“Russian literature has been a kind of religion in this country–a religion based on the moral position of writers, on their suffering,” Ludmilla Petrushevskaya once told Sally Laird, her British translator. “All our greatest writers have been sufferers and saints.” It was May 1987, and Immortal Love, Petrushevskaya’s first collection of short stories, would be published the following year, just in time for her fiftieth birthday. If suffering really could be considered a legitimate qualification for literary greatness, Petrushevskaya had more than earned her due. A year after she was born in 1938, her father abandoned the family, leaving her in Moscow with her mother, the daughter of an eminent linguistics professor. Stalin’s Great Purge was under way, and her mother’s relatives, old-time Bolshevik intellectuals involved in the revolution, were summarily rounded up for arrest and execution. Though the surviving family members managed to escape during World War II to Kuibyshev, the temporary capital on the Volga River established by the USSR in the face of Germany’s advance, they–like everyone–starved through the war years. Petrushevskaya was sent away to a children’s home, where her ragged compatriots were impressed enough by her particular deprivation to nickname her “the Moscow matchstick.”
This brief exile proved to be a blessing. Food and clothes, so hard to come by elsewhere, were in ready supply. Attended to by a group of kindly female teachers, the children could shrug off the twin wartime burdens of fear and adult responsibility. Play, not survival, had once again become the essential business of childhood. (Decades later, Petrushevskaya would recall a performance of a gypsy song and dance that had given her an early taste of the theater, undoubtedly a momentous experience for an author who would initially make her name as a playwright.) But soon her mother and grandfather, who had relocated to Moscow, called on her to join them, forcing her to trade the happiness of a carefree child’s world for a claustrophobic domestic arrangement.
Postwar Moscow was flooded with itinerants who had abandoned the ravaged countryside for the city, and housing, chronically in short supply, had reached an unprecedented degree of scarcity. Petrushevskaya’s family shared a twelve-square-meter room–a cubbyhole carved out of the family’s subdivided former apartment. Indoors, Petrushevskaya watched her grandfather–fired from his university position, stripped of his pension, isolated from his students and colleagues–lurch toward insanity without the dignity afforded by solitude. Outdoors, in the building’s yard, she kept to herself, an intelligentsia-bred pariah among working-class children well versed in the lessons of the streets.
Petrushevskaya’s adulthood was marked by tragedy: her first husband died at 32 after an illness that had paralyzed him for six years, leaving his widow as the sole provider for their young son. But Petrushevskaya would always remember her Moscow childhood and adolescence as the apogee of misery. The overcrowded apartment, seething with tension between toiling parents and ungrateful children, frustrated spouses and suspicious in-laws, stands at the heart of her unrelenting, often acerbically funny depictions of Soviet life. In The Time: Night, Petrushevskaya’s first novel, published in 1992, the poet Anna shuttles with her young grandson between her friends’ flats, calculating that the owners of “a nice postwar apartment” will lend her money, barging in on another family just in time to scrounge a meal. Such episodes are not so much personal visits as conscious invasions meant to flout the protocol of a society obsessed with hard-won privacy. Anna’s willingness to force her way through others’ doors exposes the hostile stinginess of daily life in Moscow, even as her ill-concealed envy renders her ridiculous; it would be difficult to say whether she or her reluctant hosts, who guard their kitchens and bedrooms as greedily as misers, come off as more petty.