Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Madonnas of Leningrad

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The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2007, 256 pages

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Debra Dean worked as an actress in the New York theater for nearly a decade before opting for the life of a writer and teacher. She lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington. She says that the inspiration behind her first novel was a PBS series on the Hermitage Museum in 1995. The following day she recorded in her journal, "I was particularly struck by one incident which might make a story (even a novel, but for the research)."

The story she referred to was about a former staff member of the Hemitage who, like nearly 2000 other staff and their families, spent the winter of 1941 living in the basement of the museum while the Nazis besieged the city. Millions of pieces of art had been evacuated but, as a pledge that the art would return, the frames had been left in place. It is said that this former guide gave tours of the empty museum to visitors, describing each painting so well that visitors could almost see them.

For more about this, see the interview at BookBrowse.

The Siege of Leningrad, also known as the 900-day siege, lasted from September 1941 until January 1944 (a total of 872 days). In 1942 alone 650,000 died in Leningrad, some from German shelling, but mostly from starvation, exposure and disease. Although some supplies did get through across Lake Ladoga - by barge in the summer and by truck and sled in the winter, rationing was at starvation-levels. Things eased a little in 1943 because of the combination of large evacuations of children and the sick and elderly, and by the planting of vegetable gardens across most of the city's open ground.

In January 1944 a Soviet offensive drove the Germans away from the city's outskirts, ending the siege.

In 1945 the Soviet government awarded the Order of Lenin to the city and in 1965 bestowed it with the title "Hero City of the Soviet Union".

Interesting Link: Take a walk-through the Hermitage at its official website.

This article was originally published in April 2006, and has been updated for the February 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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