The Girl from the Metropol Hotel

Reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s memoir of her childhood, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, I found myself thinking of J G Ballard. Like Petrushevskaya, Ballard’s family had a sudden fall from grace, from a position of privilege to one of day-to-day survival, when they were interned by the Japanese after the invasion of Shanghai. Yet as a young boy Ballard found many aspects of his new life suited him:

“Lunghua camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom.”

Petrushevskaya, born on the cusp of the same war, existed in the equally precarious Soviet Union of Stalin. Her family, pre-revolution Bolsheviks (her great-grandfather, Dedya, joined the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in 1898), were privileged enough to live in the Metropol Hotel, as translator Anna Summers explains in her introduction:

“After the October Revolution, the famed building was designated the Second House of Soviets. For many years it housed the Party government and prominent revolutionaries, like the author’s great-grandfather.”

In an interview in the New Yorker, Petrushevskaya has described the misfortunes visited on her family during her childhood:

“Until the age of nine I had nothing—just one ancient dress. I went hungry, ran around barefoot from April to October, even begged. We were a family of “Enemies of the People.” That was what they called those who had been accused of political crimes and sent to the camps. Three of my relatives had been accused of spying for the Japanese, and were executed. Later, my great-grandfather was assassinated in the middle of Moscow, pushed under a car.”

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel covers this period in her life, beginning when her grandmother, mother and aunt return to their apartment at the Metropol to find it sealed:

“If they had returned an hour earlier they would have been taken. But my family is always late.”

Such moments of ‘good luck’, perhaps precisely because of the relentless poverty which follows, are scattered throughout Petrushevskaya’s story, for example the luck of the train’s guard choosing to travel with them in the cattle car they occupy as they are evacuated from Moscow, bringing with him a small stove. Even her mother being able to return to Moscow where she has been offered a place at the Institute of Theatre Arts (“It was a miracle”) is presented as good luck (she is offered a lift on a train and must leave immediately without any chance to say goodbye):

“I waited for my mother day and night. She returned four years later.”

Life is hard. Petrushevskaya runs barefoot through the summer, but this is not possible in winter and so she cannot attend school. At night she is sent to search through her neighbour’s rubbish for food.

“During the day, like many unsupervised children, I begged in the street. I tolerated hunger reasonably well; we’d been starving for a long time.”

Eventually her grandmother becomes so concerned about her roaming the streets she locks her in her room, but she manages to get onto the neighbouring balcony and down the fire escape:

“I could tolerate hunger, but I couldn’t tolerate lack of freedom.”

In 1947 she returns with her mother to Moscow and the Metropol but, as she says: “A new life was beginning. There was no room in it for me.” and soon she is packed off to summer camp, “a place I couldn’t escape from”:

“The rules of the wild courtyard where I grew up were simple: run, grab, swallow, hide; meet a punch with a punch; if someone calls you, don’t go. Camp regulations couldn’t be more different.”

In the years which follow Petrushevskaya struggles to settle in any institution, summer camp or school, on every occasion expelled from the Young Pioneers. She refuses to be confined, describing the “terror” she feels when locked in a room: “I screamed and threw myself at the door for hours.” Like Ballard she finds it difficult to return to ‘normal’ life. As she tries it fit in Petrushevkaya writes about herself in the third person:

“I cannot describe the girl’s appearance. Appearances cannot reveal inner life, and the girl, who was twelve at the time, led a constant inner monologue, making decisions literally each second – what to say, where to sit, how to answer – with a single purpose: to be like the other children, to avoid being kicked and shunned.”

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel takes us to the point where Petrushevkaya’s writing career is just beginning, encouraged, as so often, by one teacher. Despite the frequently bleak circumstances of her life (and the bleakness of her fiction) it’s difficult not to see her story as one of hope, where survival and art are inextricably entwined. As she says herself: “one needs to study life – before writing about it.”

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3 Responses to “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hello Grant, I can see why you referenced this as similar to Sofia Petrovna which I reviewed for the 1965 Club. I looked her up at Wikipedia, she was born in 1938 so her writing was well after Stalin’s purges but still subject to surveillance and harassment.

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    It’s like that eerie experience of reading Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise when the Germans occupy Paris… there’s #understatement no end of books about WW2 and the Nazis, but she was writing during the war, as it was happening, when unlike subsequent writers, she had no idea when it would end or what might happen next. And we the readers know that the Nazis exterminated her.

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