Ludmilla Petrushevskaya sweeps into the crumbling hall of a small museum west of Moscow’s Red Square. Topaz and turquoise knuckle-dusters flash on her fingers as she stomps about in Juicy Couture ski boots. Aged 72, she does not look like a literary legend. And yet that is exactly what many in Russia and beyond consider her to be: the last of the great dissidents. As her translators Keith Gessen and Anna Summers put it: “With the death of Solzhenitsyn, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Petrushevskaya is Russia’s best-known living writer.”
Despite having won the Russian Booker Prize and still hotly in demand with her public, Petrushevskaya rejects her legacy as a writer. “It has nothing to do with me,” she says coldly. This month, some of her best-known short stories will appear in the UK for the first time, but Petrushevskaya is less excited about seeing her work translated into English than about her new ambition: to be known as Russia’s Susan Boyle, the Britain’s Got Talent crooner. “Susan Boyle is my inspiration,” she grins. Her black eyes sparkle with mischief. “She makes me cry. I watch her on YouTube every night. Her story is a real fairy tale.”
To the horror of the Russian establishment, since Petrushevskaya turned 70 three years ago, she has turned her back on writing full-time and embarked on an anarchic second career as a cabaret singer. It is this kind of move that has made her both loved and hated in Russia, always controversial. Her critics consider it inappropriate that a woman of her literary status and dissident background (not to mention her age) should be singing Russian versions of Edith Piaf at student nights in dodgy nightclubs.
As one of her entourage whispers to me just before Petrushevskaya turns up, an hour late (she has a Naomi Campbell reputation for timekeeping): “She is seen as a living classic and for a ‘great writer’ to perform her cabaret in this funny black hat… Well, it is regarded as deeply eccentric. And not in a good way. Russians have a very linear understanding of what it means to be a writer. Petrushevskaya doesn’t fit into it.”
And yet she is finally receiving the international acclaim which has eluded her all her writing life. The New Yorker recently declared her a “revelation … Like reading late-Tolstoy fables set in an alternative reality.” Her new collection is a brilliant but bleak series of stories, peppered with black humour, about life in communal flats and depressing dachas. Many draw on real events: “I think of myself as a documentary writer, collecting documents about people’s lives and reworking them.” She tries to write “in the voice people use to tell their story to another person on the bus – urgently, hastily, making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off”.
Back in the Soviet-era museum in Moscow, babushki shuffle across the stone floor in carpet slippers. Petrushevskaya has an exhibition of her artwork on show here – oil paintings, watercolours, even jewellery. She’s also giving a cabaret performance: some Piaf numbers, the haunting tango theme from the Oscar-winning Russian film Burnt by the Sun, a bizarre version of “Auld Lang Syne”.
It’s a peculiar tableau: the museum untouched by time, despite the glass skyscrapers and branches of Starbucks around the corner. The audience is made up of shambling but charming elderly types happy to lap up the Soviet-era nostalgia and a sprinkling of young groupies who can only be appreciating the performance tongue-in-cheek. Think of a mournful Slavic Margarita Pracatan – but with something engaging and haunting about her voice. Petrushevskaya’s performance may be an oddity, but it has the power to transport you to another era.
In a way both Petrushevskaya’s writing and singing fulfil a deep need in modern Russia to reminisce, often ironically, about the “good old days” under Communism. She may come across as a diva now, but Petrushevskaya has had a tough life. Born in 1938, she was evacuated as a child from Moscow to Kuibyshev. Her father had abandoned her mother, leaving them at the mercy of Stalin’s purges. Her grandfather was an old-school Bolshevik who fell foul of the 1930s regime and was stripped of his pension. Other family members were rounded up for arrest and execution. Petrushevskaya ended up in a children’s home where she was nicknamed “the Moscow matchstick” because she was so thin. Eventually her mother called her home, where the family shared a 12 sq m room in a kommunalka.
Adult life was no easier. Her first husband, Zhenya, was a physicist who died at the age of 32. She was left alone to raise their son, Kiril, now 44 and the editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti. Her second husband, Boris Pavlov, latterly a film historian and the father of her two younger children, died suddenly of a heart attack last September, while he was travelling on the Moscow metro.
“He worked most of his life as a night watchman,” Petrushevskaya says sadly, “because he was a dissident.” For the same reason her own career did not take off until she was in her fifties. In 1968 she met with the same editor who first published Solzhenitsyn in the infamous dissident journal Novy Mir. He told her there was no hope her work would ever appear.
“They said they couldn’t protect me. Those were very bloody times. I was lucky in a way. If they had published me I would have had a terrible sort of fame. It would have been dangerous. I would have ended up in prison.”
She didn’t even want to be known for her writing within a select circle. “I never liked samizdat [self-published work, circulated amongst dissidents]. I kept my stories to myself.” Instead she wrote plays, which were often shut down as soon as they opened.
Despite staying under the radar, for years at a time her phone was bugged by the KGB. “Once I was talking to a friend and I said to her, ‘By the way, what’s the time?’ and a stranger’s voice answered, ‘It’s a quarter to one.’ That was their idea of a joke. Another time I shouted down the phone at them – because I knew they were listening – ‘Why won’t you let me put this play on?’ It had been three years of waiting. Soon after they allowed it to be staged.”
As time passed, things got easier. Unofficially there was always a lot going on in Moscow culturally in the 1970s and 1980s. “Things were not allowed from on high. But it was the little people who made these things happen, who had no real responsibility for anything. A friend of mine used to say, ‘Shout at every crossroads what you want. Shout.’ You did what you could to get your work out.”
During perestroika, Petrushevskaya became a household name virtually overnight. Stories that she had written years before were finally published. Her first story collection came out in 1987. Her most famous tale, “The New Robinson Crusoes”, appeared in Novy Mir alongside the first officially approved excerpts of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1989. By 2008, her 70th birthday was a government-sponsored event.
But Petrushevskaya obviously relishes life as an outsider. She wants no part of the literary mantle Russia wants her to assume. Singing was always her first love anyway, she says. “I sang on the streets from the age of nine. All my life I dreamed of being a singer. I am a playwright and a theatrical person at heart.”
Now she performs at least three times a month, partly in competition with her daughter Natasha, 29, a professional jazz singer, and her son Fedor, 34, a performance artist. Initially embarrassed by their mother’s musical efforts, they’re now huge fans, Petrushevskaya laughs. “I’m 24 years older than Susan Boyle but I don’t think it’s too late for me. I do not feel like a ‘great writer’. I don’t answer to that description. I just want people to cry, to laugh, to listen. Writing seems to take away all the drama. Singing brings it back.” 6
‘There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbour’s Baby’, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, is published this month by Penguin at £9.99