If you hear someone's childhood called Dickensian, it likely stirs up all sorts of vivid images of hardship, poverty and even suffering. Certainly you would think of a colorful living circumstance, but not necessarily in the happiest sense. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's memoir The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia (translated from the Russian by Anna Summers) verges on the Dickensian. Her childhood was every bit as difficult as that of a poor orphan in Victorian England, yet she writes with such a lightness and matter-of-factness that you feel her suffering but she never asks for your pity, nor do you ever doubt that she is ultimately going to make a success of her life.
Petrushevskaya, who has published several story collections, presents her childhood as a series of vignettes that almost do read like short stories. Slices of her life growing up complete with photographs of places and people or drawings which give a sense of intimacy and familiarity even while depicting a life so very foreign from everything I have ever known save for glimpses into this closed world via the TV or a book perhaps.
The arrest and execution of family members of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, those relatives who took part as Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, set her on a trajectory of life quite different than most of her peers. She began life in relative comfort in the famed Metropol Hotel, but she ended up in a living situation worse than the worst.
"The shared experiences of their childhoods--evacuation, hunger--were heightened in her case to an unbearable--and unshareable--extreme because of the social stigma that branded her 'an enemy of the people'. That was the official status of Petrushevskaya's remaining family throughout childhood."
Russia is a nation that is proud of its soldiers, men and women, who fought for their country. It would not be uncommon even as a child for one to ask her what her grandpa did in the war (WWI) but she had no response. And later during the Second World War when a plane would fly overhead children would name family members who were fighting on the front. Humiliated, she could call out no one and would beg her aunt for names of some relative fighting. "She thought long and hard; all the men in our family had been shot or jailed, if you didn't count her consumptive father." In the end her aunt came up with two names, mining the dregs of far flung relatives.
Ludmilla was raised mostly by her aunt and grandmother. Her father left when she was very young and after the family evacuated Moscow for Kuibyshev during the war, her mother returned alone to finish her studies. Her mother was quite bookish and studied at the Literary Institute and Ludmilla recounts stories of her living, quite literally, under a table--just one small square in an apartment. Later Ludmilla would join her there where the bedbugs and lice would feast on her. By all accounts she led the life of a street urchin but really she took it all in stride.
"All in all, by the standards of the time I had a relatively normal childhood. Courtyard friendships; hide-and-seek; cops-and-robbers. When we weren't running around wildly, we buried 'treasures', placing shards of glass into a hold in the ground, covering them with a piece of clear glass, and piling some dirty courtyard sand on top."
As a young child she mostly skipped out on school, pretended to be an orphan begging or would sneak into the Officer's Club (as did other children) for food and warmth and once even was allowed to listen to a performance at the opera house in Kuibyshev. Eventually she would return to her mother in Moscow who was also trying to survive and finish her education, so Ludmilla would be carted off to summer camps or children's homes where she would rebel and cause problems and in the end be expelled. Her education was haphazard, but it was lack of effort and a bad situation, rather than a lack of intellect that was the cause of any failure. She was still well read and could get by in school and managed to graduate in the end.
The book ends with her finishing school and beginning work as a journalist working for the radio. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a much admired and highly regarded writer in Russia and her work has garnered much acclaim. She has written books and plays, short stories but has also worked as a screenwriter, artist and in animation. I think she is only now becoming more familiar with English speaking audiences. I just realized that I even own one of her novels (one of those long sitting on the shelves books, The Time: Night, which I am now keen to try and track down on my shelves. I hope to read some of her short stories as well. Her memoir is wonderful. It sounds like it could read as a misery memoir, but it never felt heavy. It is a quick read, and my only quibble (not a quibble at all really) is that I wouldn't have minded knowing even more--more of her story, more details, what came after. Still, there is plenty yet to discover. Definitely a book to look for!