'The Girl from the Metropol Hotel' is a Soviet tale of loss, lack, resilience

The terrible deprivations of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's Soviet-era childhood were later sublimated into magical fiction. They had to be survived first. 

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia Ludmilla Petrushevskaya Penguin Books 176 pp.

What happens when political catastrophe sends your life hurtling off its projected course? If you are old enough to feel the shock of the derailment, you may panic, despair, weep, and curse your fate. But if you are too young to know any other existence, and if you are unusually resilient and imaginative, you may find a way to recast the nightmare as fairy tale in your mind; not only surviving it but transcending it. The Russian author and playwright Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya, 78, has been pulling off this extraordinary feat her entire life.

Petrushevskaya came to attention in the West in 2009 with the publication of her story collection "There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales," which became a bestseller here. But in Russia, she was well known long before, in part because of a classic animated Soviet children’s film from 1979, "Skazka Skazok" (The Tale of Tales), which wove her bleak childhood experience into a hauntingly tender pictorial collage of collective Soviet wartime memory, relayed by a shaggy gray cartoon wolf cub, and a magical bard, hovering over a glowing, empty page.

The film plays on Russian television every May on Victory Day – the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to Russia in World War II. Such a film might seem unlikely to enchant children, unless you recall that its storyline, like Petrushevskaya’s own history, embodies a core archetype of fable: threatened child overcomes adversity. Petrushevskaya’s new memoir, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, translated by Anna Summers, fills in the detailed personal back-story that infuses that bittersweet, dreamlike children’s film, but in words, not pictures. Devastating, unjudgmental, and curiously uplifting, the memoir is a profound testament to the power of the creative, loving human spirit to vanquish brutal circumstance.

Petrushevskaya was born in 1938 in Moscow’s grand, wedding-cakey Hotel Metropol, a neo-classical palace across from the Bolshoi. The Metropol served at the time as the Second House of Soviets, housing prominent Party leaders and revolutionaries (including Petrushevskaya’s great-grandfather, Ilya Veger, an Old Bolshevik war hero).

Her grandfather, Nikolai Yakovlev, was a famous linguistics scholar (her grandmother married him after turning down the proposal of the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky); and one of her great-uncles helped organize the 1905 uprising that led to the 1917 October Revolution. With such connections, you might think that Petrushevskaya would have grown up as Communist royalty – not wealthy, perhaps, but privileged, and heir to the choicest circles of the Soviet social hierarchy.

But in 1937, in the late years of Stalin’s purges, three of her uncles and aunts were designated “Enemies of the People,” along with their spouses, and arrested. Sentenced to “ten years hard labor, without the right to correspondence” – which was, Petrushevskaya writes, “a euphemism for the firing squad” – five of the six were never seen again. The stigma of their despised status passed to Petrushevskaya’s mother, grandmother, and aunt (but not to her surviving male relatives), and when the little girl was born, it marked her, too. Soon, cast out of the Metropol, the family traveled by frigid boxcar 500 miles east to the city of Kuibyshev (now Samara), finding lodgings in a communal apartment.

As Enemies of the People, Petrushevskaya explains, they were shunned by their neighbors, banned from the communal kitchen and bath, and forced to scavenge potato peels, fish bones, and trodden discarded cabbage leaves to feed themselves. “We were enemies to everyone: to our neighbors, to the police, to the janitors, to the passersby, to every resident of our courtyard of any age,” Petrushevskaya recalls. “It was a miracle,” she writes, when, in 1943, her mother received a letter of acceptance from a college in Moscow, which allowed her to sneak back into a marginally sustainable path in the Soviet structure.

Wheedling her way onto a train, Petrushevkskaya’s mother persuaded the drivers to let her cling to the outside of the engine for the 500-mile trip (they wouldn’t let her inside the cabin), and off she went to Moscow, where she slept under the dinner table of her father’s communal apartment on Chekhov Street while she completed her degree, coaxing child support from Petrushevskaya’s father (the couple divorced soon after their daughter was born) to send back to Kuibyshev. Ludmilla would not see her mother again for four years. She writes, “She used to tell me again and again that it was for me, for my sake, that she left, that she couldn’t have supported us without a college degree. For the rest of her life my poor mother justified herself.”

Yet the stories she tells of her motherless days in Kuibyshev are not cast down; they show a girl of unerodable pride and defiant character, intent on finding joy. Once, she scaled an outer ladder of the local opera house, crept into a balcony, and drank in a performance of Rossini’s "Barber of Seville." “My whole life I remembered that duet between Rosina and Count Almaviva,” she writes.

In the cramped dwelling she shared with her relatives, her grandmother captivated her with literature, conjuring a rich, borderless fictional world. In the wintertime, the two of them nestled together in bed for warmth: “We covered ourselves with every rag we owned, and for days on end she recited classics from memory, primarily Gogol – "Dead Souls," "Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka." In 1945, as a child of seven – plucky but too poor even to own a pair of shoes or underpants, displaying the matchstick legs and distended belly of starving children the world over – she spent her days begging and scrounging breadcrumbs in the courtyards of Kuibyshev.

Sometimes she recited a Gogol story to earn her coins or sang popular songs – like that other street urchin, Edith Piaf, but in Russian – “cheesy, lowbrow numbers beloved by washerwomen and lumpen proletarians.” Once, a shy boy was so awed by her recitation that he took her to see his mother. The woman, moved to tears by the little girl’s talent and misfortune, gave her a green cardigan. Petrushevskaya never returned to that lucky courtyard. “We avoid places where we’ve endured pain, but the opposite is true, too,” she writes. “Extreme kindness can be repaid only with ingratitude,” she writes. “What if the miracle won’t repeat itself and life’s greatest consolation – remembering the kindness shown to you – disappears?”

In 1947, Petrushevskaya’s mother at last was able to come to Kuibyshev and collect her, but when the girl arrived in Moscow, she could not conform to civilized manners. “I had become an unmanageable, wild child, a real Mowgli,” she writes. “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.”

Her mother, struggling to keep them both afloat and unable to watch her wildling daughter during the day, sent her to a succession of summer camps and boarding schools to socialize her; but mostly, they lived together in Moscow, sleeping under her grandfather’s table on Chekhov Street, despite the protests of his “evil stepmother” of a wife, “a wizened hag of forty-five” who regularly dragged Petrushkevaya’s mother to court, trying to kick the refugees out of her home. Mother and daughter clung to that hostile shelter for seven years, until they could find more congenial quarters, by which time the girl had improved her rough manners and mastered her survival strategy.

It was at a summer camp, when she was 10, that Petrushevskaya first hit upon this strategy: Imagination would be her ticket to acceptance. Having failed to earn the respect of her disdainful fellow campers through good grades, singing, or dancing, she buttressed her status by reciting tales that fascinated them, like the Gogol story that won her the green sweater in Kuibyshev. It worked.

“My reputation rested on one skill,” she writes. “After lights-out I told ‘scary’ stories.” One day, she would make her name with the wider public by writing them down – and not only scary stories but funny stories, sad stories, true stories. First though, she had to reclaim the life narrative that a turbulent era had wrested from her. She went to college, became a journalist, then a playwright and novelist. Stalin died: Petrushevskaya lived on. A Moscow court “rehabilitated” Petrushevskaya’s family long ago; but her memoir moots the original charges, indicting nothing but history. The bard has filled in the glowing page.

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