A statue of Josef Stalin in Moscow’s Park of Fallen Heroes. (Sandy Tolan)

What beckons us to the road, far from home, removed from our culture and comfort zone? For me it is story, newness, connection, surprise: The beautiful, the stunning, the devastating, the far-flung narrative and its power to astound, even to transform. It’s the daylong rise out of the dripping 100-degree Amazon, into a snowstorm along the spine of its Andes. It’s the impoverished rickshaw driver in New Delhi, Raja Ram, the Lord King, with his haunting soliloquy on the meaning of life and death. Or the young taxi driver, late at night on a darkened South American road, making eye contact in the mirror, asking plaintively, Why don’t you have children? It’s the sound of a violin in a Palestinian refugee camp. Mysterious lights flickering across a plain in West Texas. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, played at full volume as your car ascends the Wyoming Rockies, hitting its crescendo just as you top a mountain pass. Such random surprise can happen every time, if you allow it. This summer, traveling to Russia and Estonia for the first time, what astounded me was less the gleaming, bulbous domes of the Orthodox churches, or the Medieval towers of a 14th-century town, but history itself: how it’s told and retold; its multiple layers, one built on top of another. And how cut off and isolated I had been, as an American child of the Cold War, about another people’s devastating sacrifice. I’d come to Russia at the invitation of my wife, the novelist Andrea Portes (sure, darling, twist my arm), whose upcoming thriller is based partly in Moscow. It didn’t take us long to encounter the alternate universe of history. Walking toward Red Square and the Kremlin, the guide Andrea had hired for historical and cultural perspective kept invoking the “Great Patriotic War.” To some this historical rephrasing of World War II might sound amusing, until you realize that an estimated 23 million Soviet citizens, or one in every eight, died in the war—three times-plus the number that perished in the Holocaust, and some 60 times more than U.S. casualties. These numbers are not quite a historical secret in the West, but how many of us were ever taught this? And how did I get to be 60 years old without learning of perhaps the most sustained vicious onslaught in the history of warfare—the Siege of Leningrad? My mother and her friends recall the siege, because they lived through those times and read the contemporary accounts of unspeakable suffering—but soon that history would be obscured by the Iron Curtain. History is written by the winners, of course. If you need a reminder of that, just visit the Park of Fallen Heroes, where monuments of the disgraced visionaries of communism have been relocated, to a sculpture park of curiosity in a sunny glade in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Families dozed on the grass amidst the towering bronze statues of Lenin, Marx, Brezhnev, infamous KGB chief Felix Dzherzhinski, and a vandalized Stalin, whose nose is mostly hacked off.

Red Square in Moscow. (Sandy Tolan)

Disgraced or not, it was the Soviets, and the terribly outmatched citizens of Leningrad, who held the line against Hitler’s nearly 900-day siege. This we witnessed on the other end of a three-hour bullet train ride from Moscow, in a relatively obscure St. Petersburg museum along the Neva River. Here, we appeared to be the only non-Russians. The clerks of the State Museum of St. Petersburg’s History viewed us skeptically, as if we had wandered off mistakenly from the nearby Fabergé Museum, where the ornate, bejeweled eggs designed by Carl Fabergé embody the out-of-touch excesses of the Tsars. At the Fabergé, where you can understand why the Tsarist regime was toppled by the Bolsheviks, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans and Western Europeans pack the well-lit exhibits every day. But at the dusty old museum on the English Embankment, we made it clear to the ticket taker that we weren’t lost; we had come to learn about St. Petersburg during the Great Patriotic War. They brightened, and we re-entered Russia’s dark days.

Diorama depicting the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, at the State Museum of St. Petersburg’s History. (Sandy Tolan)

Beginning in 1941, Hitler’s 700,000 troops ringed Leningrad, cutting off food and fuel. The Führer, according to the exhibition, was determined to “raze Leningrad to the ground, in order that no people would remain who would have to be fed in winter.” The people’s largely volunteer army, outnumbered by more than 2:1, dug trenches, built air raid shelters, and planted cabbage in the public gardens to stave off starvation. Four-ounce, barely edible “blockade bread” became a daily staple. Still, “entire families were carried off by starvation.” With no fuel (they had already burned their trees, their furniture, their kitchens shelves and their books), people huddled in their apartments in winter temperatures that reached 30 below zero Fahrenheit. A diorama showed an apartment house ripped in half by a shelling, the guts of daily life exposed. Children’s drawings depicted tanks firing on the city, and buildings on fire.

Children’s drawings at the State Museum of St. Petersburg’s History. (Sandy Tolan)

A lone photograph showed a couple pulling a sled, upon which lay a tiny body shrouded in black. In all, a million people died in the Siege of Leningrad.

One of the dead in the Siege of Leningrad. (Sandy Tolan)

Yet, in one of history’s greatest testaments to solidarity, the people of Leningrad held the line against the Nazis. Many families took refuge in their Orthodox faith, believing they were being tested by God. Another family, nearly dead from hunger, took a different path: they learned Pushkin by heart. At the height of the siege, in August 1942, Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, or the Leningrad Symphony, premiered in the besieged city. By this time, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra was down to 14 surviving musicians. To fill its ranks, the conductor recruited volunteers, including musicians from the Soviet Army. Shostakovich’s composition, written and performed in Leningrad when the outcome of the siege was still very much in doubt, concludes in a spirit of unambiguous triumph. And there, beside the museum’s display cases, we sat in contemplation, listening to the Shostakovich. Before we left, we read the memorial scroll sent in May 1944 by President Franklin Roosevelt to the people of Leningrad, who, “despite constant bombardments and untold sufferings from cold, hunger and sickness, successfully defended their beloved city…”

Memorial scroll from President Franklin Roosevelt sent to the people of Leningrad in May 1944. (Sandy Tolan)

For us, the newness, the connection, the surprise of a new place lay in an old museum, behind smudged glass cases. We stepped back into the street, like new people. Astounded. The sweeping view of domes, spires, the glint of sunlight on water—all of it looked different now. We felt transformed, really, with a profound new respect for our Russian hosts, and fascinated by the stories nations tell themselves. Important things were missing from the exhibition, as we found out later. Stalin and his apparatchiks failed to evacuate Leningrad or to stockpile food, with horrifying consequences. Families ate house cats, sawdust, wallpaper paste, and finally, faced the terrible choice of whether to eat human meat or starve. Regardless of the museum’s missing pieces, though, the suffering and heroism of the people of Leningrad was undeniable.
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