The Wild Child of Russian Literature

Alexandra Mudrats/ITAR-TASS
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya performing at the 16 Tons nightclub, Moscow, July 2010

Fame came late to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, one of Russia’s most admired living writers, best known for her scary stories about Soviet family life. It was not until she turned fifty, at the height of glasnost in 1988, that she emerged on the literary scene. For many years before that she had written mainly “for the drawer,” as censored Soviet writers had been forced to do since Stalin’s time. She wrote her first stories in the 1960s, when she worked as a journalist in Moscow, and turned to plays in the 1970s, when she was an editor at the main Soviet television studio. One of her early stories was printed in the liberal Leningrad journal Aurora in 1972, and a few of her plays were produced by small and daring theaters in the provinces, far from the attention of the censors in Moscow. But otherwise her work was unpublished. As she was told by friendly editors, her stories were too dark, too close to the bleak and squalid truths of contemporary Soviet society.

Her breakthrough came in 1992 with the publication of Vremia noch’, which was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize. (It was published in English in 1994 as The Time: Night in an excellent translation by Sally Laird.) Since then she has brought out fifteen collections of short stories, which have appeared in many languages, including three volumes translated into English by Anna Summers with darkly funny titles not given to the original Russian editions: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, which became a New York Times best seller in 2009; There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sisters’ Husband, and He Hanged Himself (2013); and There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In (2014), which contains Summers’s version of Vremia noch’.

The recipient of numerous awards, Petrushevskaya has been living for a long time now in the public gaze in Russia, where in some ways she has succeeded Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the country’s greatest writer and authentic moral voice. In recent years she has gained a new kind of celebrity by giving up writing full-time to start a career as a cabaret performer, insisting that her first love was singing. Dressed in eccentric wide-brimmed hats, she can be heard in Moscow clubs singing jazz ballads and songs by Edith Piaf.

Petrushevskaya’s childhood memoir The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, first published in Russia in 2006, delighted her many Russian fans. It allowed them to see how her extraordinary early life had shaped her prose and personality.

Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, where she was born in 1938, was at that time called the Second House of Soviets, because it served as the residence of a number of the leading Bolsheviks.…



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