Bill Bowring reviews ‘Remembering Leningrad: The Story of a Generation’ by Mary McAuley

18 October 2020

By Bill Bowring, Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London, where he teaches public international law and human rights, and a practising barrister. Bill is a member of the advisory council of Rights in Russia.

Bill Bowring reviews: Mary McAuley, Remembering Leningrad: The Story of a Generation, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2019, 236 + xiv pages. [no index] ISBN  9780299322502

This is a book for deep immersion, a book to be savoured.

I first met Mary McAuley in Moscow in 1997. She was at time the Head of the Ford Foundation’s office in Russia, from 1995 to 2002. I was a lecturer in Human Rights at Essex University, had first visited Russia in 1983, in the time of Andropov, and after many visits to Russia, had won a contract to advise the new Department for International Development (DfID, now sadly closed) on initiating and funding projects on “Human Rights and Law Reform in Russia”. Mary had taken up the Ford post after teaching at Essex and Oxford Universities, and was a rather powerful person in Russia: she was one of the main grant-makers for civil society, especially human rights and media, and she was able to give me unique advice and contacts. Mary is also rather formidable. 

I also met her husband Alastair McAuley, my colleague at Essex, who had taken a year out to help direct the New Economic School (housed in the 1963 Soviet modernist “house with an ear”, the Central Economic Mathematical Institute), and they took me to dinner at a restaurant around the corner from Mary’s grand office in Tverskaya Ulitsa. I have vivid recollections.

Based in particular on her experience with Ford, she has written a splendid book Human Rights in Russia: Citizens and the State from Perestroika to Putin (I. B. Tauris 2015, reprinted in paperback in 2016) which I have reviewed elsewhere (SCRSS Digest, 2015, No 3, p.14). 

Mary’s new book is very much more autobiographical. She kept a wonderfully detailed diary, starting with her first visit to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev in September 1959 (p. 16). This was also when she met El’mar Sokolov, one of the people, residents then of Leningrad and later of St. Petersburg, who are central to the book. He became her close friend. He died in 2003 (p. 220), born in 1932, and his name is an amalgamation of Engels, Lenin and Marx – not uncommon at that time. His parents, who moved to Leningrad in 1941, were people who never doubted the rightness of Communist Party rule or the superiority of socialism over capitalism. 

In 1961, back in Russia, Mary met El’mar’s groups of friends from school, and they too are our companions in this richly detailed series of stories. Their group photographs as they were together at school are reproduced on pages 18 and 19, and El’mar’s photo at the time Mary first met him, a lecturer in the philosophy department of the Herzen Institute – the pedagogical university today –  in 1961 is at page 23. On page 188 there is a photo of El’mar (and his school friend Leva) as they were when Mary visited them in Pskov in 1993, 32 years older. This is the history of Russia in the second half of the 20th century, in one individual.

Two others whose lives we follow with Mary are the twins Leonid and Liuba Romankov: their photos in 1961 are at pages 26 and 27, and in 1993 at page 190. On page 191 there is a moving detailed recollection of their birthday party in November 1993.  

Indeed, this is really less an autobiography of Mary McAuley, but much more a biography of the city and some of its inhabitants. The book is dense with vivid detail, and brings the city to life.

In 1961 Mary, studying at St Antony’s College, a graduate college at Oxford, won a place on the ten month research visits organised by the British Council and the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education, and sailed on the Soviet cruise ship Baltika, from Tilbury to Leningrad. She is pictured as she was then on page 37. Life as a student is captured in Chapter 2, “Stalin’s Children”. She studied Labour Disputes in the USSR (Chapter 3). She returned in 1965 with Alastair as a tourist, and caught up with her friends. 

She also met a new friend, the historian of free-masonry in Russia, Vitaly Startsev, who was also a good friend of mine, a warm and generous individual. I helped in his research in London in 1993, and met him and his wife also in St. Petersburg on several occasions. As noted above, the book sadly has no index, but Professor Startsev makes several more appearances (e.g. pp. 91, 184). He died in 2000.

In 1990 Mary was back in St Petersburg, as it was renamed in 1991, attached as a visiting scholar to the new Institute of Sociology (p. 83), working on the new social and political movements. 

That stormy period, with the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, is not to be forgotten. I was in Moscow in June and July 1991, taking a three week immersive course in Russian at the excellent Russian language school for foreigners at the Moscow Motor Road Construction Institute (MADI). As Mary too recalls, that was a time of acute shortages: there were no matches to be found for a period, and no-one turned off their gas, for fear that they would not be able to light it again – and so as to be able to light their cigarettes. On 10 July 1991 I watched on TV the pomp and ceremony of the inauguration of Boris Yelstin as first elected President of Russia, with Mikhail Gorbachev, unelected President of the USSR, sitting alone in a corner. The following month, in the “putsch”, the government of the USSR tried to take power, and failed. Yeltsin standing atop a tank in front of the White House is an indelible image.

In 1992 Mary was granted two more years’ research leave at the Institute (p. 118) and she bought an apartment in Vasilevsky Island. Chapter 7, “An Apartment and a Telephone” will tell you everything you could ever want to know about the nightmare of acquiring a place to live and a means of communication, neither at all straight-forward, in those tumultuous years. 

Chapter 9, “From the Caucasus to the Far North” describes, with some evocative photographs, her exotic travels in Russia in 1992 and 1993. 

In 1995 Mary was already in charge of the Ford Foundation’s Moscow office. In St Petersburg she funded civil society organisations and activists very well known to me too: the Memorial Society (my partners since 2003 in the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, EHRAC, taking cases against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights); Smolny College, set up with Bard College in the USA, where I also taught human rights; Citizens Watch, led by the fearless Boris Pustintsev; and the fearless human rights advocate Yury Schmidt, my colleague in the trials and acquittal of Alexander Nikitin in 1998-9, who died in 2013.

The final visit to St Petersburg in this book was in October 2015 (p. 201), with her daughter in law, Marina. October 30 is the commemoration day for victims of political repression, and they laid flowers at the Troitsky stone, a boulder from the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, a place of exile and death in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Chapter 12 is entitled “Farewell to St Petersburg”. Finally, Mary’s Postscript (p. 235) takes us to her flat in Bloomsbury, and in an elegiac page and a half, shows us her Russian paintings and artefacts.

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