The Ambiguity of Maternal Violence in Liudmila Petrushevskaia’s “Our Crowd”

Jenny Kaminer, Northwestern University

Helena Goscilo has referred to the mother/child relationship in the works of Liudmila Petrushevskaia as an “endless cycle of universal victimization” where “mothers invariably both endure and inflict punishment” (Goscilo 105). The narrator and central maternal figure of Petrushevskaia’s story “Our Crowd” (“Svoi krug,” 1989) features a character who exemplifies this ambiguity between victim and victimizer. In the story’s climactic scene, she problematizes maternal moral authority by beating her young son. The work’s principal tension develops around the interpretation of this violence: can the supposed nobility of the mother’s motivation (ensuring that he will be cared for after her impending death) be reconciled with its destructive result? Was this an act propelled by traditional maternal self-sacrifice or by self-interest?

Using Goscilo’s interpretation as a foundation, this paper provides a close reading of “Our Crowd,” focusing on the narrator’s (and the members of her circle’s) complicated relationship toward children and childrearing. Within the “crowd” of intellectuals to which the story’s narrator belongs, children seemingly constitute a crucial component of life. However, certain indicators that children are not as selflessly nurtured and cherished as it initially appears reoccur throughout the story. In addition, the narrator’s violence toward her son betrays an acute awareness of “effect.” She carefully orchestrates every detail of this well-scripted dramatic interlude, designing it to elicit a specific response from its intended audience. I explore the mother’s beating of her son as the central interpretive question of the work. Was this act merely a sadistic display, one intended as yet another move in the endless psychological game that the narrator and her supposed friends have engaged in for over a decade? On the other hand, the story’s closing paragraph poignantly describes how the narrator imagines her son will visit her grave after her death. How, then, to reconcile this apparently genuine expression of maternal anguish with the selfishness, questionable logic, and violence that preceded it?

“Our Crowd” presents the mother as a destabilizing force. No clear, singular representation of maternity emerges from this work. The story suggests, however, that the fragmentations of the maternal self in late-Soviet society now incorporate violence. In conclusion, I briefly explore how the rhetoric of maternity of the post-Soviet period also merged violence with questionable nobility. The Chechenki who participated in the Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis and committed other acts of terror provide a pointed example of this combination. They fused the image of the noble mother, sacrificing her life on behalf of her children, with that of the criminal one, sacrificing innocent victims in pursuit of her goal. I discuss how Petrushevskaia’s story anticipates this dynamic.

Works Cited
Goscilo, Helena. “Mother as Mothra: Totalizing Narrative and Nurture in Petrushevskaia.” A Plot of Her Own: The Female Protagonist in Russian Literature. Ed. Sona Stephan Hoisington. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1995. 102–113.
Petrushevskaia, Liudmila. “Svoi krug.” Sobranie sochinenii, tom 1. Moscow: TKO AST, 1996. 45–67.