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It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating soup made of wallpaper, with the occasional luxury of a dead rat. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could now provide a safe haven, provided Mikhail can navigate the perils of a portrait commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.

Nearly forty years later, Galina herself is a teacher at the Leningrad Art Academy. What ought to be a celebratory weekend at her forest dacha turns sour when she makes an unwelcome discovery. The painting she embarks upon that day will hold a grim significance for the rest of her life, as the old Soviet Union makes way for the new Russia and Galina’s familiar world changes out of all recognition.

Warm, wise and utterly enthralling, Molly Gartland’s debut novel guides us from the old communist world, with its obvious terrors and its more surprising comforts, into the glitz and bling of 21st-century St Petersburg. Galina’s story is at once a compelling page-turner and an insightful meditation on ageing and nostalgia.

E-book available worldwide.

Paperback available in the USA and UK.

*I receive a small percentage of the profits on purchases made on my page.

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I am a member of the Debut Author 2020 Facebook group. There are about 50 authors in the group and as the name suggests, we all have books being published in 2020. Due to COVID, most of us are launching our books in very different ways than we originally planned. Many have had promotional plans cancelled and launch dates postponed. The group has been very supportive throughout the COVID crisis and I am very glad to be part of it.

In an effort of finding new ways to promote our books and launch them into the world, we have organised panel discussions for The Motherload Bookclub Facebook group. I’m not sure about my fellow panellists but this was the first time I participated in such a discussion. I think it went ok but I really should scowl less, it is giving me wrinkles.

There are some great books here. I’ve already downloaded one of them. For a complete list of Debut 2020 books, have a look at my first blog post “Books in the Time of Corona”.

If you missed the original airing, you can watch the discussion here:

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Once upon a time, way back in 1990, I was a student at Michigan State University. I was a business major, studying Financial Management (yes, ME) and taking elective Russian language classes. I remember my very first Russian class and the teacher went around the room and asked us to introduce ourselves and our major. There were only twelve or so students in the class and everyone was studying history, literature, journalism, etc.... When I declared I was studying business, the doughy, messy bearded junior professor laughed. “What? Are you going to spread CAPITALISM around the Soviet Union?” (Yes, this was in the days of the evil empire. More on spreading capitalism later.)

Sometime during 1992, I joined an international student organization called AIESEC. I don’t remember that day specifically but it is fair to say that decision has had an enduring impact on my life. I attended a leadership conference in Seattle in the summer of 1992 and that opened my eyes to the wonderful world of AIESEC. Everyone at the conference was switched on; busy creating development plans, training modules and cooperation agreements. AIESEC had its own language (involving lots of acronyms) and quirky ways of doing things. This student-run organisation was driven by one goal-peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential. Lofty? Most certainly. We were motivated. AIESEC was all about spreading a little PLIG (Peace, Love and International Grooviness). And of course, being students, there was also silly drinking games, dances, songs, etc.

In 1993 I became President of AIESEC Michigan State and my team of students set forth on creating a business plan and improving our Local Committee (LC). The central program of AIESEC was an international work exchange. We sent students and recent graduates abroad for work placements. And in turn, our LC would meet with local companies to get them to take on a trainee from abroad. We honed our sales and marketing skills while selling the traineeship program. We fundraised, organised conferences and attended seminars. We recruited more students to join and developed membership. We had friends around the world and travelled widely. We were students with air mile accounts and filo-faxes stuffed full of plans and targets. Flip charts abounded. We had breakfast meetings with the Board of Advisors and tailgated* with KPMG executives. It was fun, exciting and much more interesting than most of my classes.

Midway through my university years, the Soviet Union collapsed and the game changed dramatically. Suddenly it did not look so crazy to be a business major studying Russian.

As I approached graduation, an AIESEC friend mentioned that a couple of AIESEC alumni had started a courier and freight business, Pony Express, in Russia and were looking for someone to come and help with sales and marketing. Given my AIESEC sales experience and my Russian language skills (which weren't great, truth be told), I was a good fit for the position. AIESEC gave me the network to find this opportunity but it also made such a move “normal”. Many of my friends were going on international internships. We were the lucky ones to get the opportunity, so take it.

I did not hesitate and jumped at the chance to move to Moscow. And there I was, working for a courier company, SPREADING CAPITALISM around the former Soviet Union. The plan was to work for Pony Express for a year but I stayed on for six years. I have lived overseas ever since. (And never did pursue a career in Financial Management)

My debut novel, The Girl from the Hermitage, is not about my experiences living in Russia. But I would not have been able to write the book had I not had the experience of living there in the Nineties. At the very heart of this book, the reason that compelled me to write it is a desire to offer the reader a different view of Russia. And hopefully, in true AIESEC spirit, this book will spread a little PLIG.

For more about how my experiences working in Russia influenced the novel, watch me in a discussion hosted by AIESEC Life with Pony Express founder Mark Wheeler.

The Girl from the Hermitage e-book is available now on all platforms worldwide.

The paperback is out now in the UK.

Paperback will be available in USA in January 2021. Pre-order on Amazon here.


*Tailgate-a party clustered around the trunk of a car prior to a sporting event. This particular party involved a whole roasted turkey and a six-foot submarine sandwich.

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Updated: May 25, 2020

Borscht is a dish that features several times in The Girl from the Hermitage and is one of my favourite Russian recipes. I regularly make borscht and never tire of the taste. In fact, in the very early days of lockdown when I was riddled with anxiety and fuzzy-headed from sleepless nights, I made borscht. I found comfort in the slicing and chopping and appreciated a distraction from 2020.

Over the past week, I struggled to find beetroot. But then a neighbour offered on our street’s WhatsApp group to add items to her Ocado delivery. I asked her to get some beetroot and it arrived as ordered. Hurrah! The soup could be made. All of these strange lockdown grocery challenges remind me a bit of my time in Russia in the late Nineties. Products were sometimes unpredictable, you didn’t always know when or where you would find an item. One of the first things I learnt when I moved to Moscow-if you come across something you want to buy, get it. Don’t wait.

Borscht has hundreds of variations and you can find many different recipes online. Today I used a recipe on Epicurious. I didn’t have carrots or parsnips so I substituted potato and leek. And I didn’t have red wine vinegar so I used sherry vinegar instead. You can use whatever veg you have, that is the beauty of borscht. I also used homemade chicken stock which is always better than cubes or store-bought. Borscht is best served with soured cream and fresh dill. (My poor dill plants really need recovery time now!) This batch turned out great and has been enjoyed by the whole family, except my son isn’t keen on any type of soup.

I have a few beetroot leftover so I am going to make another of my Russian favourites, Beet and Walnut Salad.

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Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since.

She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London.

The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.

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