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Lyudmila Petrushevskaya: Нас украли. История преступлений (Kidnapped)

As you can see from her bibliography, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya has published poetry, novels, essays, plays and around three thousand stories. This is one of her rare novels but, though it is called a novel and is, indeed, a novel, it takes the form of several stories within stories within stories… Though much (though by no means not all) of the novel is set in Russia, the book starts in the fictitious country of Montegasco (presumably in Latin America though as virtually all the characters we meet in that country are Russians it is not easy to tell) in the first decade of the twenty-first century, i.e. after the fall of the Soviet Union. The book will end there soon after the opening events but a lot will have happened in between. By the way the Russian translates as We Have been Stolen. A History of Crime.

We start with Kolya who had been the driver of Sergei Sertsov in, a government official, in the Soviet Union and, now that Sertsov has done well for himself in post-Soviet Russia, remains his driver and general factotum. Kolya is going to the station to pick up Sertsov’s son Sergei who is visiting and whom Sertsov had not seen since the now teenage boy was a baby. However Kolya finds that he is picking up two boys who have the same name and were born the same day and who are obviously not twins as they have the same name. In chronological time Sergei Senior will soon also find this out but in terms of the book, he is not going to find out for a long time, as Petrushevskaya leads us on a long and complicated series of stories which will explain why the two boys have he same name and were born the same day, will tells us the stories of many others and, as is her wont, will be highly critical of both the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.

Kolya is married to Galina but it was all very messy, like many stories in this book. Initially we follow the story of Kolya and Galina in post-Soviet Russia and it is not a happy one though things improve when he gets the job with Sergei. Kolya’s earlier life had not been too good as his mother clearly preferred his sister just as Galina’s mother clearly preferred her brother. Indeed, Galina’s early life is made worse by her father’s drunken behaviour and how her mother deals with it. Domestic and sexual violence is another theme of this book and Galina and her mother are by no means the only victims.

We soon move to the story of Sergei and his wife Masha. Sergei was a diplomat and wanted to marry Masha, daughter of a high-flying Soviet diplomat. Masha’s parents did not approve and now we are off to their story. Her parents, Tamara and Valera, had actually had the same problem as her parents did not approve of him. (The ambassador loved his daughter like any father does and could not stand the thought of some ham-handed hick using his smart, beautiful girl in bed like a floozy. She had to keep her virginity forever as a sign of faithfulness to her father). Soviet snobbery also occurs more than once in this book. Not surprisingly, Valera does not behave like a gentleman either towards his future wife or future father-in-law, with Masha being conceived in an atmosphere of spiteful vengefulness. Life did not go too well either for mother Tamara or daughter Masha. For the latter, the comment is Oh well, princesses the world over are, to a woman, lonely, incapable of finding a partner, and ultimately falling for staff, unfortunately.

While Sergei is trying to get a diplomatic post in Handia, a thinly disguised India, we now get another player involved, Alina. She had an affair with Avtandil, a man from another part of the Soviet Union and, not surprisingly, his parents did not approve of their son’s choice and dragged him back home, leaving a pregnant Alina , kicked out of her university course because of her pregnancy and with nowhere to live and no-one to help her. It all gets very complicated indeed as we are now in the latter part of the Soviet Union when things are generally not going well. The stories of Tamara, Masha, Sergei, Alina and a woman called Lena massively collide with complex and, in part, unpleasant results for all concerned.

As well as telling a series of complicated tales which do all eventually mesh, though while you are reading it, you may wonder how they are going to do so, Petrushevskaya shows us a decidedly unpleasant portrait of the latter part of the Soviet Union/early post-Soviet Russia. We see lives ruined, massive corruption (Sergei in Montegasco did not earn his money honestly), a failure of all social services and basic infrastructure. Most people, even those, who are also victims, behave badly to some degree and, in some cases, quite a few characters behave very badly indeed. All too often the victims are the poor and the women who suffer abuse both from others (obviously, in the case of the women, from men). Petrushevskaya has very little if anything positive to say about this era and while neither Putin nor any other Soviet or Russian leader makes an appearance it is clear that they are, at least in part, to blame.

There is little comparison between Montegasco and Russia but one area where Petrushevskaya does make a comparison is as regards the police. Montegasco is a country with a ferocious and meticulous police system we are told and we see that the police is effective in that country while in the Soviet Union/Russia, the police are shown to be corrupt and incompetent.

Petrushevskaya does not hold back. She tells a series of superb, interconnected tales which give us a portrait of a country where nothing works, corruption reigns, services are falling apart, the poor and women are abused with impunity and few if any people are happy with their lives and where they can, like Sergei, they flee the country. If you want to learn what the Soviet Union/Russia was like and probably is still like to a certain degree, you will find it in this book.

First published in 2017 by Estvo
First English translation in 2023 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Marian Schwartz