“As If I Would Cry”: A Conversation with Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

November 4, 2021   •   By Katerina Gordeeva, Jane Bugaeva

THIS CONVERSATION WITH Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was conducted in March 2021.

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KATERINA GORDEEVA: Is it true that all contemporary Russian literature — I mean the newest works, by authors like Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin — none of it would exist without Petrushevskaya? What is your opinion?

LUDMILLA PETRUSHEVSKAYA: I haven’t read them. I actually don’t know who you’re talking about. 

That’s great. Name five good novels — those that you do not regret having read.

I’m not a reader, I’m a writer.

You don’t say! Okay, how about Anna Karenina [by Leo Tolstoy]. Is it a great novel?

I hate it. I never read the end. Frankly, I consider Tolstoy a graphomaniac.

And Quiet Flows the Don [by Mikhail Sholokhov] — is it a good novel?

No. I read it once and never again. There is this rape scene …

… at the very beginning …

… it was absolutely unbearable for me.

Eugene Onegin [by Alexander Pushkin] — is it good?

[Smiles.] Yes. I memorized the first chapter — so that I would be able to recite it later in prison …

… you mean, if you were to be arrested  

… yes. Of course. A [Russian] person must know Onegin by heart.

Do you like Anton Chekhov?

His earlier works. In his book of travel notes, Sakhalin Island, Chekhov writes about taking a ferry from Vladivostok to Sakhalin with a man who was carrying his three-year-old daughter. The man had killed his wife — the mother of the child — and was sent to a remote penal colony. And he had been walking to Vladivostok by foot, with this child, for three years. This is the only aspect of real Russian life that Chekhov did not write about in his fiction. He didn’t write about Russian peasants … none of them [great Russian authors] really wrote about peasants.

Which of Nikolai Gogol’s works is most important to you?

“Christmas Eve.” Also, “A Terrible Vengeance.” Though I could never bring myself to read it again.

Is it true that Gogol’s story “The Portrait” made a deafening impression on you?

The thing is, my grandmother knew Dead Souls by heart, she also knew, as I discovered later, War and Peace [Leo Tolstoy] by heart. It would be played on the radio and once the transmission was over my grandmother would continue reciting it where it had left off.

And your grandmother read “The Portrait” to you?

Yes, she knew all those works by heart. Later, I used to gather a small group of people and recite “The Portrait” for them.

In one interview, you said that you are a nine-year-old girl. Is this true?

Can’t you tell?

Actually, yes, I think so. But why, nine years old, specifically?

Well, my life as a beggar ended when I was nine. I would beg for money, there were a few stores I would go to. And when I was nine, my mother came and collected me. I was beyond overjoyed.

She came and took you away by plane?

Yes. It was a military plane of some sort. It was the happiest I have ever felt. My mother took me — this hefty, nine-year-old girl — and carried me into the banya. I was shaved, to get rid of the lice, and she had brought me a dress, an undershirt, underwear … I didn’t even have underwear, I had to use a tied-up undershirt.

How long were you apart from your mother?

Four years.

Were you mad at her for leaving you and going to Moscow?

No. no. To me, she was … you know, I was like a Catholic before the statue of Madonna. That’s how I felt about her.

Your mother was called to enroll at GITIS [The Russian Institute of Theatre Arts] and she left you …

Yes, she left me with my grandmother and aunt. My aunt worked and my grandmother was at home, so everything was fine. My mother had no way of knowing that my aunt would soon be subpoenaed to the NKVD [interior ministry of the Soviet Union]. She was considered an “enemy of the people” — we all were. Then, she was fired from her job. And to save herself she checked herself into a mental institution. That’s something I gathered later, she never said anything about it.

Because they didn’t send the mentally ill to gulags?

Yes. Yes, it’s true, they really did not. If someone was mentally ill, they would just throw them out.

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When I was still a baby, I lived at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. And one day we came home, and the door was sealed. All our things — our books, paintings, clothes, all our possessions — were taken.

What does it feel like to a young child, who remembers life at the Metropol and suddenly finds herself eating from the trash? And I read in your memoir [The Girl from the Metropol Hotel] that you had to go through other people’s trash, because you didn’t even have a trashcan.

It felt like a given. To children, everything is just the way it is. Children don’t pine for the past — well except if they don’t have a mother, then they pine. There is a sadness. My grandmother and aunt spoke very badly about my mother, who for me was an absolute saint. And eventually I ran away.

You ran away from your grandmother and aunt. Did you hate them?

They would come to me in my dreams as Baba Yagas, they were very frightening. Of course they were — they were starving. My grandmother was a hill of a person — just this big, reclining mound — she had starvation edema. And my aunt had lost all her teeth from malnutrition. There was nothing to eat. And I just ran around outside. I was barefoot from April to October, because I didn’t have any shoes. There were these neighboring boys who always kept an eye on me — they bullied me, hit me … but where could I go? One time, they threw me in a puddle of petroleum pitch. It had melted out in the sun and leaked out of a barrel onto the street. And they threw me into that mess. I tried to get myself out, but my arms were covered in the sticky goop and I couldn’t do anything. So, I just sat in there. And they stood around me and laughed. Viciously laughed. Some man who was walking down the street fished me out and shooed the boys away. And that is how I lost my underwear. So, I had to wear a tied-up undershirt instead.

And then your mother returned and took you away and it was your salvation.

Mama! When I saw her … My two greatest foes — my brother and sister — grabbed me and dragged me upstairs. I thought they were returning me to my grandmother, but no, there was my mother. I knelt down before her and just bawled. My mother had made semolina porridge, with milk and butter, and I threw it all up. But we still had nowhere to live, so the first thing she did was send me to camp for the whole summer. After that, she took me to a children’s home. She would always send me away somewhere so I could have a normal life, because she worked all the time.

Did you understand that she sent you away not because she didn’t love you, but because she had to?

Yes, I understood it as a necessity. Children understand a lot.

Do you think about the children’s home often?

Yes, it was a wonderful children’s home. In 1947, there was a famine in Russia. And this children’s home was created for the sick and dying; children were gathered from all around into this special children’s home so they wouldn’t die. It was led by a team of Leningrad pedagogues. It was in an old estate by the river Ufa [in the Ural Mountains], and there was a huge park. I remember it often. They fed us four times a day! I remember I didn’t have any valenki [felt boots] to go outside in. But then my mom sent me some valenki and I went crazy playing outside — we played on the frozen pond and I fell through a hole in the ice and I lost my valenki. And I remember for New Year’s, I was given some sort of skirt and someone put a garland from the tree around my neck, and we sang a song … that was my first time on a stage.

That was the first time you sang?

Well not sang. I yelled. What else could I do?

They say when a person is starving as a child, afterward they can never eat their fill.

Let me tell you, children take everything at face value. No food? You have to find some. In that children’s home park, there were acacia and you could open up the pods and inside were tiny little peas. In the grass, there were also some sort of small seeds and beans. I think of my childhood with admiration — how in the world did this hungry, barefoot child survive?

There is this strange effect: when reading your books, it’s as if you’re reading an encyclopedia of human misfortune, especially women’s misfortune, but when you finish reading, you don’t feel bad, on the contrary, it makes you feel good. 

Thank you.

Have you ever had a moment, a few days, an instance, when you felt absolutely, completely happy?

[Smiles, nods.] In the hospital, the day after giving birth. I was walking up and down the halls, they hadn’t given me my [first] son Kirill yet, and I felt infinitely happy. Yes. You know — when you hold that tiny head in your hands and it fits in your palm, and you wait … and suddenly out of that little universe the baby sends you a smile, just a little one, as if to say, “I’m busy right now, but here’s a little smile for you.” [Laughs.]

Wonderful. So, it turns out that children are more important to you than books?

Of course, children! Of course.

To be a mother of three and a writer is no small feat …

The thing about that is … I even wrote this once, “If you’re pregnant, how can you not give birth?”

What’s more important in life — happiness or suffering?

I’m sorry, but that is a stupid question. [Chuckles.]

As a matter of experience, what’s more important?

Oh, come on — how can suffering be more important? How is that possible? Suffering is one of those things; it is often insurmountable.

I ask because: Can a book come out of happiness?

What about Lewis Carroll? He was happy when that little girl visited him. He wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for her. I think Jonathan Swift was happy, too, when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels.

How did you live with the fact that you were not published until you were 50 years old?

Fine. Goodness, I had been poor since my childhood. Back then [before perestroika], the Union of Soviet Writers was comprised of monsters, of colossal idiots who published their own work which never left the bookstore shelves until it was set to be recycled.

[Laughs.]

I was accepted into the Union by some accident. There was a wonderful woman Elena Rzhevskaya [1919–2017] who was an interpreter and later a writer. I met her at Novy Mir [literary magazine] where I was always submitting my stories. She told me that the Party had issued some decree to support young communist writers. “You need to apply,” she told me. “But I am already 39!” “That’s okay, I will recommend you!” I was already recommended by a dozen other people. You had to fill something out, listing your published works, your staged plays … but I had nothing! Nothing published, nothing staged. The playwright Samuil Alyoshin was a member of the acceptance committee. He read one of my stories, thought it was funny, and accepted me!

Oh, I also wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev. I wrote that I was a member of the Union of Soviet Writers but I didn’t have a single book published or play staged — how could this be? Then someone calls me from the Department of Prose. He said, “I got your letter.” I said, “I didn’t write to you.” He said, “Everything goes through me.” So, I asked him what my chances were of getting published. He said there was a 10-year waitlist of dead men — people who had already died but hadn’t yet been published. So, I went to see Viktor Ilyin [KGB officer, secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers], that’s who everyone went to. He asked me where I had tried to get published. I didn’t tell him that I had a book of mine laying around at the Sovetsky Pisatel [publishing house for the Union of Soviet Writers] for 12 years before they sent it back to me by mail. They didn’t throw it out, they sent it back! A while later, he called and said he’d dug up two slots for publication. They were able to sneak someone else in along with me. [Laughs.]

And they published Immortal Love [1988]?

Yes. 30,000 copies. It was sold at a bookstore on Arbat Street [Moscow]. There was a line out the door. It sold out in two days.

How is that possible? You had never been published. Your plays had not been staged. How did all those people know of the writer Petrushevskaya?

Samizdat. As it turned out, I was a pretty well-known author in that sphere. As a member of the KGB, Ilyin got all the samizdat — they were delivered to him automatically. And he read them all.

And he became a fan?

I’m not sure. But he was always very kind to me.

That’s kind of a twist: that a member of the KGB played an important role in your life.

But a member of the KGB who was convicted. A traitor of that clan who was ousted.

Viktor Ilyin, what kind of person was he?

Let me tell you a story. He was our kind of person. As I understand it, as part of his duties, all samizdat were delivered to him. He spent eight years in a cell in the basement of the KGB, he was imprisoned in 1945 as an enemy of the people. But they didn’t execute him — I don’t know why. The thing is, he was a very good person. And probably those guys, those monsters at the KGB, they must have valued him. So they left him to sit in jail. 

How did you meet Roman Viktyuk [distinguished theater director; 19362020]?

They were rehearsing my play Music Lessons at the Moscow State University Theatre, where Viktyuk was working at the time. I came to watch the rehearsal. This is how Viktyuk tells it: that he kept shushing the audience, asking, “Who keeps disturbing my rehearsal?” And he was told, “It’s the author in the audience, crying.” But he made that up. As if I would cry.

But he was a great director?

Yes.

Did you like how he staged Columbine’s Apartment?

Yes, [I] liked it … but there was this one obscene scene that I asked to be removed. And I even wrote a letter to the Theatre’s Art Council, after which Liya Akhedzhakova [film, stage, and voice actress who played the female lead] denounced me. There was this scene with a large chest and Akhedzhakova climbed in. Aleksandr Berda [male lead] climbed in after her, the lid closed, everything went dark, and music played. Then the lid opened and she climbed out of the chest and wiped her mouth! I might be uneducated, but I understood something all the same. So, I asked for that part to be removed. After that I never went to see the play again, I didn’t want to look at such filth. The play went on without my participation for 10 years. I think the Sovremennik Theatre still hates me to this day.

And when you saw your plays directed by Viktyuk …

… once I forbade it.

What do you mean, you forbade it?

He directed Cinzano and Smirnova’s Birthday [two one-act plays shown together]. He had the actors in undergarments. The girls wore negligees and the main character’s zipper on his jeans was slowly unzipping, and the audience was captivated, staring with their mouths open.

I always imagined that you and Viktyuk had this connection … that you were on the same wavelength.

Here’s the last I’ll say about it: Viktyuk sold that production [Cinzano], with all its nudity, to Valery Fokin [Russian theater director], who was the head of the Yermolova Theatre at the time. I was against my name being dragged through the mud like that. So I called Fokin. He was very rude to me. So I sent a telegram to the theater. I request my name be removed from the playbill. That’s it. And if that’s the case, they aren’t allowed to show the play anymore. The end.

In your opinion, which of your plays were staged perfectly?

There are a few, staged in various theaters. But especially The Moscow Choir, staged by Oleg Yefremov [actor, director, pedagogue; 1927–2000]. The story of that play is a strange one.

The Moscow Choir is about people returning from the gulags. Mark Zakharov [stage and film director, screenwriter; 1933–2019] was set to direct. So I walk into Zakharov’s office for the table read and I see two actors and then a group of people with military-style shaved heads at the other end of the room. I asked who they were and was told not to worry, they were there for something else. But I knew they weren’t theater people. I had never seen someone in the theater who looked like that. (Likely KGB operatives, involved in censorship.)

You understood why they were there, who they were?

I stood up, took my play with me, and canceled the table read. And I left. Forever. From that theater.

Wow. That was really brave.

Brave? No. At that same time my eldest son Kirill was being drafted into the army, despite the fact that he had a two-year-old daughter and his wife was four months pregnant. Plus, he had been diagnosed with chronic pneumonia since childhood. He was in the hospital for it and I went to visit him. I picked up the book he had been reading, opened it, and cockroaches spilled out — those were the conditions of the hospital he was in. The young doctors said they were removing his “chronic pneumonia” diagnosis and he would be drafted. I started asking around for help, without any luck. So I went to Oleg Yefremov. He had always treated me very well. He was the one who encouraged me to write part two of Cinzano, he called me after reading it and asked, “So, you call this a play?” I said, “Why not?” He goes, “Really? A complete play?” I said, “It’s about three men drinking, what’s wrong with that? Do you want me to write a second part about three women drinking?” He goes, “Now you’re thinking!” Anyway, he was always very kind to me. There are still rumors going around that we were involved. But it’s all lies.

You didn’t have to refute it.

I wanted to. So I came to Oleg and told him that my son was being drafted, that he had a young daughter and a pregnant wife. Oleg picked up the phone and said, “It’s me again.” [Laughs.]

The Military Commissariat of Moscow said get a letter from his wife that she was unable to get an abortion on her third month of pregnancy! Can you imagine? So after all that, I said, “So, life goes on?” And Oleg goes, “Bring it to me. Your play.” You see, he already knew — everyone in the theater world knew — that I had walked out of that table read with Zakharov. So he staged it — The Moscow Choir — for The Moscow Art Theatre’s 90th anniversary. It ran for 10 years.

What’s the secret to a good play?

As if I knew.

Of course you know.

No. There’s no secret.

Yes there is.

No.

There should be.

Nope. What’s the secret to Eugene Onegin? [Petrushevskaya indicates for Gordeeva to answer, smiling coyly.]

[Thinking, smiling.]

There you go.

Hmm. Yes.

I guess … you just have to wait for it to come. And sometimes it does.

Let me tell you the story of how I met Vladimir Putin. Putin is shorter than I am. I was in heels, of course. And he was unbelievably witty.

Witty?

Yes, incredibly so.

Interesting, because you know his humor is usually … like prison humor.

No, he is different … was different [back then]. It’s a funny story. One of my friends kept urging me to apply for the State Prize. I said, “No way.” But she kept insisting. “Fine, what do I have to do?” “Fill out an application…” “No way.” Finally, after a lot more insisting, I filled out the application. Some time passed and I got the call. [Petrushevskaya was awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation in 2002.] At the time I was in the hospital. First, I looked horrible; second, I didn’t have a dress or shoes or anything. My son Fyodor took care of everything. The day of the award ceremony, I was delivered by taxi to the Kremlin. I saw all my friends, all my beloved artists, and also Mark Zakharov — who held a lifelong grudge against me because I gave The Moscow Choir to Oleg Yefremov. And Oleg Yankovsky [Soviet and Russian actor; 1944–2009] was there too, he considered himself the king of all Russia. He was a good actor, handsome, but very self-important. You see, we were told ahead of time to not go up to the podium or give any speeches when accepting our award because Putin had to present 127 awards that night. So there we are, and Yankovsky is called to receive his award. And he beelines it right to the podium, and says, “I’ve just played the role of the Russian emperor and I want to say…” And Putin interjects and says, “But you have not only played the emperor, you have also played Baron Munchausen…” and I began laughing hysterically.

It’s a good joke!

I was the only one in the whole theater laughing. Two kings — and one zings the other. Yes, I approved of that joke. So when Putin gave me my award and bouquet, while we were posing for photos, I invited him to come see The Moscow Choir. But no, he didn’t come.

Were you upset?

Of course not. I didn’t give it any thought.

How do you feel about Putin, in a general?

I feel nothing about him. Who is he to me? What do I care?

Well, I don’t know … They say he is very charismatic.

You know, when a person is secretive, rarely shows himself, it means something. Being quiet means something. Right now, I am going against this principle of charisma — actually, maybe not, I am wearing a big hat and all these furs.

I always thought that your hats were kind of a shield, a cover, a type of protection.

Yes, yes. Exactly. A hat is part of my uniform. Without it [she takes off her hat and looks in the mirror] I look fine. I’m a bit gray, but at least this is my real hair. But it’s just so ordinary, and I prefer to be … I was born to wear hats.

What is more important to you right now: books, plays, or music? … Or art?

Art. Because that is my only opportunity to earn any money for Rostok [charitable organization helping disabled orphans]. I sell my artwork and give the money to Rostok. Last December, I sold a work for 200,000 rubles [$2,500]!

Why is it important for you to support Rostok?

Let’s be silent on this topic.

Okay.

Why do you love your kids? Can you answer that question?

That’s a great answer.

Rostok plays a very important role in my life. I think of it all the time. I am trying to help as much as I can.

If I may, I want to ask you — as a great Russian author — some tedious but important questions, okay?

But I can refuse to answer?

You can refuse. The questions are about women. Your heroine is an urban woman, at the end of her limit, on the edge of despair — well, a Russian woman …

She is on the precipice of life and death.

What can save her?

Save her? Nothing.

Can a woman ever be president of Russia?

[Chortles.] Take a look at the voters — especially the female voters. They would never in a million years give such an opportunity to a broad.

What would be the first thing you would change in this country if you were president?

Nothing can be changed here.

What is age?

Sometimes I don’t notice it, like when I am singing on stage.

Where is the hope?

Within ourselves.

What do you hope for?

I have nothing to hope for. I am on my way out.

Give us some hope.

Here. [Mimics handing something over. Petrushevskaya and Gordeeva laugh.] 

Thank you.

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Translated by Jane Bugaeva.

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Katerina Gordeeva is a Russian journalist, documentary writer, and author. She is most known for the work involved with Russia’s NTV Documentary films from 2003 until 2012. Since September 2020, she has been the host of the YouTube interview show Tell Gordeeva of the Meduza publication, predominantly interviewing women. Gordeeva resides in Russia and Latvia.

Jane Bugaeva was born in Russia and emigrated with her family to the United States at the age of six. Her translation of Petrushevskaya’s collection of short stories, The New Adventures of Helen: Magical Tales, is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in November. She lives in North Carolina.