WITNESS TO THE PERSECUTION: THE GIRL FROM THE METROPOL HOTEL IS A SHARPLY WRITTEN ACCOUNT OF SOVIET LIFE
–IF ONLY HOLLYWOOD’S KNOW-IT-ALL “LEFTIES” WOULD READ SOMETHING OTHER THAN THE LATEST GUSHING ‘NY TIMES’ REVIEWS OF THEIR LEFT-LEANING FILMS!
By Robert Fulford, with permission from the author
The Great Purge of Stalin’s Soviet Union, from 1936 to 1938, was a subject of feverish argument in the West. Those who admired Stalin declared that it couldn’t be as bad as capitalist newspapers claimed. Those who disliked communism said it proved that Russia was in the hands of barbarians and Stalin was barbarian-in-chief. Many Soviet citizens were charged as saboteurs or traitors by the secret police, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps million, were executed.
But as long as Soviet communism lasted, the human meaning of the purges remained veiled. Neither Soviet citizens nor foreigners could know the experiences of those who lived through the nightmare. But the post-communist era has brought waves of literary recollections from those who can bear to reveal what they saw and felt.
One exceptional witness, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, a 78-year-old Russian author, has looked deep into her childhood memories to write The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, translated by Anna Summers. It’s a sharply written account, rich in detail, of a child paying dearly for having the bad luck to be raised under communism.
Ludmilla was not yet born when the whole weight of Soviet rage and paranoia fell on her family. Her relatives being party officials, they lived in the Metropol Hotel, in the core of Moscow, happy to be part of the Soviet bureaucracy. But in 1937, the year of Ludmilla’s birth, three of her uncles and their wives were arrested and charged with being enemies of the people. All six were convicted and given 10-year sentences at hard labour, with no right of correspondence. Ludmilla says that meant execution. Of the six, only one survived.
When Stalin was safely dead, and most of his associates in no position to protest, the state “rehabilitated” Ludmilla’s family along with many others. This was an apology and an admission that the convicted were not guilty as charged. It didn’t much help those who had died but it suggested that the U.S.S.R.’s leaders were at least slightly less vicious than Stalin had been.
It’s a sharply written account, rich in detail, of a child paying dearly for having the bad luck to be raised under communism
Ludmilla, along with the rest of her offending family, was placed at the bottom of the bottom of Soviet life. Suddenly her relatives had no jobs, nowhere to live, no source of food. Ludmilla, her mother and her grandmother were transported by a frigid boxcar 500 miles east to Samara, where they lived in a communal apartment. Their reputation preceded them. As enemies of the people, they were regarded with fear or contempt. “We were enemies to everyone: to our neighbours, to the police, to the janitors, to the passers by.” For food, Ludmilla learned to scavenge through garbage. She brought back discarded cabbage leaves, fish bones and potato peelings, all to be used by her grandmother in stews.
Eventually, her mother was accepted by a college in Moscow, which allowed her to slip furtively back into a path in the Soviet system. She couldn’t bring along her daughter, so Ludmilla didn’t see her mother for four years. She writes: “She used to tell me again and again that it was for me, for my sake, that she left, that she couldn’t have supported us without a college degree. For the rest of her life my poor mother justified herself.”
Motherless, Ludmilla nevertheless developed into an independent spirit and something of a daredevil. She climbed an outside ladder of an opera house, found herself in the balcony, and saw part of Rossini’s Barber of Seville. “My whole life I remembered that duet between Rosina and Count Almaviva.”
She had no shoes and couldn’t go to school in winter. On good days she begged crumbs in the courtyards of Samara. She would recite Gogol stories and sometimes sing songs – “cheesy, lowbrow numbers beloved by washerwomen and lumpen proletarians.”
Finally, her years of utter penury were over. At last her mother came for her and took her home to Moscow. They were not affluent – in fact they spent seven years sleeping under the dining room table in the apartment of Ludmilla’s grandfather. He was a distinguished linguist who knew 11 languges and 70 dialects of the Caucasus but had been fired from his university job for his tardiness in praising an article by Stalin, “Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.” (Stalin considered himself an expert in everything, and was upset when others disagreed.) But they had a roof over them, and food.
The problem now was Ludmilla. She wasn’t ready for a civilized life. “I had become unmanageable,” she recalls. “At the age of nine I was unfamiliar with shoes, with handkerchiefs, with combs. I didn’t know what school or discipline was. I couldn’t sit still.”
This changed about the same time she decided on her future as a storyteller. “My reputation rested on one skill,” she realized. As a beggar in the street she had honed her ability to tell stories. When living with other children she knew how to put them to sleep. “After lights-out I told ‘scary’ stories.”
Robert Fulford’s e-mail address is: http://email@example.com