Flight to Idyll: Ljudmila Petruševskaja’s Countryside in Her Late Prose

Juras T. Ryfa, George Washington University

In her 1998 story “Nikogda” Ljudmila Petruševskaja, traditionally a city writer, continues to search for the answers to the questions posed in her earlier stories (Novye Robinzony: Xronika Konca XX veka) by exploring the alternative environment of the countryside. In this story, Petruševskaja discloses the dark side of the “national behavior” that makes the reader ponder the fate of Russia and what, according to Petruševskaja, may lead to overall national demise. She does so by juxtaposing the city and country and presenting a dismaying vignette of country life, with wide implications of the bleak national present and an unsettled future.

The paper focuses on the textual analysis of Petruševskaja’s story. Its heroine’s bizarre yet believable skirmish with the country people reveals that the conflict lies in the eternal Soviet-style housing crisis. In the story the author demonstrates that in new Russia as in the Soviet times, mortal combat for a dwelling space transfigures the very nature of people and corrodes the fabric of society, even in the areas not touched by the corruptive “evil” of the cities. As in the city, even in the traditional Russian village, where ethical values were shaped through many centuries of Russian history, such values have fallen victim to the omnipresent housing crisis. According to Petruševskaja, this erosion of ethical values continues today.

A related problem of the myth of Russian people is explored in greater detail. Like Solženicyn’s narrator in “Matrenin dvor,” Petruševskaja’s main character goes to the village hoping to escape pressure of city life. Whether created by the apologists of socialist realism or their ideological and aesthetic opponents, the myth of Russian country people as the keepers of hallowed cultural traditions passed from generation to generation—especially in the hostile Soviet era—is seriously questioned by Petruševskaja. The author explodes the traditional perception of the Russian country side as the last stronghold in a nation corrupted by an all-pervasive moral contamination and materialism, the byproducts of communist rule. She dethrones the idealized image of the rustic people by unveiling the dark realm of contemporary rural Russia. In this respect, her story is an instant throwback to Bunin’s “Derevnja” and Čexov’s “Mužiki” and “V ovrage.”

Petruševskaja’s flight to idyll turns into a real life nightmare—the all pervasive leitmotif of “Nikogda.”