Ludmilla Petrushevskaya sweeps into the crumbling hall of a small museum west of Moscow’s Red Square. Topaz and turquoise knuckle-dusters flash on her fingers as she stomps about in Juicy Couture ski boots. Aged 72, she does not look like a literary legend. And yet that is exactly what many in Russia and beyond consider her to be: the last of the great dissidents. As her translators Keith Gessen and Anna Summers put it: “With the death of Solzhenitsyn, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Petrushevskaya is Russia’s best-known living writer.”
Despite having won the Russian Booker Prize and still hotly in demand with her public, Petrushevskaya rejects her legacy as a writer. “It has nothing to do with me,” she says coldly. This month, some of her best-known short stories will appear in the UK for the first time, but Petrushevskaya is less excited about seeing her work translated into English than about her new ambition: to be known as Russia’s Susan Boyle, the Britain’s Got Talent crooner. “Susan Boyle is my inspiration,” she grins. Her black eyes sparkle with mischief. “She makes me cry. I watch her on YouTube every night. Her story is a real fairy tale.”
To the horror of the Russian establishment, since Petrushevskaya turned 70 three years ago, she has turned her back on writing full-time and embarked on an anarchic second career as a cabaret singer. It is this kind of move that has made her both loved and hated in Russia, always controversial. Her critics consider it inappropriate that a woman of her literary status and dissident background (not to mention her age) should be singing Russian versions of Edith Piaf at student nights in dodgy nightclubs.
As one of her entourage whispers to me just before Petrushevskaya turns up, an hour late (she has a Naomi Campbell reputation for timekeeping): “She is seen as a living classic and for a ‘great writer’ to perform her cabaret in this funny black hat… Well, it is regarded as deeply eccentric. And not in a good way. Russians have a very linear understanding of what it means to be a writer. Petrushevskaya doesn’t fit into it.”
And yet she is finally receiving the international acclaim which has eluded her all her writing life. The New Yorker recently declared her a “revelation … Like reading late-Tolstoy fables set in an alternative reality.” Her new collection is a brilliant but bleak series of stories, peppered with black humour, about life in communal flats and depressing dachas. Many draw on real events: “I think of myself as a documentary writer, collecting documents about people’s lives and reworking them.” She tries to write “in the voice people use to tell their story to another person on the bus – urgently, hastily, making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off”.