The Deconstruction of Lenin and Hitler’s characters in Petrushevskaya’s “Men’s Zone”play

“Men’s zone” is one of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s best plays. The play presents Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Actions are taking place in an antique theatre. The characters representedinclude Lenin(in the role of the moon), Hitler (Juliet’s guardian), Beethoven(Juliet) and Einstein(Romeo), who play the male version of the play under the superintendent’s supervision, that is to say, only men are involved in the performance. This short description of the work already gives us a hint into what sort of an absurd situation the writer has created, while putting together characters that seem incompatible at first sight and bypassing all the laws of time and space. In general,Petrushevskaya’s works have never been perceived definitely, because in her gloomy works the writer combinesthe elements of traditional realism with the ones of postmodernist play poetics, because of which she is very often classified into the “other” group of writers.  Nevertheless, in 1990’s Petrushevskaya follows postmodernism, which can be seen in “Men’s zone”, where she used the world peculiar to postmodernism as the perception of play and coding of symbols.[1]In the title of the play Petrushevskaya refers to “Zone” by Sergey Dovlatov, where the camp zone was seen as a descriptive for the whole Soviet society( isolation from the world, absence of freedom, pressure on individuality and violence)[2]. The elements, typical of the aforementioned camp zone, are present in the play “Men’s zone”, where the writer has rendered the culture and mindset peculiar to the totalitarian regime. Considering that Petrushevskaya takes the topic from reality and everything that she and her surrounding world interact with, the writer’s approach to the totalitarian regime and camp zone is not accidental.

First of all, the play was published in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The period was not easy for Petrushevskaya. To be precise, in 1991 criminal proceedings were commenced against her based on her insults towards the president. In January 1991 while the nation of Lithuania was fighting for independence, Petrushevskaya wrote a letter: “fascists of the communist party, under the rule of Gorbachov, want to enter your territory because soon they will be cast out from all lands”.[3] Of course after Gorbachov left the office, the case was closed, but it affected Petrushevskaya’s creative life of that period.

Besides, for a long time Petrushevskaya’s works were “forbidden” in the USSR. Her first book was published in 1988 when she was 50.  Such prohibition was mainly connected with the absurdity in her works. The situations depicted in Petrushevskaya’s works were incompatible with the ideals of life within the context of social-realistic myth and were not being perceived definitely.As Petrushevskaya mentioned in her interview with Posner, in Soviet Union she lived like a spy, that is to say she remained silent. She was born in a family of “traitors” and 3 members of her family were murdered by soviet authorities. Petrushevskayaconfessedpondering over people in exile and the camping zone in general for a long time[4]. This influenced Petrushevskaya’s attention and her wish to dismantle the myths created by social-realistic literature, which previously were the basis of social life. Hence, Petrushevskaya’s play can be viewed as an attempt to refine the disabled social consciousness. Through psycho-absurd reality Petrushevskaya mocks totalitarian culture, where, covered under the ruling ideology, fraud is presented as absolute truth and where any perceptionthat contradicts the context of social-realistic myth or does not fit in this logic is unacceptable. The writer succeeds in dismantling many perceptions created by the Soviet culture, which is best seen through the characters of Lenin and Hitler.

The Deconstruction in“Men’s zone”

According to Derida, deconstruction is an action performed against traditional structures and implies decomposition and separation of that structure to find out how it is designed to later be reconstructed. Reconstruction does not assume regression to a more primitive form, as it implies two acts: overturn and reconstruction[5]. Hence, by taking Shakespeare’s famous tragedy as a basis for her work and breaking it and not-any-less famous historical characters apart, Petrushevskaya not only decomposes them as a symbolism that was firmly established in social consciousness and seemed very strong, but also turns them into hollow frames leaving only the names and emphasizing that their appearance and interpretation can change by any logic.

Naming the deconstruction as “Cabaret” Petrushevskaya emphasized her play with Shakespeaer’s text, some cultural and historical codes and symbols. Before turning to the deconstruction, let us try to understand Petrushevskaya’s reference to Shakespeare’s famous tragedy and the choice of characters.

Reference to “eternal ideas” and reconsideration of prototypes are an inseparable part of Petrushevskaya’s work. Living in a period of crisis of values and concepts, Petrushevskaya uses the conversion and renewed appreciation of traditional and already famous scripts and characters (“New Robinsons”, “New Faust”. In this context we can observe Petrushevskaya’s decision to take Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” as a base for her play“Men’s zone”. Besides, Petrushevskaya referred to Shakespeare’s works not only once (“Hamlet; zero act”, “Queen Lear”). The English playwright is not only the writer of the greatest literary works and “everlasting” characters, buthas also become a philosophical and literary symbol. Proof to this is the fact, that numerous myths have been created about him, one of which was used by Petrushevskaya at the beginning of the play: “Superintendent: Well. As we all already know, Shakespeare’s plays were written by a countess nicknamed “Dove”.[i]

It is interesting that Petrushevskaya has a book named “Life is a theatre”, which reminds Shakespeare’s famous quote: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. This also proves that Shakespearean ideas are of great significance for Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.

The choice of characters by the author is also remarkable. As “Men’s zone” is an implicit allusion to the camp zone and totalitarian culture of the Soviet Union, the fact thatPetrushevskayachose Hitler and Lenin, who were both founders of the totalitarian system of the 20th century, is not by accident. The choice of the other two characters is directly connected to the characters of Hitler and Lenin. Especially through Beethoven’s character the writer makes a reference to Lenin’s biography, because, as we know, Lenin loved Beethoven’s music, which also inspired him during the revolutionary battle. And through Einstein Petrushevskaya makes a reference to Hitler’s biography. Proof to this arePetrushevskaya’s remarks about Einstein’s Jewish roots and his wish to move to the United States.

For the deconstruction of other characters Petrushevskaya uses the play. First of all she plays with the distribution of roles. The latter occurs at the beginning of the play; against the characters’ will the superintendent distributes disharmonious roles not matching to their real feelings. At the beginning of the play Hitler mentions that he is Juliet, which would be logicalgiven that Einstein would be Romeo, as there is a historical connection between the two and Beethoven wished to be the moon, which is also to some extent symbolical (“Moonlight sonata” is one of Beethoven’s most famous works). But the superintendent decides that Beethoven will play Juliet’s role, Hitler will be her guardian, Einstein will be Romeo and Lenin will be the moon. Thus, the incompatibility of the characters’ feelings and their roles creates chaotic conditions; the performance and everyday life become blended, as a result of which the boundaries become invisible and it becomes difficult to distinguish whether the characters are playing roles orthey are arguing with each other. In this chaotic situation, senseless dialogues between characters become inevitable, which are in fact monologues, when each character speaks about what discomforts them. This is especially seen when the superintendent falls asleep and the characters get a chance to come out of their roles for a short time. The chaos becomes more hilarious when Petrushevskaya plays with the characters’ appearance; the incompatibility of age and sex make the humorous impact ofthe performance bigger. For instance, it is ridiculous to envisage Beethoven acting as fourteen-year-old Juliet.

It is interesting that Petrushevskaya gave Hitler and Lenin secondary roles (Lenin as the moon and Hitler as the guardian). Despite this, the two characters play an important role in the development of relationships between characters and Petrushevskaya’s efforts are directed towards the deconstruction of their characters.

The Character Transformation of Lenin and Hitler

The deconstruction of Lenin’s character starts with his appearance. In the play Lenin plays the role of the moon. He appears in the middle of the play, during the meeting of Romeo and Juliet. With ridiculous and humorous movements he tries to impersonate the moon setting down in the sky, while leaving an impression of a clown. In the play the characters of Hitler and Lenin are connected with each other; they are depicted as homosexual rivals. Petrushevskaya plays with the polysemy of the word “to love” and mockingly views the love of Lenin towards Beethoven as homosexuality. The two have a common love for Beethoven/Juliet. While Hitler does not hide his love, Lenin refrains from making his feelings known. This becomes obvious at the beginning of the play, when during the role distribution Lenin pushes Beethoven and gives a cue, as because of deafness he couldn’t hear the superintendent’s orders.

“Einstein: Hitler has hidden my violin, stupid.

Beethoven: He loves me. Hitler loves Beethoven.

Einstein: Lenin also loves you, the “Apassionata” sonnet.

Lenin shakes his head in refusal and then remembers again and frowns”.[ii]

This small passage clearly demonstrates the characters’ feelings. It is evident, that “to love Beethoven” means to love his music; however, Petrushevskaya has diminished the difference and contrast between men and women to the point, that with this “bisexuality”, she messed with the sexual orientation of characters. Is Hitler(guardian) a man or a woman? or is Beethoven a man or a fourteen-year-old girl? These are impossible to guess from their conversations. Characters seem not to understand this as well[6].However, as it is mentioned, that the masculine version of the play is performed, the feminine features applied to the characters are more of a mockery of characters.

One more thing showing Petrushevskaya’s desire to dismantle Lenin’s character, is that the author even connected the October Revolution with Lenin’s sexual desires and need to be “loved”.

“Lenin: the problem is emigration. No one recognizes you, when you leave, they don’t even look at you. While at home in Russia people threw themselves at me so much that I had to wear a wig and shave my whole face. Because of this, we did the revolution, so that everyone recognized us, but didn’t banish us to Shushenskoye. Nobody cares there if you are Lenin, Ulyanov, shitluyanov…peasants walk, they do not recognize me”.[iii]

Based on this episode, we can draw parallels between Lenin and Shakespeare’s depiction of the moon. In one of the episodes especially, Romeo defines the moon as “jealous” and taking this into consideration, it is possible to explain Lenin’s aggressive behavior and revolutionary aspirations.

Hitler’s character is closely connected with that of Lenin’s. A proof of this is when the superintendent uses their names together. Let us discuss the following example:

“Superintendent: So, Lenin, Hitler, go back to the dorm, the others are free”.

Hitler’s character is essential for the development of relationships between other characters. In the play, he is Juliet’s guardian, while at the same time he has this violent character peculiar of criminals. He becomes involved in conflicts since the beginning of the play and argues with all other characters. Shakespeare’s tragedy turns into farce changing the relationships of Shakespearean characters according to the camp norms. Hitler sees Beethoven’s(Juliet) love confession for his father and brother as an incest.

“Hitler(groans): Filthy man. He sleeps with his sons and now he has passed onto his daughter. Well, so you are going to have a child from your father, he is going to be your brother and your father’s grandson, and he is going to be his own uncle, his own uncle.[iv]

As seen in this passage, Hitler, more than anyone else, is familiar with life’s “low” sides, with human defects and immorality. In this regardwith his pragmatismHitler has some common features with Shakespeare’s version of the guardian.

Hitler’s quarrelsome nature is even better seen in his relations with Einstein.

“Hitler: Hey you, jewish…. . Stand here. You two do not need a violin now.

Einstein: I will not stay here a minute more; I’ve been called to the US for a long time.

Hitler: What about Auschwitz?

Einstein: You are a brusque and impolite woman. I do not want to have anything in common with you. You are the real Hitler with a skirt”[v].

As we can see Petrushevskaya skillfully makes a reference on Hitler’s antisemitic ideas. Nevertheless, the writer avoids speaking about politics in a straightforwardmanner, instead Hitler’s behavior is connected with his love towards Beethoven.

In one of the episodes we see Hitler’s attitude towards women as well. Especially when Einstein begins complaining that nothing turns out well because there are only men in the play, the superintendent mentions about the women’s zone, where the role of Romeo is played by Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel, to which Hitler responds “Women are talentless; both jewish and disabled”.

This episode also shows Hitler’s antisemitic beliefs. But more interesting is the fact that the superintendent mentions about women’s zone. That means, that except for the totalitarian regime, there is also another regime; they are, however, isolated from each other. This also indicates that, no matter how much Petrushevskaya has reduced the opposition between men and women, she has not eliminated it whatsoever.

What refers to the character of the superintendent, it is the most mysterious in the play. He does not have a name and in fact only appears at the beginning and the end of the play. Nevertheless, the absurdity situation is created by the superintendent. He compels the characters to play roles that he wants them to, as a result their actions become highly illogical, there are no dynamics of action development, the whole play becomes a pile of trivial collisions and remains unfinished going back to its original state.

Nevertheless, in one of episodes the superintendent asks: “How are we going to spend eternity?” This is a reference to Pushkin’s work about Faust. This allows us to think that the superintendent is Mephistopheles. A proof to this is Beethoven’s last hint that only a crayfish can become beautiful through boiling water. This makes us think that when the superintendent sends Hitler and Lenin to the dormitory, it is in fact the hell. In this way, Petrushevskaya “sentences” the founders of the two totalitarian systems to carry their punishment together in hell.

Thus, Petrushevskaya casts doubt on values and perceptions that emerged in social-realistic literature around historical characters such as Lenin and Hitler. She turns Shakespeare’s tragedy into a comedy and with the absurdity in it she dismantles Lenin’s and Hitler’s materialized characters. Mocking their looks, social roles and beliefs, Petrushevskaya influences the reader’s perceptions about these characters on subconscious level, she makes the characters of sanctified Lenin and sinful Hitler equal and shows that the reality is, in fact, much more difficult and indefinite.


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[1]  Пахомова С. И “Константы художественного мира Людмилы Петрушевской

[2]Алимбетова Р.В “Постмодернистские тенденции в драматургии Л.С.Петрушевской” http://www.rusnauka’.com/5_NITS_2015/Philologia/8_187163.doc.htm

[3]  Людмила Петрушевская: perpetuummobile”

[4]  Людмила Петрушевская: perpetuummobile”

[5]   И.С. Скоропанова “Русская постмодернистская литература: Значение термина “деконструкция”, 3-е изд, 2001

[6]Скоропанова И. ‘Фаллогоцентризм как объект осмеяния в пьесе Людмилы Петрушевской «Мужская зона»

[i]    Петрушевская Л.С. “Мужская зона” с 1

[ii]    Петрушевская Л.С. “Мужская зона” с 1

[iii]    Петрушевская Л.С. “Мужская зона” с 1

[iv]   Петрушевская Л.С. “Мужская зона” с 1

[v]   Петрушевская Л.С. “Мужская зона” с 1

Author: Heghine Aleksanyan ©All rights are reserved

Translator: Liana Papyan