In her book of short critical commentaries and interviews with ten contemporary writers, Voices of Russian Literature, Sally Laird describes the women and girls who populate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories as hapless and ill-suited to even the most basic machinations of life. They seem to lack “even the rudiments of pride or strategy,” and on the surface, as Laird points out, “many of Petrushevskaya’s heroines appear to live their lives ineptly.” Nothing better describes the heroines of the stories in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself.
These girls and young women are average-looking or sometimes outright unattractive, as in the case of the protagonist in “Give Her to Me”: “Karpenko… was one of those unfortunate creatures forced to compensate for their appearance with a pleasant disposition and a carefree attitude.” They’re barely visible to the world outside of their cramped apartment shared with family members. “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else,” begins one story, for example. “Until Clarissa turned seventeen not a single soul admired or noticed her—in that respect she was not unlike Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling,” begins another.
Motherhood is a central theme in these stories, and mothers loom large over these inept, awkward daughters. But these daughters then grow up to become inept, awkward mothers. This pattern keeps repeating itself throughout Petrushevskaya’s stories. That the parents are practically indistinguishable from their children is one of the key tropes in this collection.
In her interview with Laird, Petrushevskaya is keen to emphasise that she doesn’t regard herself as a women writer.” As she says: “I write above all about children, not about women; the land I inhabit is a land of children, not of grown-ups.” These love stories are as much about women trying to find their lost or dead babies in grown men as it is about love between two adults or supposed “equals”.
If Petrushevskaya’s women are hapless, then the men are clueless. But if there is a war of the sexes in Petrushevskaya’s stories, however, it’s a war between two losing sides. Husbands have lost their jobs, money, and teeth, and their wives plot to escape to another apartment inherited from dead aunts. Husbands and wives scream at each other over dinner and stomp off to bed; they wake up the next day and show up to perform the same ritual all over again.
That’s because they have nowhere else to go. Another central theme in Petrushevskaya’s stories is that of space or the absolute lack of it—the key characteristic of the Russian kommunalka. Petrushevskaya’s stories make no overt mention of politics, but her characters are constantly manoeuvring their way around the cramped spaces of communal apartments; the concept of privacy is literally impossible, barely even imaginable. The space of the communal apartment organises the behaviour of the inhabitants; it mediates their social interactions.
Petrushevskaya may eschew overt discussion of Soviet communism in her stories—all the action tends to take place “inside”, in these apartments and in offices, bus stops, grocery stores—but the Soviet-era administration of space haunts each and every personal encounter. In “Young Berries”, one of the collection’s most poignant and formally-inventive story with its alternating first and third person point-of-view, a young girl finds that she’s unable to have the phone conversation she wants to have with her crush because “the apartment’s entire population now stood in the hall… The conceit was that everyone was waiting to use the phone after me.”
More central to the story, however, is how the girl’s stay in a sanatorium—with its autumnal park and lush trees, with all its space—is what she comes to miss the most after she returns to a crowded apartment shared with one too many family members. “By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians.”
To the extent that this collection features “love stories”, however, love is a mangled, ugly thing. Despite love’s viciousness, manipulations, and violence, however, Petrushevskaya’s characters are lonely, and they want some of the sweetness it brings: human contact, warmth, an elevated sense of self, the idea that there must be something better out there than life as they know it. Often, it’s a means of escape—a way out of those damn communal apartments, for one thing (and into another, as it often turns out), but for children, it’s primarily a means to escape the pressing weight of their parents.
In “Father and Mother”, for example, Tanya leaves her bickering parents’ home with her lover after deciding that she’s had enough of them, and she never looks back: “Everything that happened to her afterward—homelessness, then a landlady who drank nothing but kefir and tried to hang herself every March but was rescued by her son—all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” In the hands of a different writer, the bleakness of these stories would be overwhelming, its black humour enervating or merely “ironic”. But Petrushevskaya wants her characters to have a better life. She’s not sure if they can, given the fact that the world is a pretty shit place, but she’s not going to give up on them.
It’s this aspect of Petrushevskaya that American reviewers seem to adore, perhaps assuming that this reveals a kind of liberal humanism that has seen the worst of Soviet communism and whole-heartedly refused it. And perhaps it does. Petrushevskaya is well-known playwright and writer in her own country and has been writing since the ‘70s, although it was only after the implementation of glasnost under Gorbachev during the ‘80s that her prose writings began to see light of day.
Meanwhile, she became well-known to American readers (and by proxy, readers in other parts of the world) after the publication of a collection of “scary fairy tales” by Penguin Books, ,i>There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in 2009. While Petruskhevskaya, in Laird’s interview, says, “I’ve never concerned myself with politics—it doesn’t interest me at all, for all sorts of reasons,” this strikes one as a particularly disingenuous statement because while it’s never overt, there is a sense of resistance or criticism to forms of communal living, and by extension, the Soviet communist project at large, in all her stories. This seems to indicate a particular political position, even if it’s not explicitly articulated.
In this light, then, her characters’ absolute lack of drive, ambition, or self-transformation is particularly interesting—their incompetence at life becomes more of a political stance and less of a quirk of the “the mysteries of human nature” variety for which Petrushevskaya’s stories are often praised. As Jochen Hellbeck points out in his study of diaries written during the Soviet revolution, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, “The concern with self-transformation, shared by the Communist regime and these Soviet diarists, was rooted in the revolution of 1917, which promoted a new thinking about the self as political project… Talking and writing about oneself had become intensely politicized activities. One’s ‘biography’ had become an artifact of considerable political weight.”
Petrushevskaya, whose forebears were part of the Old Bolsheviks and comprised the Russian intelligentsia, lived a life of poverty and neglect. Anna Summers writes in her translator’s introduction that as a young girl in Moscow “Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments,” while in the interview with Laird Petrushevskaya talks specifically about wanting to write the stories of “ordinary people” outside of the circle of politicians and intellects that she knew grewing up.
The characters of her book don’t keep diaries or ruminate on their innermost thoughts—they are consumed by detail and the minutiae of the everyday life; in those cramped apartments, they barely have space to think. This fulfils one common narrative beloved by liberal capitalists about life under Soviet communism: people are so victimised they barely even know how to have thoughts! On the other hand, as Hellbeck points out, Soviet diarists came from varied backgrounds and occupations, and many were wrestling with the summons to “internalize the revolution” with a personal attempt to write themselves into “the revolutionary narrative”. In this sense, while it was a Communist dictat that the people should write their lives and transform themselves into ideal revolutionary subjects, indicating a certain form of political and social coercion, people retained a sense of agency in their writings and sought to shape their troubled, conflicted individual narratives within a larger, collective one.
Petrushevskaya’s stories of “ordinary people” are ambivalent and unsettling because while people show up to help each other, they seem unaware of their own actions or the impulses, desires, and reasons behind it. Petrushevskaya wants her characters to come out on the other side, still surviving, but this concern for her characters can be as forceful, patronising, and muddled as the love parents have for their children. In her introduction, Summers wants us to see that Petrushevskaya “wants us to be strong, and clever, and resourceful, like the Russian people she loves.” But if the characters in her stories stand in for the Russian people she loves, then these are a people who are exhausted and perplexed, sent out into a world they don’t quite know how to navigate, subject to love, luck, and brutality by the incomprehensible energies of an indifferent universe (or, depending on your point of view, a gifted and shrewdly manipulative writer). There’s a sense that some readers can take some form of comfort from that, but for others, these stories merely suggest business as usual—only bleaker.