During the public launch for her new novel, which is set in the Soviet Union during the 1941 siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) by Axis forces, author Jan DeGrass charged the elephant in the room head-on.
Why write a sympathetic account of Russia at a time when that nation’s assault on its neighbour has turned it into an international pariah?
“I actually started writing before the war in Ukraine,” explained DeGrass to a capacity audience at the Sechelt Public Library on Dec. 1. “The book itself has been finished for about two years now. And on [a resolution in] Ukraine, we might be waiting for a long time.”
DeGrass, the former Arts and Entertainment columnist for the Coast Reporter, former editor of and still regular contributor to Coast Life magazine, said that her book Winter of Siege actually had an even earlier genesis. As a UBC student studying the Russian language, she travelled on an immersion program to the USSR in 1973 and 1974.
“I was always interested in Russian literature,” she said. “In the summers of ‘73 and ‘74, we really got to know the place. We could barely speak the language but we tried to communicate with people and we were always dodging our tour guide who was, of course, a Community Party person who would be managing us around the city so we wouldn’t see things that they didn’t want us to see.”
She made subsequent trips to Saint Petersburg in 1993 and 2016, when she witnessed Russia’s transformation following the dissolution of its communist regime.
Supported by DeGrass’s detailed research, Winter of Siege personifies the strength of Russian citizens in the face of violent flux and oppressive confusion. The plot follows a young woman — Anna Leonova — on an unremitting quest to find her mother in Leningrad as German forces circle and eviscerate her native city.
DeGrass employs vivid dialogue to evoke the claustrophobia and hopelessness triggered by dual threats of Stalinist tyranny and the cloud of Axis invasion. “We are making superhuman efforts to ensure everyone is fed,” explains Nikolai, a government official. “I can’t set aside my work to help just one person.” Later he warns Anna and her entourage that showing courage will only cause trouble.
Upon arriving in Ladoga village, east of Leningrad, Anna confronts a cigarette-smoking bus driver: “What is this place?” she asks. The man replies in one word: “Hell.”
“I always wanted Anna to be a strong woman, even though she has her 19th birthday just before she goes off on her journey,” said DeGrass. “She’s almost an orphan at one point in the book, and she almost breaks down a few times. But she knows she has to stay strong.”
Along her journey, Anna is yoked with male traveling companions (one discreetly reveals he formerly lived in Winnipeg), and cautious flames of friendship and affection flicker. Unexpected romance also blossomed, though more overtly, in DeGrass’s debut novel Jazz With Ella. It was published 10 years ago and takes place in Russia at the height of the Cold War.
The point in both stories, explained DeGrass, is hope. “People did survive the siege,” she said. A Russian friend she met in 1973 shared with her how his mother endured the siege, bore children afterward, and learned to cope with new challenges.
“Russians are very stoic about things,” said DeGrass. “They just go on struggling.”
Copies of Jan DeGrass’s Winter of Siege are available for sale from jandegrass.com and will soon be available at Talewind Books in Sechelt and the Earthfair EarthFair Store in Madeira Park.