Friday, October 14, 2016

Review: Six Days in Leningrad

Six Days in Leningrad Six Days in Leningrad by Paullina Simons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After I finished graduate school, I treated myself to a backpacking trip through Europe. Communist Russia had always fascinated me. I didn't make it to Russia but I went into Eastern Berlin less than two years after the wall was toppled and the Iron Curtain fell, revealing an empire in disrepair, a corrupt government, and a life portrait frozen in time. Evidence of Krystalnacht and WWII still littered the landscape. The cars were the same color, make and model and none were newer than 25 years. Most were no longer running. Train lines dead ended before reaching the now non-existent wall. It was a stark contrast to the bustling Westernized life in western Berlin. Yet the people were lovely. They were friendly and as helpful and gracious as they could be. They were humble and many wanted to help us find the train station that would take us on to Austria. The problem was, there was no easy way to get to it from the broken transportation systems.

I share this to perspective to Paullina's narration of returning to Russia. What she describes as life goes in Russia is what I experienced to a much smaller degree in eastern Germany. Nothing had changed or been updated in decades. Repairs were not made. Toilets were not cleaned. If people feel no ownership, why bother? Yet this is a much deeper story, cathartic in nature. Paullina is an American author, mother, and wife who was born in Leningrad during the Cold War to Russian parents. Although her father was sent to the Gulags and she did not see him much between the ages of 5 and 10, she lived an idyllic childhood where she was loved, went to school, and played with her cousin every summer at a summer house. Upon release from the Gulags, her father arranged to immigrate to the United States. At the age of 10 Paulina and her family move to New York.

Six Days in Leningrad catalogs Paullina's trip back to Russia with her father and the way she sees her idyllic childhood homes, school, and city from the perspective of an adult. She sifts through what she has come to learn about her beloved country, her parents and friends, remembers her childhood, then contrasts this with her life in Texas, living in an opulent home with a heated pool and six clean toilets. How does she reconcile her Russian self with her American self? This is Paullina's defining moment that reclaims all of the Russian in her while claiming all of the American she has become. There is a deep dissonance that becomes her own war.

This is very well written and provides a very uncomfortable look into a country that has a very proud history along with a very devastating one.

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