At the weekend I came back from a brief three-day visit to St Petersburg. As with the best travel though, I feel I filled those days with many things, sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and also three months’ worth of vodka drunk. I never want to hear the phrase ‘complimentary vodka’ again.
My friends left on an earlier flight to me, after much laughing and walking and beauty and drinks and ballet. As fun as it was, part of me has always really liked being alone in a strange place, so I was glad of the few hours to wander about. It’s as if the membrane of the everyday is all removed, and I’m totally alive to every sound and sight, floating on the mild terror of being lost in a big unknown city.
I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to visit a museum about the Blockade – when the city was shut off by the Nazis between September 8 1941 and January 27 1944.
The museum is housed in a stupidly beautiful palace (because pretty much every building is thus, in St Petersburg), on the banks of the ink-black river. It was a chill bright day, quiet as the city always is, a sort of pervading silence from the water and sky and stone. I was the only person in the museum, along with twelve staff that I counted. First there was the ticket woman, who shouted at me because I didn’t have a smaller note than 1,000 roubles. Then there was the cloakroom man, who shouted at me because I didn’t put my coat in. He then ran round to the entrance to check the ticket I’d just bought, right before his eyes (did I mention I was the only visitor there?) Then there were the multiple old ladies in every room, glowering at me if I breathed too close to an exhibit or stood more than the regulation 1 metre away, or whatever it was I’d done (This is a theme in Russia. I got told off about twenty times a day by old ladies. Chiding is like a national sport).
The museum itself, though devoid of any English labels, was fascinating, and being alone (chiding old ladies excepted) made it more special, as I wandered through silent palatial rooms. Much of St Petersburg harks back to an older, more elegant world, where priceless works of art are stored in cupboards, no one rises till 10am, and cream comes with every meal. This was an insight into the other past. The one no one likes to remember.
For 900 days, the city held out against the Nazis. To begin with, they had only enough food for two months. As time went on they ate their pets. They grew cabbages in the cathedral (see picture). They boiled up books to make soup. They developed bread that was only 9% flour, the rest non-organic. They didn’t give in. They died, hundreds of thousands. They had no strength to bury their dead. There were dark rumours – human flesh consumed, children sold, women lured and murdered to make a meal. But they didn’t give in.
In the museum you can see pictures. The stoicism was what got me. You see a figure dragging something behind them on a sled, in the snow. A small bundle, wrapped in white. You wonder what it is. You realise it’s a dead child.
You can see the diary kept by an eleven-year-old girl, where she records the days each of her family died, one by one. You can see the fake bread they created in labs. You can see the trucks crossing the ice of a nearby lake, the one supply route occasionally open. You see people falling down in the street, too weak to carry on. But they don’t give up.
At this point I had to stop taking pictures because the old lady ran after me shouting ‘No Mobily! No Mobily!’
I went to the museum because last year I had written a novel with a Russian backstory – my heroine, in modern-day London, discovers her father had been a Soviet defector with a murky past. Now, this illustrates something of the charm and danger of research. I’m quite often asked about this, because people assume crime writers are mired in research up to their inky fingernails. I’m not though. Firstly, I tend to get too wrapped up in the research, spending days clicking from footnote to footnote, when I should be working on my story and character. People don’t read fiction to find out the history of biological warfare in Russia, though it is rather fascinating. Secondly, I am quite lazy. I can never seem to find out the exact niggling detail I want to check, amid an avalanche of information. Thirdly, I do genuinely believe too much research will kill your book. It’s fiction, you know? It’s an illusion, it’s spinning plates, it’s misdirection. Real life is mostly quite dull.
Anyway, the book about Russia never quite took off, though I’m still fond of it; hence the research trip to the museum. I had decided my heroine’s father probably grew up in St Petersburg during the war. As a child, he’d have seen terrible things, probably lost both parents. When I found the picture of this little boy, I decided he could be the father. So, an interesting morning. I learned a lot. I became even more fascinated by Russia. But as to whether it makes my book any better, or helps with my already spiralling plot to add in loads more detail about the Blockade (‘Gregor nursed his book soup as the Nazis advanced’, that sort of thing), I don’t know. Research isn’t story. If you’re good you can do both, but if not, I say choose story. If people want fascinating facts they can go to non-fiction.
Anyway, I left the museum wiser and more learned, with the old lady shouting in my wake and selling me more and more books on the Blockade (she saw me coming). In cities, there is always more history. There is always another story to find. You may find it in dusty rooms, in abandoned palaces, in old books, in a dream or a newspaper or out of the ether, but find it, and let that be your guide.