The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel

by Debra Dean

Paperback, 2007

Call number





Harper Perennial (2007), 231 pages


In a novel that moves back and forth between the Soviet Union during World War II and modern-day America, Marina, an elderly Russian woman, recalls vivid images of her youth during the height of the siege of Leningrad.

Media reviews

Her granddaughter's wedding should be a time of happiness for Marina Buriakov. But the Russian emigre's descent into Alzheimer's has her and her family experiencing more anxiety than joy. As the details of her present-day life slip mysteriously away, Marina's recollections of her early years as a docent at the State Hermitage Museum become increasingly vivid. When Leningrad came under siege at the beginning of World War II, museum workers--whose families were provided shelter in the building's basement--stowed away countless treasures, leaving the painting's frames in place as a hopeful symbol of their ultimate return. Amid the chaos, Marina found solace in the creation of a memory palace, in which she envisioned the brushstroke of every painting and each statue's line and curve. Gracefully shifting between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Pacific Northwest, first-time novelist Dean renders a poignant tale about the power of memory. Dean eloquently describes the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael, but she is at her best illuminating aging Marina's precarious state of mind: It is like disappearing for a few moments at a time, like a switch being turned off, she writes. A short while later, the switch mysteriously flips again.

User reviews

LibraryThing member cameling
Debra Dean takes us on a journey in the mind of a woman who's living with rapidly deteriorating Alzheimer's. She can't remember the present, can't recognize her daughter anymore, and doesn't even realize how reliant she is on her husband now for everything. However, her memories of the past are so sharp and detailed, her present surroundings start to fade.

As she fumbles her way around her daughter's visit and her granddaughter's wedding, her memories of the past introduce her to the person she was as a child in Russia, as a young woman who gets engaged the night before her boyfriend is sent to the front line to fight the Germans, a woman who, on her first visit to the Hermitage with her uncle, falls in love with art and later gets a job there giving tours, and who lived in an underground bunker during the war when the Germans started bombing her city. With an elderly woman who worked as a guard at the Hermitage, she builds a memory palace of the art she loved walking past, looking at. The descriptions of the art are so detailed they paint beautiful and amazing pictures in the reader's own mind. A young man who found her when she was lost said to a doctor who claimed she was rambling because she was in shock, "She was showing me the world."

Beautiful. Sad, touching and beautiful.
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LibraryThing member Pandababy
The grand, gilded frames hang empty on the walls of the Hermitage, a witness of hope for restoration of the paintings packed away for protection during the siege of Leningrad. Perhaps they are also a metaphor for the Marina's life - once filled with beauty and meaning, now under siege by a relentless enemy, Alzheimer's.

The Madonnas of Leningrad shines like a jewel from its many facets - art history and appreciation, human drama and war, the mystery of the inner person and the heartbreak of Alzheimer's. I was captivated from the first page to the last sentence of this book about beauty, this beautiful book.… (more)
LibraryThing member countrylife
This was a four-star book when I closed it's covers. In the two months I've since been pondering it, it's become a five-star book in my mind.

Marina's story is told in the present. Her present in the Pacific Northwest, an elderly married woman attending her granddaughter's wedding; her present in Leningrad under The Siege. It is the merging and crashing of her two lives that make this story.

As a young woman in Leningrad, she is working at The Hermitage Museum, among many who are frantically packing up the museum's treasures to be secreted away before anything happens to them. Most of the paintings are removed from their frames; the frames left hanging and the paintings packed among hundreds of thousands of the other holdings, on a train en route to somewhere safe.

With that work done, their jobs are to take turns standing guard on the roof, and to try to remain alive, while slowly freezing and starving to death. There is nothing left now to distract them from the miseries of cold and hunger except their own internal resources. And so, as the world gets smaller and colder and dimmer, Marina notices, people are becoming fixated.

Marina and Anya's fixation: Anya is helping Marina build a memory palace in the museum. “Someone must remember,” Anya says, “or it all disappears without a trace, and then they can say it never was.” So each morning, they get up early and the two women make their way slowly through the halls. They add a few more rooms each day, mentally restocking the Hermitage, painting by painting, statue by statue.

Nikolsky's fixation: He sketches so incessantly that at the end of the day his fist will not unclench to release his pencil. The other night, he staged a showing of these drawings. … He had sketched interiors of the cellar and its residents, odd little drawings of their makeshift lodgings. Sketch after sketch showed the low vaulted ceilings crossed with pipes, the clutter of furniture, and the stark shadows cast by a single oil lamp. … One drawing showed merely a hand with three marble-sized pieces of bread resting in the palm. … “My intention was not to suggest anything but what is. These are not meant to be art. They are documentation, so that those who come later will know how we lived.”

I found the history of the Hermitage during the siege to be a fascinating story, along with the glimpses of how people managed to survive during that time. Marina's present in her old age, suffering from Alzheimer's, gripped me as well.

Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments. Her distant past is preserved, better than preserved. Moments that occurred in Leningrad sixty-some years ago reappear, vivid, plump, and perfumed. . . . The bond that had first brought them together as children existed whether they spoke of it or not, the bond of survivors. … She was his country and he hers. They were inseparable. Until now. She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves.

But it was the author's way of blending Marina's past and present, making them each the current thing in Marina's mind that kept haunting me.

More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places.

Take, for instance, this selection: And looking around, one can see on the faces of the assembled family and guests the best of their humanity radiating a collective warmth around this fledgling young couple. There is music and tears and words. Commitment and love and cherish and community and honor.

And music and more words. Olga Markhaeva recites poetry and Anya sings a song she remembers from her childhood, romantic and sweet. If Marina lives to be eighty, she things, she will never forget this wonderful night.

The first two sentences are happening at her granddaughter's wedding, and the next three refer to something that happened sixty years ago in the bomb shelter in Leningrad. I think Ms. Dean did a masterful job of presenting a moment in history with a life unraveling mentally. I can just picture those thoughts of the disoriented happening something like that. More than picture it, I've begun to feel like that sometimes myself. Perhaps that's why this book spoke to me so strongly.

Highly recommended for historical fiction buffs, especially if you know someone suffering from Alzheimer's.
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LibraryThing member DubaiReader
I found this book a bit of a mixed bag.

The story is split into two time frames, both of which I enjoyed, but I'm afraid I found it tedious to read the many detailed descriptions of the art that had been in the museum and this really spoilt the book for me.

In the early episodes, set in Leningrad at the start of the siege, we meet a young Marina, frantically busy packing up over a million items of art from the Hermitage Museum. In order to protect it from the possibility of theft by the advancing German army, much of it is shipped out of the city for safekeeping. Once the task was completed she took up her responsibility as a fire watcher on the roof of the museum, meanwhile struggling to survive as food supplies dwindled and she had move to live with 2,000 other people in the cellar of the museum.
These memories haunt the elderly Marina as she struggles with oncoming Altzheimer's and tries to hide the evidence from her family. I really enjoyed these sections of the book which struck a sympathetic chord with me. Marina is so believable and her husband is so loving and sweet.

I have recently read another book about The Siege of Leningrad - City of Thieves by David Benioff - a recommended read if readers would like another book on the subject.
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LibraryThing member bkswrites
I learned of the siege of Leningrad some 35 years ago, when I first visited that city of wonders as a college student. I took it to heart 14 years later, when I returned with a group focused on spiritual connections. I have never been able to communicate to my fellow Americans the hope and sorrow that lodged in me as I walked among the endless mass graves of the siege’s victims, and tried to comprehend three years of entrapment in your home, purposefully cut off from food supply.

Debra Dean has helped me tell and understand that story. She has couched it in the degenerating memory of a survivor, where it becomes the only thing Marina knows for sure, the deep past the only place she functions fully. Dean allows us to escape with Marina, from the material and familial comforts of age in America’s Pacific northwest in the 21st century, and the confusion and distress of dementia, into the bitter beauty of starvation in 1940s Russia, where Marina had duty and her heritage to feed her soul.

Dean tells her stories with aching, lyrical beauty. Not all of the loose ends are tied up, not every story is finished. But we know what we need to know, and we understand that neat packages are among the victims of war. It is the beauty that kept Marina alive through the siege. It is the same beauty that gives her the strength to live on until the beauty of old is all that is left to her. It is the beauty, and Marina’s devotion to it, that draws us to her, moves us to celebrate her apparently unremarkable life. Marina, like the Madonna, whom the Russian Orthodox call the Theotokos, God-bearer, is the vessel of beauty and hope in the most profound devastation. She bears it to us through the siege of Leningrad, and perhaps most wonderfully through the siege of her fragile third life. Where Debra Dean learned that beauty I cannot guess, but I am grateful to her for giving us Marina.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
As the Nazis advanced on Leningrad in 1941, the staff of the Hermitage Museum began evacuating their treasured art, packing up more than 1.1 million objects, but leaving the empty picture frames hanging on the museum walls as a promise that the art would some day be rehung. When the Nazis lay siege to Leningrad, the Hermitage staff and their families (more than 2000 people) were forced to live in the museum's basement in horrific conditions. Many starved before the siege was over. Debra Dean's novel The Madonnas of Leningrad is set during this dark moment in history.

The main character of Dean's stunning novel is an elderly woman named Marina who is slowly sliding into the final stages of Alzheimer's Disease. As the disease advances, Marina's memories of the siege which she has buried for years begin to surface and Marina slips from the present into the past. Dean's portrayal of a young girl surviving the conditions of war is beautifully wrought. She shows us how Marina - with the help of an older woman named Anya - builds a "memory palace" in her mind, recreating the museum and all its gorgeous works of art - a place where the many Madonnas hang in exquisite perfection.

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a radiant novel about the tenuous nature of memory, the power of imagination, the endurance of love, and the sad descent into Alzheimer's disease. Written with a strong sense of place with many fine details of art and the museum itself, Debra Dean's first novel is a treasure.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member bettyjo
This is a beautiful book. How any citizens of Leningrad survived that winter is a miracle.
LibraryThing member tangledthread
A story within a story: 82 year old Marina is slipping into the void of dementia. As she does so, she is taken back to early adulthood where she worked and lived at The Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. There is irony in that during the siege in 1941, she used her memory to recreate the Hermitage as it was before as a means to endure the hardships of loss and starvation. In the current day, she returns to that event and those memories, particularly a collection of Madonna paintings as well as others, as her mind slips away from her.
A well crafted compact book done in under 228 pages.
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LibraryThing member aahlvers
The Madonnas of Lennigrad by Debra Dean was a lovely story about a woman at the end of her life, suffering from Alzheimers, who re-lived the early days of her life the surreal world of war and hunger.
LibraryThing member tamora
A real page turner. I had heard about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, but this made it real for me.
LibraryThing member audryh
Survivor of the Siege of St. Petersburg, now living in Seattle attending her granddaughter's wedding, vividly remembers the first year of the siege and the paintings removed from the museum. Vivid description of memory loss.
LibraryThing member steffijohnson
This is for anyone whose parent or loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimers. This book shows the dignity of former life experiences and how they influence what is retained when memory starts to fade. It also explores the peacefulness of "living in the minute", which is the essence of Buddhism. It can be a solace for the caregiver or concerned family member.
It stands out from other popular books, which tend to be disposable in memory.
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LibraryThing member candicebairn
I loved this book, it was very intruiging, especially since I lived in St. Petersburg and am very familiar with the Hermitage Museum. I didn't like the ending, it was very abrupt.
LibraryThing member Clara53
A poignant picture of Leningrad blockade during the Second World War (Hermitage in particular).
LibraryThing member debhall
As one with Alzheimer's in my family, this certainly struck a chord. The combination of the history, human interest, family, and art made this book a terrific read.
LibraryThing member Risa15
Enjoyed this tale which had flashbacks about
the mother's life in Leningrad during WWII as a guide in the Hermitage and her life today with her dh and daughter under the grip of Alzheimers
LibraryThing member tibobi
The story takes place in present day America, but is interspersed with flashbacks of the Siege of Leningrad where Nazi Germany attempted to capture Leningrad during World War II. The story centers around Marina, a young tour guide for the Hermitage Museum. She, and countless others, decide to remove the priceless masterpieces for safekeeping. They leave the empty frames up with the hope that one day, the masterpieces will be returned to their frames.

During this time, Marina is forced endure the harshness of living in a war torn country. Living with others, in the basement of the museum, she is exposed to freezing temperatures, forced to live on very little food and has no choice but to watch those around her perish from starvation. Her one glimmer of hope, is thinking about her lover, Dimitri and who has left to work the front lines.

Flash forward to present day. Marina is now 80 years old and battling Alzheimer's. She is preparing to attend her granddaughter's wedding with her husband, Dimitri. Her daughter Helen, is not aware of the Alzheimer's until she sees her mother at the wedding. Her son, Andrei, is aware of the situation, but has not fully grasped the severity of her condition. Dimitri, who loves her dearly, continues to care for her as her condition declines. As the festivities of the wedding surround them, Marina escapes to the corners of her mind and revisits her childhood and her time in Leningrad.

I've never known anyone that has battled with Alzheimer's, but the thought of not even recognizing your own husband or child... just the mere thought, fills me with fear. For Marina, the memories that are most intact, are the ones that she created for her "memory palace". During her time at the museum, her friend taught her how to envision each masterpiece within her mind, without it being present in the room. This created a "memory palace" of sorts. These are the memories that she can readily recall, but the more recent memories, such as her daughter's divorce, are non-existent.

As the novel unfolds, we follow Marina to those gallery halls as the author describes, in painstaking detail, what used to hang within the Hermitage. The writing here is so vivid. I could "see" those paintings as the author described them. I even went back and Googled them at one point to see if what I had envisioned was close to what the author described.

This novel was bittersweet for me. It was beautifully written, well developed and a treat for the eyes. The appreciation of beauty and life, contrasted with the darkness of the city and the bleak winter that followed... I really felt for these characters and their personal hardships. Although we are given a glimpse of Marina's current state (sad as it is), we are also given hope during the last few pages of the book. Not hope really, but closure. I felt completely satisfied when I finished and I don't feel that way too often after finishing a book.
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LibraryThing member lkbside
Set in 1941 and the present the Madonnas of Leningrad weaves back and forth in time. The central character, Marina, was a tour guide at the Hermitage prior to the siege of Leningrad during WWII and stayed on living in basement of the museum packing up the art for safe keeping and relocation. One of her coping mechanisms during that period was to remember each painting's details, constructing a "memory palace" in her mind. In the present day we watch Marina's memory fade as she develops Alzheimer's but she is still able to call upon her long term memories in her "memory palace."

The book is based on a true story - Debra Dean was inspired by a PBS documentary she saw about the staff of the Hermitage living in the basement of the museum. I originally thought that the device of the empty frames hanging on the wall was just a metaphor developed by Dean to "frame" Marina's memories, but it was based on fact. Dean has an amazing ability to describe artwork such that you can actually visualize the paintings she is describing and those descriptions and past memories help the reader get to know the very private character of Marina.
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LibraryThing member chackett
Alternating chapters reveal an amazing story of deprivation and survival in the depths of the art museum in St. Petersburg during the German seige of World War 2, and the "now" life of two survivors who immigrated to the United States and raised their family in Washington state. A tender romance suffuses the story.
LibraryThing member stephaniechase
A stunning little book, recommended to me by volunteer Carol Good. Now I have to find something to read about the siege of Leningrad.
LibraryThing member dianaleez
It is rare to find a book so carefully crafted and so hauntingly beautiful. If you're looking for a book that you will think about as you go about your daily life, this is it. [And I must confess that I spent my share of time googling the paintings Marina describes.]
LibraryThing member Zmrzlina
Well, this one sort of petered out for me. The dual storyline, past and present, just didn't tell much of a story, either alone or together. If one has never read about the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), this is probably a great historic fiction, but I think Hunger (Elise Blackwell) does a much better job in that department, as well as storytelling. As a story about memory and family, well, Madonnas is okay, just a bit dull.… (more)
LibraryThing member EllenH
This book moves back & forth between Marina's life in 1940's Leningrad and 40 some years later when she is struggling with Alzheimers. An interesting portrayal of that bleak time at the Hermitage and the survival of she and her husband Dimitri. The ending left me in the air & wishing it could have been better for them. A pretty good read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eliz12
At times this book was quite lovely (especially when focusing on the museum in Leningrad). Other times I felt it pushed too hard to be sensitive and meaningful and touching. Nicely told, with alternating chapters in past and present, but not quite the extraordinary experience I was expecting.
LibraryThing member kherrington
I never really felt like this book grabbed. I loved the descriptions of the paintings and felt for the citizens of Leningrad as they struggled to survive the war. However, I never felt completely involved in Marina's story. I felt like something was missing.




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