n Slavic Almanac : The South African Journal for Slavic, Central and Eastern European Studies - 'The queen of spades' by Liudmila Ulitskaia : foreign text as a key to understanding its subtext

Volume 16, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1025-3386


The story portrays a family matriarch, Mour, a former beauty who became the domineering and autocratic mother of Anna, a divorcée but otherwise a successful ophthalmologic surgeon in her sixties. Anna, as well as her daughter Katia and her children, live in constant terror of Mour. The very title of Ulitskaia's text brings to mind a well-known short story by the same title, written by A. Pushkin in 1833, with Pushkin's capricious old countess seen as a literary prototype of Mour. This literary genealogy of Ulitskaia's story is too conspicuous to be taken for granted and, as a close reading of Ulitskaia's tale reveals, is meant to conceal references to a number of well-known personalities of the Soviet era. It shows that Mour may be seen as being styled on Lily Brik, the lover and muse of Vladimir Mayakovsky. As did her real-life prototype, in her better years Mour too had numerous love affairs, inspiring various Soviet artists and having influence with the Party's inner circle. The analogy with Lily Brik makes Mour the representative of the Soviet system, of its cruelty, immorality and impunity. Ulitskaia's story forewarns that the evils inherent to the 'Soviet' regime did not disappear after its collapse, but may merely have been transformed. In spite of the tragic end, Ulitskaia's story leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope. The totality of evil, represented by Mour, is challenged (though very discreetly) by the selflessness and infinite kindness of her daughter. There is also a possibility of Mour's descendants eventually rebelling against the old woman's despotism, and becoming free people in a free country.

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