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Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Big Green Tent”

Walter Moss: But like Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, The Big Green Tent overflows with families and people, and not just those related to the three main protagonists.

Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent (in its 2015 English translation) is the best new Russian novel I have read in a decade. It has significant and intertwined historical and literary value. It begins with the death of Stalin in 1953 and the crushing street scenes that ensued. It ends with the death in Brooklyn in 1996 of the exiled Russian poet and Nobel-Prize-in-Literature-winner (1987) Joseph Brodsky.

Ludmila Ulitskaya

But Soviet leaders are mentioned less than Russian poets, though the Soviet government in innumerable ways stifles, impedes, and oppresses people, including the main fictional characters Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya. Although we follow their lives and that of their families, loves, and friends, from the boys’ youth in the 1950s up until their abandonment of Russia or death decades later, it is mainly after two of them (Ilya and Mikha) become dissidents that authorities begin to hound them.

But like Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, The Big Green Tent overflows with families and people, and not just those related to the three main protagonists. The word “zhivago” in the Russian Orthodox liturgical language of Church Slavonic means “the living,” and Pasternak’s novel is about life and living. So too is Ulitskaya’s 573-page book. It also makes clear the importance of living a thinking life and one of moral commitments, as opposed to “turning into a brittle shell of a human being, into a pile of sterile habits and mechanical phrases.” (196)

From critics like George Steiner—he wrote, “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky stand foremost among novelists. They excel in comprehensiveness of vision” —to Woody Allen in his film Love and Death, observers have often noted that the best Russian literature deals with the big and eternal questions of life like “How should we live?” And Ulitskaya is here true to that tradition. We become immersed in her world of families and friends, of young and old, of love and death, of atheists and believers, of wisdom and folly.

A Russian insult of the times would be to call someone “nekulturnyi” (uncultured), and her main characters value culture highly. Victor Yulievich, the favorite teacher of Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya, tells them that “literature is the finest thing humankind has created. Poetry is the beating heart of literature, the highest concentration of all that is best in the world and in people. . . . [Its] the only thing that allows us to survive, the only thing that helps us to reconcile ourselves to the time we live in.” (36, 72) He takes them for walks around Moscow, pointing out where some of Russia’s famous writers lived, and the boys form an informal club, “Lovers of Russian Literature” (LORL). Mikha will become a poet, although he believes not a very good one; Ilya, a skilled photographer; and Sanya’s passion will be music, first as a pianist, and then after an accident to his hand, as a music theorist and teacher. Ulitskaya weaves literature and musical references throughout her novel, and her characters often quote lines from writers such as Pushkin, Pasternak, Nabokov, and Brodsky or refer to musical works by composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.

Their teacher Victor is also convinced that “the awakening of a moral sensibility,” to “the sense of good and evil, and the understanding that love is the supreme value,” is the key to maturity. (75, 77) He became fascinated with childhood development and later writes a book called Russian Childhood. Having lost part of an arm in World War II (the Great Fatherland War), he also hates war and declares it “the greatest abomination ever.” (37) He explains to his students that all of his male classmates and two of the girls in his class died in the war and that is why he hates it with all of his being.

Suffering more than fifty times the number of deaths in the war as did the United States, the USSR emerged with deep social, political, and emotional scars. At times, especially in the novel’s early chapters they become evident, as when we read about an area where Victor had taught before teaching in Moscow: “The northern countryside had always lived hand to mouth, but after the war the poverty was profound. The women and children did the lion's share of the work. Of the thirty local men who had gone to the front to fight, only two had returned.” (44) Of the three boyhood friends, Ilya’s father had been a wartime correspondent who never married his mother but had another family of his own; the parents of the Jewish Mikha had both died in the war and Mikha “had moved in with his third set of relatives in seven years”; (10) and Sanya’s home is also fatherless. He lives with his mother and grandmother Anna Alexandrovna, “a golden mean of wisdom and whimsy” to many, including not only Sanya but especially Mikha. (506)

Like Tolstoy, who once criticized the historian Sergei Soloviev for concentrating too much on the Russian government and neglecting the common people and their day-to-day existence, Ulitskaya is more concerned with the everyday life (byt in Russian) of people, mainly as they live it in and around Moscow, than with politics.

We see them crammed in their communal apartments, sharing communal kitchens and bathrooms; walking the Moscow streets; riding the subways or buses; in schools, institutes, KGB buildings, prisons, penal camps, and in nearby rural dachas. Occasionally, they travel outside the Russian capital, either to other parts of the USSR or abroad, either willingly or unwillingly, like Mikha who is sent away for a three-year term in a prison camp. There is also a wonderful chapter (“The Fugitive”) depicting a dissident cartoonist hiding out in the countryside, which captures part of the spirit of old rural Russia.

But it is mainly the Moscow of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods that we experience. We see, for example, the old veterans walking around with numerous medals pinned on their suit coats, or hear Sanya’s wise grandmother Anna Alexandrovna declare how she hated lines. “She said half her life had been spent waiting in them. . . . She had even perfected a means of defense: she repeated poetry to herself that she knew by heart.” (483) (Living in Moscow as a New York Times correspondent in the 1970s, Hedrick Smith estimated that the average woman spent about two hours a day, seven days a week, in lines.) The daughter of one of Ilya’s acquaintances intends to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square, but the line is too long. So she goes across the square to the big department store Gum, sees some magnificent boots (top quality consumer goods were scarce and valued), and waits in line for four hours to purchase them.

The high Soviet rates of divorce, abortion, and alcoholism are also reflected. At one point one of the minor characters says, "In our country . . . everyone drinks: actors, academics, and cosmonauts." (382)

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Most thoroughly of all, however, Ulitskaya masterfully depicts the scope and complexity of the dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s, mainly through the experiences of Ilya and Mikha.

A large number of independently thinking people first whispered in corners among themselves, then spoke half out loud, and, finally, went out and joined demonstrations, protesting ever more boldly and conscientiously. . . .

Along with the human rights activists, there were also the Crimean Tatars who had been expelled from Crimea twenty years before and now wished to return; Jews who demanded the right to emigrate to Israel . . . . adherents to many kinds of religions; nationalists, from Lithuanians to Russians; and many others. All of them were at odds with the Soviet authorities. . . . (440)

There was no unified movement to speak of . . . there were various groups of people with their own concerns and “interests,” which sometimes coincided and sometimes did not, who were united only in their rejection of the current authorities and their hunger for change. And the change they wanted varied from group to group, person to person. (500)

Among the most prominent dissidents, she mentions Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, who reflected respectively a neo-Slavophile and a liberal branch of the movement. She even has Sakharov help out a Tatar woman whose plight was brought to his attention through the efforts of Ilya and Mikha. Still another branch, a dissatisfied Marxist one, is seen in her portrayal of a young girl whose dissident-Marxist parents are in prison and who comes with her dog to Ilya and his second wife Olga for help.

Ulitskaya brings to life many different types of dissident activity, especially samizdat, the underground self-published literature, which usually circulated in typed or mimeographed copies. She also portrays the chief ways the government dealt with dissidents: prison, penal camps, forced exile and emigration, and less commonly, forcing them into mental institutions. It becomes clear in her pages that no impartial justice exists in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Russia. A leading Soviet defense attorney once wrote that during the early post-Stalin years “judges who did not take bribes were a phenomenon so unusual as to be incredible.” And a leading dissident noted that among 424 known political trials in the decade following 1968, there were no acquittals in any of them.

Like a good historian, however, Ulitskaya realizes that reality is far from black and white, but full of moral ambiguities, and she is empathetic with a wide range of her characters. Olga (Ilya’s wife) has several friends at varying times that have KGB connections. One has a KGB general in foreign intelligence as a father. “Her father was very smart, jovial, and handsome.” She “adored” him. “He knew something about whatever subject one broached: history, geography, literature. Their home library was like that of a university professor.” (299) Another of Olga’s friends, Galya, marries a KGB operative whom Ilya calls the Rodent. But he also has his good qualities, ones that Galya especially appreciates.

When Mikha’s father-in-law, who is admirable in many ways, gives testimony against several others, Mikha’s wife (Alyona) says she will never talk to him again; but Mikha says he should be pitied not judged. He tells Ilya, “I'm not going to be the one to judge him.” (502) In fact, when Ulitskaya writes earlier of Mikha teaching literature at a school for the deaf, she says about him: “He was endowed with such emotional sympathy, such an unbridled, absolute capacity for empathy, that all his other qualities were subordinated to this ‘universal compassion.’ . . . His interest in defectology arose from the very depths of his personality, from his gift of empathy.” (404)

Another character remembers his German father saying about Hitler’s Germany, “This regime doesn't allow a man any way out, either. Not one. They always get the better of those who have a conscience.”(383) But the son, now in the USSR, implies that this statement also applies to Soviet Russia. Even the staunch Ilya, after many KGB interrogations, compromises and later refers to himself as “a stool pigeon.” His old teacher, Victor, works on a book that contends that fear had replaced positive impulses in many Soviet citizens, and Ilya thinks that perhaps he is right that “fear destroyed everything: everything born of beauty, the tender shoots of all that was fine, wise, eternal . . .” (296)

Like some of Chekhov’s best works, and like life itself, The Big Green Tent contains both tragedy and comedy. Although much of the book arouses our sympathy for the characters difficult lives and their moral dilemmas, we smile a bit more when reading the last chapter (before the Epilogue). In it long-time bachelor Sanya meets Debbie, an Irish feminist from Texas with a “radiant smile. At the airport “Sanya put his arm around her weakly. She was half a head taller and seventy pounds heavier than he was.” (548) A friend of Sanya’s now teaching in California had arranged for her to come to Moscow to meet Sanya and begin the process of arranging a “fictitious marriage” with Sanya, so he could emigrate to America. She is a delight as she sightsees with Sanya and becomes enamored of Russia, and, to his alarm, with him.

In summary, The Big Green Tent is a worthy successor in a long line of first-rate Russian novels. It pulsates with life, reflects a historical era accurately, deals with important moral questions, and is extremely readable.

walter moss

Walter Moss

Republished with permission from History News Network