The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communal Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and translated by Anna Summers in 2017 caught my attention because I had read, not long ago, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which was also set in post-revolutionary Russia in the Metropol Hotel, located in the heart of Moscow. While I enjoyed the novel by Towles, I felt that the life Alexander, once a member of the aristocracy, lived in the Metropol Hotel might be a somewhat romanticized version of the fate a person would normally have suffered as an enemy of the people during those early days of the Communist (Bolshevik)Revolution. The new leaders were purging the nation of old bourgeois influences and the privileged classes. Petrushevskaya’s story is quite different from Alexander’s and conforms more nearly to my understanding of the complicated and unpredictable suspicions that often led to the arrests of Russians in the wake of the revolution.
Anna Summers offers a preface which provides some background. She begins by describing a May 9th parade that took place in every town and village since the end of WWII with rows of ragged and neglected veterans marching proudly, and then she has us picture the day of May 9th in 2015 (Petrushevskaya originally published her book in Russia in 2006) when there were no WWII vets left to parade through the towns and villages; there were only pictures carried by their grandchildren. She tells us, “Except sometimes the facts of a family’s connection with the war weren’t suited for proud retelling and were therefore often concealed from the little ones who would then be forced to hem and haw and finally come up with some lie. Sometimes our grandparents didn’t just die gruesomely, buried alive in a tank, like mine or return disfigured or even return at all. Sometimes they were arrested and sent to the Gulag…” (Her father and her grandfather were killed in a mass execution in the late 1930’s, even though her relations were prominent Bolsheviks elevated by the October Revolution, so she had no war stories to tell and this was a problem.) “The shared experiences of their childhoods – evacuation, hunger – were heightened in her case by the unbearable – and unshareable – extreme because of the social stigma that branded her an ‘enemy of the people’”
Ludmilla’s childhood with her aunt and her grandmother was hungrier and dirtier than that of most children because of the classification and execution of her grandfather and her father. The female survivors were ostracized and interned in a prison without walls. Ludmilla’s story may begin when she was born in the Metropol Hotel but her life is lived far from Moscow for the most part. Whatever Russia was like after the Revolution for those who found favor with the Communists, Ludmilla’s memoir of her childhood years shows what life was like for everyone in a family once a progenitor became an enemy of the people, even though the reasons were often obscure, petty, or even imagined.
Soon this famous Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, will join the ranks of those no longer living veterans of WWII. Thankfully she got to publish this memoir of her early hardscrabble existence and outcast state. We should not ever forget that the Russian Revolution was often an ideological quagmire with many victims, both guilty and innocent. Sounds grim, but is very readable.