Published by Lightning Books 2020
Fascinated by this period of Russian history since a teenager – after watching Dr Zhivago – I wanted to review Molly Gartland’s The Girl from the Hermitage, and I’m glad I did. Inspired by a portrait discovered by the writer in Moscow, a tragic sweep of decades is reflected in the lives of one woman, her friends and family, progressing through WWII, Perestroika and Glasnost to the 21st Century. Starting in 1941, the contrast between deprivation during the Siege of Leningrad with conspicuous consumption in 2016 carries the sense that, somehow, nothing changes, just the nature of the venality, fear and suppression. Galina is the girl from the Hermitage, as a child, living through the siege in its cellars with her art restorer father, following the death through cold and hunger of her mother. When he is commissioned to paint the portrait of the young sons of a colonel, the difference in wealth and lifestyle between himself and his sitters highlights the callous dishonesty of Stalin’s military, a negative precursor to the Soviet concept of egalitarianism. Galina becomes an artist and we follow her experiences, the theme of art and portraiture interweaving with the growth of capitalism, and overshadowed by increasing corruption. Enough of the plot; the characterisation is truthful and engaging, relationships as simple and complex as reality. Galina is a heroine of talent, wisdom and restraint, patience being her heritage from life in the Hermitage. As she aged through betrayal and injustice, I found myself angry and frustrated on her behalf and wanted to know what became of her – the mark of excellent storytelling. Molly Gartland’s knowledge of and connection with her subject is evident throughout; so firmly rooted in reality, the writing is also rich in imagery and attention to detail without ever halting the narrative. This is a book to be savoured and to learn from. Thank you for letting me read it.