Some months ago I was having dinner with a writer from Moscow. I told him I was thinking of reviewing a new translation of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped, a Bollywood-inspired novella that pays homage to the Soviets’ love of Indian cinema. “Don’t do it,” he—a friend of hers—warned me. “If she doesn’t like what you write, she will turn you into a character in one of her stories—the stupid girl in New York who doesn’t know anything.” Being a longtime admirer of Petrushevskaya, I wasn’t too worried: realism is not her thing.
Petrushevskaya described her stories as “orchards of unusual possibilities” to Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, the translators of the collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009), her English-language debut. Over the course of her career, which began to blossom in the final years of the USSR, Petrushevskaya gained a reputation for braiding black humor and the absurd together with the Soviet mundane—communal apartments, residency permits, tape as red as the Communist flag—into something like a rope that you might hang your cheating husband with.
In “Revenge,” the story that gives the aforementioned collection its name, a woman named Raya becomes so jealous after her best friend and neighbor has a baby that she leaves pots of boiling water, containers of bleach, and boxes of needles in the hallway of their communal apartment once the child starts crawling. The neighbor, incredulous, tells Raya, “Sweetie, you dropped your needles again.” Raya replies innocently, “I’m always forgetting things.”
Petrushevskaya was born in 1938. Her unsettlingly funny tales of domestic un-bliss were almost entirely banned in the USSR until glasnost, when they achieved critical acclaim and commercial success. Before then, her plays were performed secretly in apartments, the setting for so much of her work. Petrushevskaya considered censorship a badge of honor. “Public praise of any kind was the mark of the devil,” she told the translator Sally Laird in the 1990s. “We all knew that instinctively. If a play was widely advertised it meant it wasn’t worth seeing, no one went.” Petrushevskaya must have been deemed very worth seeing. The editor who managed in 1962 to publish Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an unfiltered account of life in the Gulag, did not see a path through the censors for Petrushevskaya.
Under socialist realism, the official artistic doctrine of the Soviet Union, writers were meant to function as sanitation workers of the mind; any stories of daily life under communism were to be scrubbed clean of deprivation and vice. The warmth of the sun shining above the verdant vistas of the collective farm was to be matched only by the warmth of comradely feeling. Petrushevskaya found this picture of Communist horizons as unnaturally, disturbingly bright as American teeth. She instead portrayed her countrymen as ruthless and conniving, as competitive as any capitalist, and she dared to have a sense of humor about it all, titling a story that starts with a teenager becoming pregnant by her brother-in-law “Hallelujah, Family!” English-speaking readers can find that story in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself (2013), a collection of tales, translated by Summers, about the intimate lives of women in communal apartments and the grotesque realities that romantic fantasy will drive you to, wherever you live.
That the central characters in Petrushevskaya’s stories are often mothers makes them especially transgressive. Soviet women were the mothers of future workers, tasked with transferring Communist morality through their breast milk. To some, Petrushevskaya’s interest in the quiet dramas of domestic life and the microeconomics of the Soviet system came across as curiously apolitical for a writer whose life was so shaped by the forces of history. In the 1930s her grandmother’s siblings were declared enemies of “the people” and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Siberia without the right to correspondence (“a euphemism for the firing squad,” Petrushevskaya wrote in her memoir, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel).* Limited to ration cards for food, the family narrowly survived World War II. Petrushevskaya’s stomach became so swollen from hunger that a bully convinced her she was pregnant. “I believed him immediately,” she recollected. “I didn’t know how that happened, how long it took, or how it ended, but I did know that it was a secret and a disgrace, and so I only prayed, God, dear God, save me, save me.” Petrushevskaya told Laird that since her whole life had been swallowed up by politics, she could not muster any interest in the subject: “Don’t you see—I was born in the belly of the beast, the very womb.”
Yet the womb is, as Petrushevskaya’s own words attest, a kind of political center, a symbolic container into which we force our dreams and nightmares about the future, often at the same time. Her latest novel, Kidnapped (first published in Russia in 2017), likewise treats the uterus as a vessel that could keep the grand ideologies of the twentieth century warm while we waited for the outcome of the cold war. Kidnapped is a switched-at-birth story set in a dysfunctional Soviet maternity ward: two little boys have their futures stolen by selfish elites who have no idea what they’re doing. It is a family novel that will make readers, whether they were born under capitalism or communism, feel like brothers in arms.
As the title of Kidnapped suggests, Petrushevskaya, now eighty-five, has not lightened up when it comes to bad things happening to children, except of course when she’s making light of them. The boys are switched first by Alina, a mother so desperate to give her baby a better chance in life that she is willing to steal someone else’s. In the hospital she befriends a sweet young woman named Masha, who is preparing to travel to Handia, a fictional South Asian country, with her husband after their baby is born. “Why was it others had all the luck—family, foreign countries, food, money—but not her!” Alina thinks. But then Masha tragically dies in childbirth. Alina is not a monster, but she is bleeding profusely and not thinking straight, so she wanders into the room where the babies are kept and swaps the two boys’ bracelets, sending her own son, she imagines, off to a better life.
The plot thickens like a pregnant person’s endometrium. An infertile but well-connected woman who has been faking a pregnancy to her husband comes to the hospital in secret to adopt “Alina’s” baby. However, she sees “Masha’s” baby and thinks he bears a closer resemblance to her husband. “This is absolutely my Grant!” she yells, and pays a bribe to have the babies switched. (I am simplifying the story; Petrushevskaya paints such a chaotic picture of Soviet bureaucracy, made all the messier by maternal desperation, that I had to draw a diagram in the margins to keep track of which baby was which—a funny play, intentional or not, on the official line that everyone was equal under communism.)
Kidnapped is a cold war soap opera par excellence, replete with spies, Angolan freedom fighters, and student dormitories filled with the many nationalities of the Soviet Union. The ethnic diversity of students was often touted as a socialist victory in multiculturalism (to be contrasted with the racism of the West), amid chants of “druzhba narodov,” the friendship of peoples. This friendship is on full display when Faina, Alina’s schoolmate, confesses to betraying her after she got pregnant: “You Georgian ho! You tried to get that boy to marry you! He doesn’t give a shit about you! I wrote his father all about it!” (Marian Schwartz has not let one drop of Petrushevskaya’s bawdy humor get lost in translation.) Yet capital-P political threads taper off almost as soon as they appear, like Communist red herrings. Many who read post-Soviet literature in translation come expecting a cold war history lesson or sociological study of Soviet life. I confess I wanted more postcolonial Marxism from the Handia sections. But Petrushevskaya is tricking us into telling on ourselves. Is a mother’s love not sufficiently political to carry a Russian novel?
Alina, a poor university student, is on her own when she meets Masha in the hospital. It’s the 1980s, and the two girls are about to bring new life into the world just as the only way of life they have ever known is ending. But Masha, the daughter of bureaucrats with good party jobs, plans for the future as if it were something she could count on. She tells Alina about documentaries on Handia that she has been watching: “They have sacred cows walking down the middle of the street there! And no one leads them away. No one milks them! And if a cow starts to eat from a fruit stand, they don’t have the right to stop it!” Alina, who has no money for food, replies, “I wish I could do that!” Her wish comes true in the darkest way possible: after Masha dies, her husband, Sergei, pays Alina to be her stand-in. Sergei is in the foreign service, and under Soviet regulations he cannot travel abroad unless he is married. (It’s harder to defect with a wife and child in tow.)
Handia is less an actual country in the world of the novel than a symbol for longing. Kidnapped uses the lure of faraway places in a closed society to dramatize the desperate hope that things might be different somewhere else. But life, Petrushevskaya’s heroines learn, is not like a Bollywood movie, even if you travel all the way to where they make them.
It’s hard to overstate the popularity of Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood, in the Soviet Union. Indian films outpaced many domestic releases in a country with its own rich cinematic tradition. The second-highest-grossing film of all time in the USSR was the 1982 Bollywood musical Disco Dancer. The third was the more socialist Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951), starring Raj Kapoor as a street kid driven to crime by circumstance. Without access to international travel, Soviet citizens satisfied their wanderlust with literature in translation and foreign films. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was widely read in the USSR; Holden Caulfield’s dislike of “phonies” made it a safe indictment of American culture that doubled as a window into New York City.
Bollywood films, though they indulged in bourgeois fantasies of fame and fortune, emerged from a country that had recently gained its independence from the capitalist West and had, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, maintained friendly relations with Moscow. For many Soviet moviegoers, however, Indian films promised a different kind of liberation. In Indian Films in Soviet Cinemas (2008), the cultural historian Sudha Rajagopalan interviews a man who confesses that Bollywood was, first and foremost, foreplay:
When I was young, Indian cinema was where you took young girls. Then we both emerged happy and contented. Having watched beautiful relationships unfold on screen, we both wanted the same. We came out arm in arm…only Indian films did that for us.
Domestic films, Rajagopalan argues, rarely presented anything more erotically charged than the incomparable thrill of meeting production quotas. Though Bollywood did not depict nudity, the dance sequences were highly suggestive, with strategically timed “interruptions” that let viewers fill in the blanks.
For a Russian novel, Kidnapped is very hot, in both setting and scenario. If, as the saying went, “there is no sex in the Soviet Union,” Petrushevskaya seems to ask: Well, where did all the babies come from? The problem of finding space to make babies allows Petrushevskaya to poke around one of her favorite themes: housing. In theory the Soviet Union was a classless society, but people found ways to establish hierarchies within the system. (Indeed, one could argue that the regime relied on power-seeking petty functionaries to, well, function.) How else, after all, was anyone going to get a leg up on their sexual competition? There were prestigious posts and jobs that came with apartments. The result was that there were schemers everywhere, or, as Americans might call them, strivers. One of my favorite things about people from the former Soviet Union is that they are far less embarrassed about how frequently it is a distinction without a difference.
Housing was a permanent issue in the Soviet Union, particularly in Moscow. After the revolution the capital was besieged by peasants from the countryside. The government began requiring residency permits, and one of the easiest ways to acquire them was through marriage. Cue the chaos. The residency-permit stipulation led to an epidemic of fictitious marriages in the Russian capital, and Petrushevskaya pushes this trend to its extreme. Throughout Kidnapped she uses Bollywood tropes (double identities, long-lost relatives, star-crossed lovers) to emphasize the ways that Soviet bureaucracy could engineer its own melodramas.
This, we learn, was the origin of Masha and Sergei’s relationship. As it turns out, a fictitious marriage is not always fictitious for both parties. Sergei is a schemer—I mean, striver—whose grand plan begins with the most subtle of actions, an innocent offer to zip up a young woman’s purse that she forgot to close. The purse “was hanging at her side,” so Sergei’s “solicitous, capable hands ran over Masha’s hip.” Masha is the daughter of an ambassador, and Sergei is just an “unprepossessing kid from Krasnodar” who got into his prestigious institute after enlisting in the army and now, despite top marks, has to pass on an offer to work at the Soviet embassy in Handia. He doesn’t have a Moscow residency permit, which is required for the training period.
“I’m not registering him,” Masha’s dad angrily replies by phone when his daughter tells him she’s going to marry her friend from school. She just wants “to help him out.” The ambassador instinctively recognizes Sergei’s game, because he played it himself. He, too, married above his station. Once upon a time, he was a low-level spy in Handia who set his sights on an ambassador’s daughter, Tamara. To seduce her, he took her on a date to see a Bollywood film—in a scene not unlike the one recounted by Rajagopalan’s interview subject. “His breath sent shivers down the young woman’s neck” as he translated the dialogue from Handi to Russian. Not long after the credits roll, the two are on a park bench, on their way to conceiving Masha.
Like most Soviet diplomats, we are told, Tamara and her family lived within the embassy walls, barely mingling with locals. They have caviar shipped in from home. They train a Handian chef to make their favorite Georgian dishes, “cabbage, lobio, and ajapsandali.” They attempt to learn the language at night, watching musical shows on local television, but “they didn’t understand a damn thing.” Petrushevskaya gives us very little view of Handia, as if to emphasize that not every Soviet who traveled abroad was trying to escape, even temporarily. The thrill of foreign posts could be the social capital you won as a result back home. Tamara’s parents spy on the spy, pretending to be concerned he is a “defector.” Really, they just don’t want their daughter knocked up by a low-level government employee.
Handia reenters the story when it is Alina’s turn to make the trip, the one she has fantasized about ever since listening to Masha describe sacred cows. Children switched at birth is a common Bollywood trope, wherein the offspring of a wealthy, upper-caste family is raised by paupers, and vice versa. This being a Soviet story, though, there are no get rich quick schemes. Once in Handia, Sergei rapes Alina at night and controls her movements during the day. Their bland apartment building is full of gossipy bureaucrats. There is nothing foreign about her life there—except the body that now violently trespasses her own.
You will know from the first page of Kidnapped that the two baby boys eventually find each other and are raised as brothers, and everything in the story moves circuitously and manically toward their reunion. Along the way there are psychics, sex scandals, and faked deaths. The collapse of the Soviet Union forms no more dramatic a crescendo than any other calamity; it merely introduces the possibility of the boys’ inheritance: Sergei, thought to be lost at sea, was actually living in a McMansion in a Malta-esque tax shelter on government funds he laundered in the chaos of the transition.
Postcommunism does not look all that different from communism in Kidnapped. Bipolar or multipolar, it is still a man’s world. People are still just schemers and strivers, Petrushevskaya tells us, claiming whatever and whomever they want as their own. Such stark, sobering truths are not incompatible with a happy ending. In Petrushevskaya’s fiction, women are defined by their ability to continually rebuild amid the rubble of desire. Her beleaguered heroines make homes for their children with or without residency permits. We never worry for the little boys. States may fail, but mothers have never had that luxury.