Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a revered writer in Russia and becoming better-known by American readers. Because she doesn’t speak English and is thus not interviewed very frequently by American journalists, we provide here the text of her responses to Kirkus writer David Garza’s questions (to read Garza's article about Petrushevskaya, click here). Thanks to Petrushevskaya’s translator Anna Summers for her work translating Petrushevskaya’s responses.
What compelled you to continue writing during the years when your works went unpublished? Did you belong to any community that read and supported your work during those years? The introduction to this book describes “official oppression” as having kept your work out of publication. Can you describe what forms this oppression took?
What compelled me to write? Not the desire to just get published or to become famous. I’m still indifferent to that. I’m not on official television. I began to give interviews only recently and only as a singer/actor. I reject invitations to talk at foreign book fairs; my book tours are confined to Russia. I needed to get published so that my stories could be heard, put on record. I wrote in the name of those who suffered. I was a witness for the prosecution. All these years later, people still can’t forgive and forget the pain my fiction had caused.
As for the suppression, everything was very simple. I brought stories to a magazine, returned later to find out what happened. Sometimes they openly laughed in my face. In the best of cases, I was politely advised to come up with happier endings. My manuscripts lay around publishing houses for decades. I was barred from young authors’ conferences whose participants signed up with publishers on the spot. Production of my plays would be banned by censors for years.
During Perestroika, two Moscow papers published lists of people whose phones used to be tapped and who used to be under constant surveillance. I was on both lists. In 1991, I was under indictment for six months after sending a letter to Gorbachev criticizing his military actions in Latvia and Lithuania. I was charged with felony—insulting the President—and faced from two to five years in jail. We hid at the dacha all summer; kept the lights off; I refused all invitations for public appearances under the pretext that the children were ill. In July, I took the children abroad: I was invited to the theater festivals in Grenoble and Taormina. On August 21 Gorbachev was deposed.
As for my supporters, they were the fiction editors at the Novy Mir magazine: Inna Borisova and Assia Berzer. I brought them all of my stories: my first story I was too shy to submit in person and asked a friend to do it for me. In the 1970s, Novy Mir was considered the altar of decency and honesty. The editors read my pieces as soon as I brought them. These two women saw me through some very hard times: when my husband became paralyzed after an accident and died six years later; when my mother became mentally ill, and my little son developed asthma and had to be shipped to a boarding preschool outside the city.
Later, when he went to first grade, I quit work to be with him after school. Assia and Inna saved us from hunger by finding work that I could do from home: I reviewed submissions that arrived to Novy Mir by mail. My two fairy godmothers fought with their bosses for my right to make 60 rubles a month. I was paid three rubles for reviewing 24 pages of fiction. Sometimes it was very short stories, so three reviews brought me three rubles. But at least I could be with my child. My little son received the state stipend of 37 rubles after losing a father. I paid monthly rent for my and my mother’s apartments, 25 and 12 rubles, not counting utilities. I typed those reviews in two copies: one for the magazine and one for the author. I couldn’t make a copy for myself because I couldn’t afford extra writing paper. All those hundreds and hundreds of reviews are now lost.
Many of the stories in this collection are set in small apartments, and the reader feels the presence of neighbors. What is your relationship with your neighbors like in real life?
I have always been on excellent terms with my neighbors, many of whom became characters in my stories. Recently, two things happened: I moved to a new apartment (my old building had been condemned) and I became well-known. At the new place, I no longer take up new friendships–because common people treat celebrities with irony and contempt, as accessible clowns.
What is the most surprising thing you have read or heard about your writing?
After my play “Three Maidens in Blue,” a woman from the audience confessed that the tragedy she had witnessed on stage made her own real-life tragedies seem less tragic.
The title of your collection labels these works as “love stories,” but clearly, these are not loves stories in the traditional and expected sense. Can you describe the forms of love that interest you most, or can you shed light on how love is at the center of these stories?
Love is a thirst that can be satisfied in different ways. Love for children, parents, pets, and friends makes us want to be near them, to hug, to help, to feed, to listen. Love for the opposite sex can be satisfied in bed. Both loves share the same ugly traits: petty jealousy, desire to own, to interfere, to isolate the beloved from the rest of the world.
Some of your characters find a sense of satisfaction or happiness in moments immediately after crisis or despair (“Ali-Baba,” for example). Is there an inherent joy in suffering? Does the suffering of your characters bring a sense of victory or reality to life? How do we manifest this in real life? What is the value and necessity of suffering, in your opinion?
When we are rescued and our suffering ends–this is when we experience the deepest happiness. That is why suffering has value.
Tragedy is a failed attempt at saving someone from suffering. Such failed attempts are impossible to forget. In the context of both individual and national histories, tragedies are unforgettable.
Another question on suffering: your life story is remarkable for many reasons, one of them being the tribulations of your childhood. Throughout your life, how have you found a sense of redemption or hope in these moments of suffering?
The suffering person struggles every second to escape his or her suffering; to end the pain. But when the struggle is futile, when your dearest and nearest is dead, then there is nothing more to be done but to leave, too. After a loss a full year is wasted on grief. I know that from experience. After a year, time comes to rescue and it’s possible to stand by the grave of a loved one and not to cry.
How did you decide to become a singer, and how does your singing extend the artistic pursuit of your writing? How do you choose which songs to sing, and what leads you to revise song lyrics?
I always sang—only without an audience. I sang in choirs; took vocal lessons at college. I sang at home. I began to perform professionally after an impromptu party, when actors were goofing around, performing all kinds of nonsense. So I performed a little song—and was greeted with a deafening applause. As for the lyrics, I compose my own because the old ones don’t satisfy me. Why would a poet use someone else’s verse?
What other arts or pursuits interest you? Are you an avid spectator of any other artists, athletes or thinkers?
Right now I am fascinated by the world of music and musical performers. The story of Susan Boyle, a simple village woman, impressed me deeply. I imagined that it was I—an old woman with a powerful voice.
When I practiced watercolor painting, I visited galleries, exhibits, was in touch with painters. When I was invited to teach animation in a college, I began making my own animated films.
Anton Chekhov’s name appears in many reviews of your work. How do you relate to him as an artist? How are the works of Chekhov, or of any of the classic Russian writers, regarded in contemporary Russia?
For me, Chekhov, like Pushkin (who is an absolute genius and therefore untranslatable), are dear, kindred spirits who don’t know that I exist. Russians treat these classics with unchanging passion and jealousy. Some years back, I wrote a piece about Pushkin’s death. I was engulfed by popular hatred. Within days, my piece was read by 14,000 readers.
Russia has undoubtedly experienced drastic, and perhaps unimaginable, change during your lifetime. What has surprised you most about how the past century has unfolded in Russia? What delights you the most, and what disappoints you?
I’ve seen Stalin. I’ve lived under all those maniacs and serial killers who are buried in the Kremlin wall. Two members of my family were put to the wall; my great-grandfather was pushed under the car when he wanted to find out the fates of his executed children. He was 84. You see, in 1937 the standard euphemism for someone’s execution was “10 years without the right to correspondence.” My poor great-grandfather came to the KGB quarters 10 years later, in 1947, to ask the question: 10 years have passed, where are my children? My grandfather, Nikolai F. Yakovlev, a prominent linguist, was kept in a mental asylum for 20 years for criticizing Stalin’s treatise on linguistics.
The changes are, of course, enormous. On the other hand, our current leaders and aristocracy, all those thieves, so much remind me of the dear Soviet leaders that it’s almost funny.
Lastly, I want to ask about women and the oral storytelling tradition in Russia. I read a quote of yours that describes your country as a “land of women Homers.” Is this storytelling still as vital a part of Russian life as it was, say 50 years ago? Who have been the most compelling storytellers (not writers, but oral storytellers) you have encountered?
Every storyteller was important and unique. Nothing has changed: I am still the shoulder to cry on and the ear to listen.