everyday life in the siege.
Galya's father has worked to save the treasures of the Hermitage, pack and ship them away. Anna persuades him to move to live in the cellars of the Hermitage, where the girls could have school lessons, and where they will have some food.
The director of the Hermitage Orbelli tells Mikhail that one of Stalin's officials, Colonel Shishkin, asked him to send him a portrait artist.
Mikhail tries to refuse, saying he's not a portrait artist, but the director Orbelli insists, "You must do this. He's an important man. If he is happy with the portrait, it will be very good for the museum and everyone here".
It's not a request, but more of summons.
Shishkin is an important official, "part of the establishment and could turn Mikhail's life upside down with a single phone call. He is a man who could unexpectedly issue an invitation to the theatre or to prison and neither would be surprising". It is a sensitive task, which Mikhail cannot refuse. So much depends on it.
Mikhail reluctantly agrees to draw the portrait of the colonel's sons as a birthday gift for their mother. While the rest of the city is starving, the officials like Shishkin have plenty of food. Mikhail resents working for the colonel, but he needs this job to survive. He brings little bits of food for little Galya and her friend Vera - priyaniki (spiced biscuits), apples, leftovers of his lunch. This food is stolen from the colonel's house, with the tacit agreement of the lady who works for the family.
Mikhail is a true artist, "as he paints, he forgets about everything he cannot control. He loses himself, the Hermitage, war and hunger in the viscous paint. He creates a rhythm: palette, canvas, palette, canvas. The brushes keep time, dancing between the two. His mind clears, focusing completely on the portrait. As the figures emerge, a warm sensation radiates from his core... he recognises the feeling, so long lost. It is joy, satisfaction, purpose, endeavour all rolled in one".
And as many Russian artists, he has problems with alcohol (when he has access to it). He drinks to forget the horrors around him, both in the present and the past (his brother disappears in the Stalinist purges, and his name is never mentioned again).
People "disappearing" during the Great Terror is one of the sub-plots, which runs through the book. Mikhail's brother, their neighbours from downstairs and their tragic child, Vera's father who's sent to the camps... Relatives never mention their loved ones who were renounced as the enemies of the people.
This fear and paranoia have been a big part of many lives, including my own family (my great grandfather was shot in 1937 as the enemy of the people - to find out more, read a short post on my old blog - Constant heart).
The finished portrait becomes a catalyst for the events which change Galina's life.
Forty years later, Galina is a successful teacher at the Leningrad Art Institute. She is married and has a son. Her husband spends half of the year at their dacha, which has miraculously survived the war. This old dacha becomes a symbol of the remaining link with her dead parents and the unbroken spirit.
During one weekend, where Galina and Vera gather with the family and friends to celebrate the anniversary of their adoptive parent, she makes an unwelcome discovery. That day she begins painting a portrait of their neighbours daughter Sveta. "Sveta, peaceful and innocent, sits with her hands folded on her lap. Galina wants to capture the freshness of childhood, the simplicity of the moment, the promise of the future".
That portrait would represent the big changes to come in Galina's life, as well as the history of the country.
There is a wonderful backstory of the painting which Molly Gartland bought in Moscow in 1999, and which became an inspiration for the book. Read all about The Bird Girl on Molly's website.
This novel has being an emotional roller-coaster for me, bringing back memories of my own childhood in the Soviet Russia in the 1970s, later transition to the market economy of the 1990s and the birth of the new Russians, who have acquired their wealth by criminal ways.
Like my namesake, I grew up, surrounded by people who created art. I remember how prestigious it was to have your own studio, the long midnight talks in the kitchen where the world problems were discussed and "solved", the long queues for food.
My parents didn't have a formal art education, both were self-taught artists. My Mum, who's in her mid-70s, still paints almost every day, because she cannot live without painting. My late Dad was the most talented jewellery artist.
On the other hand, I have studied art in the art school, took part in exhibitions and sold my artwork, but I haven't done anything art-related for many years.
This novel is also a bitter-sweet account of how Russia has changed. When old Galina says, "I miss being young, moving without aches and pains, having a decent figure. And yes, I suppose there are some things that I miss from Soviet times... Now, everything is about money. I find it... I don't know - shallow? Before, we didn't have much but we were working for something bigger than ourselves", I tend to agree with her.
The book is well-researched. Even minor details (descriptions of interiors, food, books mentioned etc) are true to life. Garland's talent for observation is exceptional.
In school we learnt of the horrors of the siege. We also listened to the stories of survivors, like a husband of my Mum's best friend's from school. He was a little child during the siege, and spent so many days in bed, wrapped in the blankets against the cold, hardly moving to save energy, and barely alive, that when he was rescued, the tights have ingrown into the skin of his legs.
Molly Gartland creates an authentic setting - the bleak Leningrad of the siege, in its desolation, and severe beauty of its architecture, but also the unconquerable spirit of its people. The novel shines a light into the XX (and early XXI) C history of Russia, its politics, society and culture.
The Girl from the Hermitage is a moving tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the people of Leningrad, a sincere and deep commentary on the Russian way of life.
Historical note: The siege of Leningrad lasted from September 8th, 1941, until January 27th, 1944. At the beginning of the blockade there were around 2.5 million inhabitants, including 400,000 children. During 871 days of the siege about 1.1 million people died, mostly of starvation and cold.
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Author Bio –
Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since.
She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London.
The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.
Social Media Links – @molbobolly on Twitter
Many thanks to Molly Gartland, Lightning Books and Rachel's Random Resources for my copy of the book!