Stalin’s death, March 5, 1953, is a day that I can still vividly remember, no doubt because of the newspaper report—including a photo—that doctors had used leeches to bleed him, to rid him of his bad blood. Oh, that it were so simple. No such reference to leeches appears in Ludmila Ulitskaya’s amazing novel, The Big Green Tent, though there is plenty of rejoicing (including dancing in the streets) once the news of the dictator’s death becomes public—preceded by disbelief, because if your life is controlled by such a monster, you find it almost impossible to believe that the situation will ever change. As an old woman observes soon afterwards: “That new Stalin, watchamacallem, he’ll be worse than the old one. The old one took everything, and this new one is picking through the leftovers. Oh yes, they liberated us from everything, the dears—first they freed us from the land, then from my husband, then from my children, from my cow, my chickens… They’ll liberate us from vodka, and our freedom will be complete.”
Much later, another character links all of the country’s leaders together—“Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev”—supposedly in a moment of praise for the leaders, but that is certainly not the reality of Soviet life as experienced by Ulitskaya’s characters. Above all, The Big Green Tent is a story of survival for artists and other creative types under a state that recognizes no place for beauty and truth. And what is so wondrous about this novel is the way we follow those characters from childhood well into middle age. Initially, that focus is on three schoolmates, three young boys who are in fifth or sixth grade, at the end of primary school. They’re not exactly outcastes but neither are they members of the “in-crowd,” which is why they fall in together and become lifelong friends. I don’t recall anything like this (youthful friendship) in any other Russian novel that I have ever read. You can even apply the coming-of-age cliché given to such American novels that deal with these experiences.
The three boys we initially encounter (Ilya, Sanya, and Mikha) gain much of their enthusiasm for life from Victor Yulievich, their sixth grade teacher who introduces them to the great Russian writers, mostly of the previous century. The boys are attracted to him individually but also to one another, especially as Yulievich takes them on extended walking tours around Moscow, the setting of most of the novel, pointing out historic literary sites (for the writers themselves and their characters). Yulievich’s followers become known as the lords of Russian literature, and he instills in them what is the theme of Ulitskaya’s novel: “Literature is the only thing that allows us to survive, the only thing that helps us to reconcile ourselves to the time we live in….”
The boys (who the narrator says “had slowly filled up with testosterone”) are acutely aware that the great Russian literature was all written by men. (How impressive that this novel was written by a woman, one who has been hugely successful in Russia, though she has had her own difficulties with censorship.) When they grow up, all three young men pursue the arts: Ilya is a poet but also a significant force in the underground production and circulation of samizdat, as was Ulitskaya herself. That endeavor requires an elaborate juggling system to avoid the authorities, subterfuge with his living arrangements and movements. Sanya is a talented pianist until he injures a hand and has to shift to musical theory. He becomes involved in the circulation of banned, avant-guard composers, which means that he also needs to conceal some of his activities from the KGB. Mikha’s artistic career is photography, another area that threatens the authorities. As the story progresses, the three of them see each other less frequently than they did as children, though the women in their lives (Olga, Galya and Tamara) are also engaged in forbidden activities that result in KGB encounters and surveillance.
In covering the years between 1952 and 1996, the narrative includes multiple references to Dr. Zhivago and Boris Pasternak’s attempts to get his manuscript for the novel out of the country, so it could be translated and published. The Russian authorities were furious when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The avant-garde and the Futurists help bring about a new word for these artists: dissident. The approved Soviet writers are members of the Writers Union; the outsiders are often turned into the authorities by their own family members. It’s a chilling atmosphere for artists, with the women doing much of the drudgework, such as typing whole books (Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago) and samizdat. Thus we observe specific activities of the young facilitators of this dissident art in an environment that is described as “the crushing reality of Soviet existence, nauseating and dangerous.” Even Nabokov is mentioned, frequently, as a threat to the state, though his books were being published in the West in English.
The fates of the men and women in The Big Green Tent include frequent encounters with the KGB (houses are searched, literally trashed as authorities look for manuscripts and/or banned books). They are imprisoned and sent into exile, driven to suicide, yet Ulitskaya makes it clear that dissident artistry survived because of the great compromises that men and women made to make certain that it would not be snuffed out. Although more space is devoted to literature than music or painting, this is above all a novel about every aspect of what we regard as literature: books, reading, book collecting, book binding and especially the appreciation of great literature.
The translation by Polly Gannon is superb. The extensive array of complex characters, the deep feeling for Mother Russia in spite of the harshness of the authorities, the sweep of many years—all these tie The Big Green Tent to the great Russian writers of the past. Ludmila Ulitskaya is a worthy heir to their tradition.
Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent
Trans. By Polly Gannon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 579 pp., $35