2004fe06:St.Petersburg Times#914| "Survivors inspire siege novel by Matthew Brown"

A British writer who was moved to tears the first time she heard about it from an Intourist guide during a visit to the U.S.S.R. in 1979 has published an award-winning novel set during the Siege of Leningrad. "I was ... absolutely stunned by its scale, and sad that it should have been given so little attention in the West," C. S. Walton, author of "The Voice of Leningrad: The Story of a Siege," said in an email interview from London. The 900-day Siege of Leningrad by the German armed forces during World War II claimed about a million lives between 1941 and 1944. Last month the city commemorated sixty years since the breaking of the deadly siege. After her initial visit Walton was inspired to learn Russian and spend a year in Samara, central Russia, in 1993, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. [...]

Walton later published a book of non-fiction essays based on her experiences in "Little Tenement on the Volga" (Garret County Press, May 2001.)

Walton's new book, described by its publisher as an "incredibly well-researched ... allegory for the personal, political and historical events surrounding the siege," is narrated by Zinaida Konstantinova Suleikina, a 75 year-old former singer who returns to present day St. Petersburg after a 30-year exile in the U.K.

"The story is set in the present with flashbacks to the siege years," Walton explained. "[Suleikina] is searching for people from her past, from the siege. In particular she is anxious to find her former lover, the film actor Ivan Razin. She believes him to have denounced her after the war, which resulted in her 10-year exile in Siberia. In St. Petersburg she meets former colleagues - musicians, actors and dancers and they talk about how they survived those terrible years. Their creativity emerges as the key to their survival." [...]

Walton, who has traveled all over the world, came back to St. Petersburg in the summer of 1999 to research the book by interviewing survivors and visiting museums and archives.

"I also spent a lot of time exploring the city and its environs, to acquire a sense of place. Specifically, I wanted to know how people managed to survive the siege on a spiritual level; why they did not, under such unimaginably tough circumstances, succumb to despair. To this end I sought out people who had been involved in the creative arts. There were those such as Valentina Suleikina, a member of the Obrant troupe of children who performed before soldiers at the front, who described to me how their creativity kept them alive, involving as it did a life-giving exchange of energy with their audience."

The characters in "The Voice of Leningrad" are based on real people, Walton explained. "Some are composites; others were altered by dramatic invention. For example, the character of Sasha, a musician, is loosely based on [the late oboe player] Ksenia Mattus, one of the last ... survivors of the orchestra that performed the premiere of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony [in 1942]."

Walton said she found people were able to talk to her about their experiences during the siege.

"Russians [are] very open and willing to talk about their grimmer experiences. Even on the very dark subject of cannibalism (which features in my book), people were forthcoming. For example, in Petersburg I met a lady in a park who got talking to me about her life as a little girl during the siege. Her family believed that her grandfather had been killed for cannibalistic purposes, but could never prove anything. She told me her story very simply and sadly, in an almost matter-of-fact way."

Walton said she was encouraged to write about the siege because of the people she has met in St. Petersburg.

"I must say I was overwhelmed by the help I received. It seemed that everyone I spoke to, from [Hermitage Museum director Mikhail] Piotrovsky to anonymous babushki ... was willing to talk about their own experiences, or direct me to those who could.

Not surprisingly, it was the most moving and harrowing piece of work I have ever undertaken. I often found myself in tears, and suffered nightmares afterwards.

I feel very privileged to have met such remarkable people."

The first part of "The Voice of Leningrad" won a New London Writers Award for historical fiction in 2000 and the book has now been published in full by Garrett County Press, an independent publisher based in New Orleans. Part of a Russian series which includes "Ivan Petrov: Life Through a Shot Glass," an acclaimed biography of a Soviet alcoholic, Walton's interest in Russia's dark past remains undimmed, she said.

"I am currently writing a novel - about how the repression of the 1930s affected subsequent generations."

    The Voice of Leningrad: The Story of a Siege by C. S. Walton. Published Garrett County Press, 828 Royal St. No. 248, New Orleans, Louisiana 70116, USA.

    Links: www.gcpress.com