The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s memoir of her childhood, opens with a series of events that will sound familiar to anyone with a basic knowledge of Soviet history: in the 1930’s, her grandmother’s siblings and their spouses, all prominent Bolsheviks, were arrested in Moscow. Officially sentenced to “ten years of hard labor without the right to correspondence,” they were never seen again. The rest of the family escaped arrest (Petrushevskaya’s grandmother by hiding out in a psychiatric hospital), but were designated “enemies of the state” and eventually locked out of their apartment, made homeless by Stalin’s regime. “I was lucky,” says Petrushevskaya. “I wasn’t left behind in a sealed apartment, as often happened to the infants of the arrested.”
Published in Russian in 2006 and translated into English by Anna Summers, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel is the first memoir by Petrushevskaya, best known in the United States for her grim and funny short stories and her screenplay for the 1979 animated classic Tale of Tales. This isn’t a story of dissidents or arrests or the camps—it isn’t Solzhenitsyn or Akhmatova or Evgenia Ginzberg. Rather, it’s an intimate, richly textured, and surprising story of survival and coming of age under a hostile regime. The book follows Petrushevskaya from infancy; to the years of World War II, when her family is evacuated from Moscow to the city of Kuibyshev; to her first job after university.
The war years in Kuibyshev are marked by hunger, above all else: “hunger was stronger than danger.” Her family waits in long bread lines and rummages in the neighbors’ trash late at night for discarded potato peelings and cabbage leaves. When her aunt brings home a handful of plum jam, Petrushevskaya licks it out of her hand “like a little animal, understanding that it was my one and only chance to try it.” The designation “enemies of the people,” too, was no mere formality. “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 recounts a conversation, many years later, with one of these neighbors, who tells of how she’d kept all her food under lock and key to keep it from the starving young Ludmilla.
Petrushevskaya’s stories of her early childhood are not just tales of a plucky young heroine overcoming adversity—they’re weirder than that. At their best, they’re as good as any of her short fiction, blending the brutal and the funny, the tender and the gross. Young Petrushevskaya dreams of having a doll, for “nothing surpasses a girl’s passion for her doll.” As she continues, though, she begins to sound like Toy Story’s villainous Sid: “One can paint a doll’s face, then scrub it off along with the factory paint. Shave its head. Perform surgeries on it.” When she and her mother prepare to return from Kuibyshev to Moscow, her mother gently spoon feeds her hot cereal made with milk, butter, and sugar—an end to her days of starvation. Petrushevskaya promptly throws up.
Over the next years, she’s sent to be educated and socialized in a weird, sometimes magical array of schools and summer camps located in what used to be palaces. These chapters have a dreamlike quality that will feel familiar to readers who have seen Tale of Tales. Over one summer break, all the other children leave, and Petrushevskaya is left to live with the school custodian and her boyfriend. “The couple gathered snowdrops in the woods, to sell at the market in town….We set out at first light. In huge forest meadows we looked for little white stars in the thick grass, so dark it seemed blue. We plucked unopened buds, whole baskets of them.” In the forest, she comes across a little cabin, where the elegant lady who lives there offers the preteen Petrushevskaya a cigarette. “How did a beauty like her end up in the middle of the woods?”
After the hunger and desperation of the war years, there’s a tenderness and familiarity to these later chapters as Petrushevskaya begins to grow into adolescence, a wild girl learning to live in the adult world. “The girl,” she writes of herself, “who was twelve at the time, led a constant inner monologue, making decisions literally each second—what to say, where to sit, how to answer.” She becomes obsessed with her class’s unattainably perfect star student, Svetlana, who can play Tchaikovsky on the piano; she falls in love with a beautiful boy named Tolik; and she’s pursued, terrifyingly and menacingly, by boys and men in her school and neighborhood. This “wasn’t courtship, it was something else, something the girls couldn’t find a name for and only shrugged their shoulders at.”
One of the best scenes in the book comes toward the end. One oral exam stands between Petrushevskaya and graduation from university: “Theory and Practice of the Soviet Party Press and the Foreign Communist Press.” To her, the exam is a complete waste of time, part of the university’s general goal of producing “ideologically sound ignoramuses,” and she refuses to study or prepare. She proudly marches into the room and announces to the faculty that she doesn’t need to know this content—after graduation, she plans to work construction in Kazakhstan, a real, wholesome proletarian. It’s a dilemma for the committee—how can they flunk a student of such ideological soundness? Petrushevskaya passes. It’s a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in an American teen comedy—a John Hughes movie maybe, or the television show Freaks and Geeks. Our hero is “a grown young person with a rich inner world and an acute sense of justice,” and when she stands up to the gutless authority figures in her life, she is rewarded, not punished.
It can be difficult, sometimes, for Americans to read Soviet narratives without slipping into an ethnographic kind of mindset, as though lives under communism are uniquely shaped by political culture in a way that lives under capitalism are not. And of course, many of the stories here are deeply culturally and historically specific—being repeatedly inducted into, then ejected from the Young Pioneers; or experiencing pure terror gazing up at a portrait of Stalin; or having a grandfather fired from his university job for not being “quick enough” to praise a scholarly article by Stalin. Still, like all of Petrushevskaya’s work, it resolutely holds space for the small and the human. More than anything else, I came away with the sense of having watched someone weave her experiences into a mythology of her own life: the proud and tragic family history and the years of struggle, but also the smaller, weirder moments (a handful of jam, a beautiful woman in the forest). Even during normal times, being a kid is a vivid and weird experience, and “all in all,” Petrushevskaya writes, “by the standards of the time I had a relatively normal childhood.”