Announcing Landscape Photographer of the Year 2020 (AA Publishing) UK
Talking Location With…. author Molly Gartland – ST PETERSBURG
25th May 2020
#TalkingLocationWith…. Molly Gartland, author of The Girl From The Hermitage – St Petersburg and Moscow
I spent the summer of 1993 in St. Petersburg. I was a student, studying Russian living in a dormitory near Prebaltiskaya Metro station. I celebrated my 21st birthday there. This was just a year and half after the collapse of the Soviet Union so very little had started change. There weren’t bars and restaurants. Shelves were often empty in shops. Everything had a tinge of Soviet drab. International calls had to be ordered in advance and were complicated to place. And when you got through, the line was poor.
I was a terrible Russian student. I remember riding a bus once. There was an old man talking to his gorgeous German Shepherd and I could see the dog understood every word. But I could only catch the odd word here and there.
The city, founded by Peter the Great, has striking architecture. Muscley sculpted torsos emerge from buildings and support balconies and porticos. Cherubs decorate window frames. Onion domes top churches. But at this time most buildings were decaying and needed a lick of paint.
That summer gave me a glimpse of Russia but I also learned much about America.
I grew up in Reagan years, constantly bombarded by the message that we should be afraid, very afraid, of nuclear annihilation and the Soviet Union taking over the world. On this trip, surrounded by the delapidated city in a country that was on its knees, I questioned that narrative. It all seemed to be a sham and America had played a role in driving the USSR out of business.
I distinctly remember visiting the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery where a colossal female statue overlooks the mass graves of the victims of the siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich’s haunting 7th Symphony, The Leningrad Symphony, which he wrote and performed during the siege plays over speakers. Leningrad lost more than a million residents during the war and in this cemetery 489,000 civilians are buried. And yet, when I studied World War II in America, the Soviet Union scarcely gets a mention. A state education gives a picture of the world, but not a complete picture.
The following year I graduated from university and I jumped at an opportunity to go to Moscow and work for a start-up courier company. By this time, Moscow had a strip club, a pizzeria and two Irish bars. That was pretty much it for the night life scene. There was definitely more hustle and bustle, more advertising on streets but it was not an easy place to live. There was a harsh-ness to the city. Middle aged men were often drinking beer on their way to work in the morning and passed out on benches later in the day. Legless Afghan War veterans would scoot around on makeshift wooden trollies, begging under the crystal chandeliers in the subway stations. Over the next few years the economy developed but so did the casinos and brothels. During these Yeltsin years, the pendulum swung from drab to seedy and everything became plastered in garish advertisement.
The best part of those years were the friends I made. There is no friend quite like a Russian friend. My language skills improved, not in a classroom, but sitting around Natasha’s kitchen table, translating Pink Floyd songs into Russian. I met a wide variety of expat friends as well, many of whom remained lifelong friends. I ended up staying 6 exciting years in Moscow and left in 2000. I had arrived in Moscow with a suitcase and backpack and left with a husband and a twenty foot shipping container.
I went back in 2013 to meet up with friends. And once again, Moscow had changed wildly. Modern skyscrapers formed a new skyline. Billboards had been removed from historical buildings. Gorky Park, which I remembered as a mix of rusty fairground rides, weeds and tinny pop music blaring from kiosks selling beer, had completely transformed. Lush gardens bloomed. Dance lessons were offered on a public dancefloor. No public drinking allowed. People lounged on comfy beanbags in front of a modern art museum. Free books were available in cute mini library cases. The pendulum had swung from seedy to cultured urban chic. These were the Putin years.
I never visited Russia while writing my novel. I relied on my memories and experiences in Moscow and St. Petersburg, books, interviews, films and google to write The Girl from the Hermitage. I planned to return to Moscow and St. Petersburg in May 2020 to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and the publishing of novel. But sadly, the trip has been cancelled due to that pesky uninvited guest, Covid-19.
NOTE: Petrograd was named Leningrad after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, and again became St. Petersburg in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Confusingly, the surrounding region (oblast) is still known as Leningrad.
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