The Fierce Fairy Tales of Russian Author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Photo of By Katharina Reiter
11 January 2017

Born in Moscow in 1938, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya ranks among the most important writers of contemporary Russia. Despite the fact that her early work was banned in Russia until Gorbachev’s perestroika began to take effect, Petrushevskaya always wrote fiercely, determined to have her stories be heard and remembered. She has emerged as one of Russia’s award-winning writers.

Petrushevskaya’s early life and childhood

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s biography reads much like that of one of her female protagonists. It is fraught with the hardships of the Soviet era and is darkly magical. Growing up under Stalin’s rule, Petrushevskaya and her family, many of them former Bolsheviks, were forced to witness the persecution, imprisonment, and death of friends and relatives. Food and housing was always scarce, forcing many families to live in cramped, subdivided apartments. As a young girl, Ludmilla was temporarily sent to an orphanage by her mother. It was a move that proved crucial not only for the author’s physical and mental health, but also for her writing career. At the orphanage, Petrushevskaya says she thought up stories every night.

Controversy and adversity

Petrushevskaya began writing in the 1960s, however, most of her work remained banned from publication between 1974 and 1982. During a time when the authorities called for tales about the good, simple Russian life, the author unapologetically portrayed its bleaker realities. As a consequence, Petrushevskaya’s name appeared on government watch lists, her phone was continuously tapped and it was difficult for her to survive. Still she never gave up, incessantly bouncing back from having her articles rejected by magazines and her plays banned from the big national stages. She continued to write, and had her plays staged illegally. When Russia finally began to recognize her work, Petrushevskaya earned various prestigious awards, including the Pushkin Prize in 1991, the Triumph prize for her lifetime achievements in 2002 and the World Fantasy Award in 2010.

Petrushevskaya’s many talents

Outside of her home country Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is primarily known for her short stories and plays, but she is also multitalented. In 1979, she gained recognition for the award-winning animated film Skazka Skazok (Tale of Tales), which she co-wrote. Petrushevskaya was also active as a painter and generally refused to let her reputation as a renowned national writer limit her expression of other talents. More recently, for instance, she embarked on a cabaret singing career, a fact which has raised a few eyebrows among her Russian readers. In accordance with her literary devotion to fairytales, Petrushevskaya has cited Susan Boyle, whose performance on Britain’s Got Talent and ensuing overnight fame fell nothing short of a modern fairy tale itself.

Representations of Russian life

Petrushevskaya draws upon what she has experienced first hand, as well as her observations of other people, to create short stories and plays. As an author, Petrushevskaya explains in an interview with the Financial Times that she sees herself as a documentary writer. In her stories she attempts to capture the essence of Russian reality in its often grim, yet strangely enchanting detail. She also tries to capture her compatriots’ voices as they share their own personal reality with others.

Petrushevskaya’s unique storytelling ability

As bleak and uneventful as the lives of some of her protagonists seem, they are still woven into some incredibly sinister fairy tales by Petrushevskaya. In creating dark humor and the occasional solace in loneliness for her characters, she makes the appearance of a fairy godmother or kind spirit unnecessary. Her protagonists run on their own kind of magic fairy dust, a sort of iron will to continue struggling towards no particular goal, other than daily survival. Petrushevskaya manages to subvert the Russian clichés that many still cling to, precisely by employing them in her stories. It is this that makes her one of the most stimulating authors of tragic love.

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