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 But otherwise her work was unpublished.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. Ilya Sergeevich Verger, a member of the Party since 1898 and Petrushevskaya’s great-grandfather (she called him Dedya), lived there with his daughter, a Bolshevik since 1912, and two granddaughters, Petrushevskaya’s mother Valentina and her aunt Vava. Dedya’s children were all Bolsheviks. His younger son, two daughters, and their spouses were arrested in the Great Terror of 1937, and all but one were subsequently shot. As the relatives of “enemies of the people,” the rest of the family was shunned. The pregnant Valentina was abandoned by her husband after he publicly renounced her at a meeting of the Literary Institute, where they had met as students.
Petrushevskaya has only fragmentary recollections of her early years. She recounts them in the manner of a fairy tale, imagining events and making suppositions when she has no memory or family legend to go by. Her unbroken memories begin with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, when the family was evacuated from Moscow to Kuibyshev in the southeast of European Russia. They moved into a communal apartment, the scene of so many of her later stories, where the young Ludmilla shared two connected rooms with her mother, aunt, and grandmother. In 1943 Valentina returned to Moscow, where she managed to enroll in the Institute of Theatre Arts by concealing her family history—a risky tactic that could have had serious consequences if it was revealed that she had failed to mention her arrested relatives, but a common one for victims of repression during the war, when the tight police controls of the 1930s were loosened. Ludmilla did not see her mother for the next four years.
Left with her grandmother and her aunt in the communal apartment, Petrushevskaya would come to draw much of the material for her fiction from these years of scarcity and deprivation, meanness, malice, and often violent hatred among neighbors. She recounts an episode when her grandmother was attacked by a neighbor with an ax because, as the relative of an “enemy of the people,” she had used the bathroom out of turn. The scene might have come straight out of one of her scary tales.
“We were enemies to everyone,” Petrushevskaya writes, “to our neighbors, to the police, to the janitors, to the passersby, to every resident of our courtyard of any age.” Her aunt Vava lost her job because she was considered a “dangerous element,” so the three of them were forced to live on what they got from Valentina in Moscow and Ludmilla’s child support from her absent father, by this time a philosophy professor.
The five-year-old girl with matchstick legs and hunger-swollen belly collected scraps of food from garbage bins, compost heaps, and market floors. Potato peels, herring bones, and cabbage leaves were made into a soup or cooked until nearly black on a kerosene burner. Ludmilla did not own a pair of shoes, so she did not attend school. From April to October she would go barefoot, begging on the streets by singing songs “like Edith Piaf.” In the winter she remained indoors, learning how to read “from the newspapers that our neighbors left in the trash” and from Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: Short Course, in which, she recalls, her grandmother “had underlined the most obnoxious lies. The whole book was covered in red pencil.”
Stalin appears as a frightening and ghostly figure, as if the young girl were already conscious of his murderous part in her family’s history. At the age of seven, she writes, she was terrorized by Stalin’s portrait in an office where she slept illegally:
I found myself in the director’s room at the Officers’ Club, on the scratchy couch, and, resting my head on my arm for a pillow, saw in the light of an endless sunset that particular portrait, in which Stalin seemed ready to turn around and fix me with his beady black eyes. Terrified, I quickly turned to my other side and covered my eyes.
The figure in the painting exuded malice…. Who knows what the artist must have felt when he was working on it? He may have been fearing for his life, hoping for mercy.
It is difficult to tell how much of her fear as a child was politically informed—perhaps none of it—and how much her memories were reconstructed with an adult consciousness.
Like many Soviet children growing up in these times of extreme deprivation, Ludmilla fastened onto small possessions for comfort and emotional support. She had a fixation about dolls:
Now, I know what a doll means to a girl: It is her tame goddess. It inspires worshipful adoration, furious possessiveness, and also a certain ferocity—it is mine, I can do what I want with it. Dolls are clutched to the breast and force-fed—and then abandoned without a glance. One can paint a doll’s face, then scrub it off along with the factory paint. Shave its head. Perform surgeries on it. (One must take care to keep it away from boys—they will tear it apart.) Dolls are pitied and adored beyond words. Nothing surpasses a girl’s passion for her doll—only her love for her Mama, Papa, and grandparents.
Her doll was small and one-legged, but she also had a toy horse she had made from cardboard, colored with a crayon, and wrapped in a rag. For one night she played with two large dolls left by neighbors in the shared kitchen: “I knelt before them, sat them up, and folded their poor soiled hands in their laps. Then I leaned my head against their soft torsos.” The next morning they were gone. Later, with a windfall from her begging, she bought the only item that she could afford from a toyshop, a celluloid sailor, which she lost on her way home.
Reunited with her mother in 1947, Ludmilla returned to the Metropol Hotel, where Dedya had a private room. She was a “wild child”:
At the age of nine I was unfamiliar with shoes, with handkerchiefs, with combs; I didn’t know what school or discipline was. I couldn’t sit still; I read books at a fantastic speed crouching on the floor. I swallowed food instantly, using my hands primarily, and licked the plates clean.
They moved into the room of her grandfather, a professor of linguistics, who was later sacked from the Institute of Oriental Studies because he had failed to praise Stalin’s 1950 article “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics.” The small room in the communal apartment was filled with books. For seven years Ludmilla and her mother slept together underneath the dining table in the middle of the room, while the old professor tossed and turned in bed.
The wild child was sent to a remedial school in Bashkiria and packed off to summer camps around Moscow in various attempts to socialize her. But her salvation came through art. Desperate to be accepted by the other children, she told them scary stories when the lights went out. At her Moscow school, which she entered when she was twelve, she sang the patriotic song “Our Homeland Hears” at the end-of-year concert—a statement of her own transition from a child of “enemies of the people” to an equal Soviet citizen.
Writing was her real talent. Encouraged by her literature teacher, a sarcastic and demanding “drill sergeant” on whom she had a teenage crush, Ludmilla steadily improved her grades. She was quick to expose any falsity, even daring to criticize that classic of the Soviet canon, Maxim Gorky’s Mother, by pointing out that in the scene in which the workers leave their village for the factory in the dark, it would have been impossible for their path to be lit by the candles from their huts, because the doors of peasant houses did not open directly onto the street but into an anteroom without windows. Here, at the age of just sixteen, was the lively, bold, iconoclastic spirit that would animate the writer’s life and work.
Her extraordinary memoir ends with a humorous account of how she was “discovered among the virgin lands of Kazakhstan” by a Moscow radio program, The Late Night News, which employed her to recount tales about the student volunteers who colonized the Kazakh steppe for the collective farms in Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign, which began in 1953. She had gone to Kazakhstan because she could not get a position at any of the Moscow periodicals after graduating from journalism school.
She had so neglected her compulsory courses on Marxist-Leninist philosophy that she almost flunked her last exam, an oral test on the “Theory and Practice of the Soviet Party Press and the Foreign Communist Press.” Unable to answer any of the questions, she told her stunned examiners that none of it would come in handy anyway: she was going to the virgin lands to join a socialist construction site, and you had to study life before writing about it. There was a commotion in the hall. “Students listening at the door parted before me like the Red Sea,” she recalls. But when they were summoned back to hear their grades, she got a C. “I laughed out loud from the shock. That laughter rang sacrilegiously at the solemn moment of graduation.” Her examiners had been afraid to fail a student who had perfectly expressed the Bolshevik philosophy of the relationship between literature and life.