Six Days in Leningrad
by Paullina Simons
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (September 20, 2016)
From the author of the celebrated, internationally bestselling The Bronze Horseman saga comes a glimpse into the private life of its much-loved creator, and the real story behind the epic novels. Paullina Simons gives us a work of non-fiction as captivating and heart-wrenching as the lives of Tatiana and Alexander.
Only a few chapters into writing her first story set in Russia, her mother country, Paullina Simons traveled to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) with her beloved Papa. What began as a research trip turned into six days that forever changed her life, the course of her family, and the novel that became The Bronze Horseman. After a quarter-century away from her native land, Paullina and her father found a world trapped in yesteryear, with crumbling stucco buildings, entire families living in seven-square-metre communal apartments, and barren fields bombed so badly that nothing would grow there even fifty years later. And yet there were the spectacular white nights, the warm hospitality of family friends and, of course, the pelmeni and caviar.
At times poignant, at times inspiring and funny, this is both a fascinating glimpse into the inspiration behind the epic saga, and a touching story of a family’s history, a father and a daughter, and the fate of a nation.
In my opinion four people were responsible for bringing down the Berlin Wall and Communism: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and my father.
My dad picked some cherries off the cherry tree and ate them. He gave me five. That was my lunch. Gratefully I popped them in my mouth. There were exquisitely sour. When I mentioned this, my dad glared at me, as if I had insulted his cooking.
You don’t understand, Paullina. All the things you want to remember. I want desperately to forget.
As I stood at the foot of the stairs, the faded black and white details of my memory turned to color. Shepelovo had always been a myth to me, but Fifth Soviet was reality, then and now. I trudged up the stairs and became seven years old again.
Go into the woods, do your business. You’ll feel much better… Stop it, you fool. You will have to go in the woods in the end. Go now and end your misery – and ours. You haven’t stopped talking about a bathroom… Go now.
Russia was like a hard dream from which I could not wake up.
I was provided with a review copy of this lovely book by TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins. Reading memoirs is a rare occurrence for me, however, in an effort to expand my horizons and keep those neurons firing, including this genre has been on my goal list. Having read Ms. Simons’s breathtaking and heartbreaking tome of Lone Star last year, I knew this talented author to be a storyteller of the highest order and surmised that if I were to indulge in someone scratching through the muck and emotional detritus of their own story, hers would be the one to select. I can happily boast – I chose wisely. Ms. Simons wrote of her 1998 return visit to the areas of her childhood in St. Petersburg/Leningrad Russia with her father, after leaving at age ten in the 70s. Her revelations and experiences were life altering for her, and eye opening and mind-bending for me. As a self-indulgent American, I had no idea that opportunities and living conditions had remained so stark and limited. I had never considered that a major superpower would view refrigerators, toilets, and running water as conveniences and luxuries or that their populous could shrug at those issues or would consider cleaning their ancient toilets as being a completely unnecessary task.
Ms. Simons’s writing was heaving with colorful insights and entertaining observations of not only the people and places of her travels, but also how the current observations of those people and places collided with her childhood memories of the same. Bonuses included amusing tidbits of her personal exasperation as due to the lack of road signs, indoor plumbing, or eateries, she was often lost, always hungry, frequently suffering from the need to relieve herself, and meeting countless men named Viktor. I enjoyed her personal pictures and found myself Googling the areas she mentioned as I devoured her emotive and transformative tale. Despite the often archaic, dire, and bleak conditions she found, she imparted her narrative with loving care and respect for their experience. I feasted on this meaty tome like a binge dieter hitting the buffet line. I want to read everything this talented scribe has ever written.
About Paullina Simons
Paullina Simons is an internationally bestselling author whose novels include Bellagrand and The Bronze Horseman was born in Leningrad in 1963. As a child she immigrated to Queens, New York, and attended colleges in Long Island. Then she moved to England and attended Essex University, before returning to America. She lives in New York with her husband and children.