Suzanne Parry writes of sad history in 'Lost Souls of Leningrad'
As a college student, Suzanne Parry spent a semester studying in the then-Leningrad in the then-Soviet Union, and it changed her forever.
"I spent five days in Leningrad, and saw everything. The day I remember most was going through the cemetery," she said. "It is a stark and beautiful and moving space."
It was the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, site of where some 500,000 civilians have been buried from the siege of Leningrad, when Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany attacked the Russians on the Eastern Front in World War II. It didn't work out for Hitler, of course, but the dead lay resting in the now-St. Petersburg, Russia cemetery remind us of the extent of carnage during World War II.
There are huge, flat rectangular mounds in the cemetery, more than 200 of them, with simple granite markers. Underneath them are thousands of dead unknown civilians.
"At 21, it hit me like a ton of bricks how Russian suffered during World War II," Parry added. "We don't do a good job of teaching history about the Eastern Front."
Through an interesting, diverse life that took her to the negotiating table with the Soviet Union, to 38 marathons run in several countries, to working around the world while raising four children and to the trails of Portland as coach of Lincoln High School cross country team, Parry never forgot her first experience in Russia.
So, when Parry embarked on the latest twist in her career, as an author, her first subject addresses the siege of Leningrad, 1941-44. Her first historical fiction novel, "Lost Souls of Leningrad" ($17.95, She Writes Press) comes out Nov. 8, and she'll make an appearance at Powell's Books on Thursday, Nov. 10.
The story: In 1941, once elegant Leningrad is besieged by Hitler's army. A widowed violinist is trapped with her granddaughter in the starving city while the men they love fight the war from Leningrad's outskirts. Bound together by love, these four characters struggle toward survival even as the city deteriorates, and the war exacts its terrible price.
"When I came back from the Soviet Union at age 21, I sat at my parents' house and made a list of what I wanted to accomplish in life," said Parry, now 65 and living in Beaverton. The list included "being competent in five foreign languages, and I almost got there, as I had a working knowledge of Russian, German, French and a smattering of Spanish.
"And what I remember most from the list was I wanted to write a book. And, in 2016, I would jokingly say, when most people have a midlife crisis and buy a sports car, I thought I'd write a book."
And, it's the first of three books actually. The second book will feature a minor character, a daughter-in-law, from "Lost Souls of Leningrad" and a third follows an Army officer character from "Lost Souls."
Parry, who grew up in western New York, doesn't have any family history with Russia. It was her experience studying abroad in the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, and then through studies about Russia and political science and international relations that intrigued her about the country. She studied at Purdue University, but studied abroad via an Ohio State University exchange program.
Then, once her career started, the Soviet Union/Russia connection further manifested itself.
After graduate school at Princeton University in the 1980s, she worked for the Department of Defense in the Pentagon as an arms control specialist, ending up in security issues and negotiations.
At one point, she was one of the lead negotiators for the United States with the Mikhail Gorbachev-era Soviet Union at the Conference on Disarmament in Sweden.
"It was a hopeful time," Parry said. "Gorbachev had just come into power, and there was a good future ahead and our countries could even be friendly someday. Looking back on it, it's so strange that we're now in the coldest war ever," with Vladimir Putin's Russia invading Ukraine and other international affairs affecting the United States.
In later years, her then-husband's job took the family overseas. She taught university part-time in Singapore. The family lived in countries in Europe and Asia. All the while, even with kids, Parry ran 38 marathons in places such as Vietnam, Budapest (Hungary), Paris and Turin (Italy) and "the biggest and best was South Africa (a double marathon, 56 miles) called the 'Comrades,'" she said.
Having lived here in the early 1990s for a stretch, she returned to Portland in 2001 "and I thought I'd teach university, but I was a single parent with four children and I didn't have much help with any kind of family in those years, and the (part-time) pay was so bad," Parry said.
From 2004 to 2019, she coached cross country at Lincoln High, as an assistant and then head coach. She also coached track and field for many years. Her children attended Lincoln.
Parry said the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump became president, was a time of "trauma" for people and the idea of writing a book started to take hold. "It would give a way for people to see what authoritarianism looks like," she said, of the story behind "Lost Souls of Leningrad."
The subject matter also is pertinent given what has happened with Russia in recent months, as Putin's army invaded Ukraine, and the world has clamored to Ukraine's side.
"We're back in the USSR; Putin has really re-Stalinized Russia," she said. "His tactics are not quite the same as Stalin, or on the scale of (Joseph) Stalin, but they are every bit as brutal and authoritarian.
"My take on Putin is basically: It is easier to have a nationalist approach to your government, it's easier to say 'Oh the reason the economy is so bad is because of those Nazis in Ukraine or the evil west,' rather than to actually fix the economy."
We in the west don't understand the difficult and traumatic upheaval that Russia has undergone since the fall of communism and subsequent introduction of capitalist economy some 30 years ago, she added.
So, today, "it causes uncertainty domestically in Russia. There are groups to the right of Putin in Russia, and he has pressure from those groups. I fear with continued success by Ukraine there's a possibility of overreaction (by Russia)," she added.
Parry, who now has four adult children and two grandchildren, anxiously awaits the response from "Lost Souls of Leningrad" and her ensuing books.
"I do feel very good about it, and I've had quite a lot of reviews and feedback. I won't say it's universally excellent, but it's quite good," she said.
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