Books

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's Stories Resonate Despite the Terrors of Her Childhood

Many chapters in The Girl from the Metropol Hotel are brief snippets of memory: you could call them snapshots if they didn't resonate viscerally in so many ways.


The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 176 pages
Author: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-02
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Most contemporary readers are likely to remember their painful incidents experienced while growing up: whether being separated from people we loved, being tricked or bullied by our classmates, or struggling with some aspect of school. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya tells the stories of her childhood and upbringing in The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia. While her stories are fundamentally similar to our own, and create a powerful sense of pathos for the reader, her experiences are also radically different.

Born into a prosperous, intellectual family, Petrushevskaya, along with her mother, aunt, and grandparents, was able to escape Stalin’s Great Purge. Forced to leave her home in Moscow, she experienced hunger, homelessness, and extreme poverty throughout her early life.

Anna Summers, who translated the book into English, explains in the accompanying introduction that “girl from the Metropol Hotel” is today a colloquialism used to refer to prostitutes, a fate Petrushevskaya was able to avoid. She was born in the Metropol Hotel in 1938, when it was the residence of highly-regarded Bolsheviks, like her esteemed great-grandfather. The possibilities of a fairy tale life among Russian intelligentsia were extinguished when the Soviet secret police seized the family’s belongings and cast them out of their rooms. Petrushevskaya explains that her grandmother’s brother, sisters, and the sisters’ husbands had already been sentenced to ten years hard labor, which she describes as a euphemism for the firing squad.

The reader can experience compassion, but Petrushevskaya does not allow pity: her matter-of-fact laying down of the lines is factually straightforward. Even as she recalls her hunger, the extraordinary cold of the Russian winters, and the years when she and her mother slept under a table in her grandfather’s single room, she's simply thankful for having a safe place to sleep, despite the ever present bedbugs. Reflecting on the contrasts between her forebears and her own life, Petrushevskaya notes that her grandfather was “a famous professor of linguistics who knew eleven languages” but she “didn’t even attend grade school, for lack of shoes” (51).Yet she found her way, with an unspoken determination.

Many of the chapters in The Girl from the Metropol Hotel are brief snippets of memory: you could call them snapshots if they didn't resonate viscerally in so many other ways. In “The Bolshoi Theatre”, Petrushevskaya recounts being drawn to the Opera House not only because she could hear the music but also because it promised a warm interior. She craftily climbs five flights of metal stairs to an exterior door used by the theater’s technical crew. Pounding on the door with a desperate cry to her Comrades, she recalls, “The dark abyss and freezing wind must have added a note of genuine despair to my stock number: the door opened and the kindly lighting technician allowed me into the warm darkness, flooded with the sounds of the orchestra” (51). Petrushevskaya exalts in the performance, overwhelmed by the singing, the scenery, and the warmth.

Despite a long career as a leading light of Russian fiction (although much of her work was banned under Soviet rule), few of Petrushevskaya’s books have been translated into English. American readers are most likely to be familiar with her 2009 collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales as well as There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories, published in English in 2013. These titles that are simultaneously playful and sinister attest to Petrushevskaya’s style in her memoir, as she grapples with the events of her difficult childhood.

Petrushevskaya has long been reticent about her personal life, making The Girl from the Metropol Hotel a revelation to her longtime readers. Curiously, there's little in this memoir that connects its narrator to her professional literary successes. Save for a brief scene in which she describes being at the German Embassy to receive the Pushkin Prize, this would be a story of survival more than one of renown. Petrushevskaya tells the story of the Pushkin Prize not to trumpet her success but to pay homage to a literature teacher who mentored her, having discovered that the other award recipients had attended the same school and had been equally inspired by Aleksandr Sanych Platinin.

“Never have I been frightened by circumstances” (13), Petrushevskaya writes early in her memoir, and this statement serves as a watchword for the book. We are given a child and then young woman whose resilience is remarkable. Through her vivid memories, she conveys the experience of a difficult world and the will to rise above it, often through reading, art, and song.

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