Anyone who reads the startling fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya has to wonder what sort of forces shaped her unusually vivid voice. The titles of her works alone—which include There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In and the bestselling There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby—are tip-offs that the pages within contain something out of the ordinary.
With the U.S. release of her memoir, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia, Petrushevskaya explores the eventful, turbulent childhood that shaped her worldview in spare, often darkly humorous vignettes, gracefully translated by Anna Summers. Born in 1938 into a family of Bolsheviks who were among those declared enemies of the state by Stalin, the author grew up in the shadow of exiled or murdered family members and endured a lengthy separation from her own mother, who left Petrushevskaya with relatives in the countryside in order to pursue an education in Moscow. But this was no idyll; Petrushevskaya “sported matchstick limbs and a swollen belly” due to malnourishment, and would go through their neighbors’ trash after dark, hoping to find scraps of food. She begged for money on the streets, had no toys and only one crayon (it was purple). These hardships are recounted without sentiment, but with feeling.
Yet there was joy in her childhood, too—her brilliant, educated grandmother knew the Russian classics by heart and would spend hours recounting them to the young Petrushevskaya, spurring her interest in storytelling. Many memories have a touch of the magic Petrushevskaya includes in her fiction, like a strange encounter with a beautiful lady she finds smoking alone in an isolated cabin. “How did a beauty like her end up in the middle of the woods? . . . She would have adopted me, I am sure, had I stayed in the woods.”
Though Petrushevskaya’s hardscrabble childhood was hardly unique among Russians of her generation, her perspective on it is decidedly original. The Girl from the Metropol Hotel is a well-crafted glimpse into the past of one of Russia’s most intriguing writers.