Vignettes from a Communist Childhood

Book review: The Girl from the Metropol Hotelby Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
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Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is one of contemporary Russia’s most loved and accoladed author/playwrights, famous for her books of “scary fairytales”(There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby) and “love stories” (There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Killed Himself) with a distinctly Russian twist. In her memoir, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, she employs that same sharpness in reflections on her childhood and early adulthood, as she begins her career under Communism in Russia.

Newly published for the first time in English, the stories begin in Moscow and follow her adoption of an early street urchin-like existence as she escaped less than desirable communal living arrangements, scrounged for food amidst the culture of the bread lines and negotiated for survival and some sense of personal betterment in the stark, bare-bones Communist environment. She was born in 1938 in Moscow’s famous Metropol Hotel, but from there moved around often, ran away from home even more often, and generally bounced from one undesirable situation to another while building up a tough outer shell that it’s hard to imagine a small child needing.

Translator Anna Summers writes in her introduction, “Petrushevskaya is famously reticent and rarely grants interviews.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that this is a slim memoir, but it packs a punch nevertheless. It’s styled as a series of vignettes, an adult looking back on a childhood that seems shockingly unconventional but that also serves as a too-typical example of life and struggles in Soviet cities.

Her tone is always matter-of-fact, even with a sort of coldness. I remember a similar blunt tone from the aforementioned collection of dark fairytales. It sometimes comes across too cold here, especially considering the seriousness of the topics she spins stories about.

But what she lacks in revealing personal emotion or warmth of tone, Petrushevskaya more than compensates for in her vivid descriptions. Take for example this passage describing a much-hated teacher nicknamed Dying Swan: “My head was almost touching her permanently undone zipper. Poor old Swan was a weird lady. She dyed her hair orange, but always did it wrong: her hair remained dirty white, but her scalp turned bright red, like an Iroquois in an old painting. For some reason she hated our class intensely.”

There’s a certain black humor that crops up throughout certain stories, and it does help to alleviate some of the grim reality that Petrushevskaya reflects on without any sugarcoating.

“There was a ritual: when a military plane passed overhead, we were expected to look up solemnly and name a family member fighting on the front, as though it was him flying on that place. It was a matter of pride, but I couldn’t name anyone. Humiliated, I demanded names from my aunt. She thought long and hard; all the men in our family had been shot or jailed, if you didn’t count my consumptive father.”

Given the time, the Second World War and its aftermath loom large in her recollections and observations.

Various family members are portrayed, but without much sentimentality. She has an interesting relationship with her mother, although a bit difficult to fully comprehend. All of it is difficult to comprehend; unless you’ve lived through a similar childhood, the choices she and her relatives are faced with seem unbelievable. But as snapshots into a generation, they’re vital – brief, honest, time capsuled descriptions of a less than ideal society that even today many long for with a confused life-was-simpler-and-better-back-then mentality. Petrushevkskaya’s stories pull back the curtain on the grim reality; they don’t allow for any nostalgia.

And of course her famous talent for writing short, quippy fairytales, fables, morals and anecdotes is evident in the telling of her own life, as well.

Another lesson of communal life: Do not attempt to look for free stuff by yourself. Also: Where there is no crowd, there’s nothing worth having.

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia
by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
translated from the Russian by Anna Summers
published February 7, 2017 by Penguin
originally published in Russian in 2006

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