The Madonnas of Leningrad is about the Siege of Leningrad.

Americans tend to think that the United States won World War II. Some even seem to believe we did so single-handedly. But while that may be substantially true in the case of the Pacific War against Imperial Japan, it was most assuredly not so in Europe. For one thing, the war there had been raging in earnest for three years before the first US troops entered the fighting—in North Africa. US forces didn’t set foot in substantial numbers on European soil until July 1943 with the invasion of Sicily. The six-year-long war in Europe ended less than two years later.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Meanwhile, even more significantly, the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fighting on the Continent. After all, the USSR lost 20 million lives in the war, compared to the half-million American dead. The blood-soaked Battle of Stalingrad has emerged as the most-cited example of Russia’s sacrifice. But for millions of Soviet citizens the Siege of Leningrad was even more consequential. And that tragic event is the subject of Debra Dean’s compelling novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad.

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (2006) 231 pages ★★★★★

Classic art, memory, and the Siege of Leningrad

This is a novel about memory. Dean tells her story through the fast-disintegrating mind of an aging survivor of the Siege. As a young woman during the war, Marina is a docent at the Hermitage in Leningrad. As German troops advance ever closer to the outskirts of the city, Marina takes part in a massive effort to pack up and ship to safety all the great treasures of what many still think was the world’s greatest art museum. And the story unfolds through Marina’s recollections of the time after the walls were stripped bare. Only her memory of the paintings once hanging there keeps the art alive. So vivid is that memory that she is able to entrance a group of schoolchildren simply by describing the canvases.

Marina is most attracted to the Old Masters, and much of their work was inspired by Christian themes. Portraits of Mary (“the Madonna”) abound on the walls of the Hermitage. Hence, the novel’s title.

The terrible toll of Alzheimer’s

Meanwhile, as an old woman in the United States, Marina is suffering from fast-advancing Alzheimer’s. (“Today, yesterday, even an hour ago, are blanks. She is suspended in the present moment and feeling oddly ephemeral, as though she is adrift on an open sea.”) The story of the Leningrad Siege unfolds in bits and snatches, alternating with scenes from her life in Seattle. Her husband, Dmitri, has been trying to conceal her illness from their children. But as the family comes together for a granddaughter’s wedding, Marina’s memory loss becomes unmistakably clear to her children, Helen and Andrei.

Think you’re starving? Read this novel, and you’ll never think so again

If you ever think when you’re hungry that you’re starving, you might feel differently after reading The Madonnas of Leningrad. (“They eat wallpaper paste and glue and even wood, and still they starve.”) The Siege lasted for nearly 900 days—from September 1941 to January 1944. And during that time more than one million (and as many as four million) Russians died, most of them from starvation.

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