T he big green tent revolves around banned books, a subject familiar to Ludmila Ulitskaya, one of Russia’s most acclaimed writers and, at 72, an outspoken protester against the Putin regime. Back in 1970, she was a young biologist who got fired from the Institute of General Genetics at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences for distributing a samizdat book. She then set out on a tentative, initially unambitious literary track—a natural move for a self-described bookish girl with an unsupervised passion for reading. “I consider the bookcase my most important mentor,” Ulitskaya wrote in Discarded Relics, an essay collection that came out in 2012, by which time she had been publishing fiction—stories, novellas, novels, and plays—for more than a decade.
In her latest novel, books that rarely make it onto bookshelves—blurry photocopies; barely readable carbons; dog-eared, smuggled Western editions passed around among wary friends—inspire, crush, sustain, kill. They also serve other unexpected functions. In one hilarious episode, an unsuspecting teenage girl rips up a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to stuff into her new, too-small imported boots, hoping to stretch them a size. Thus she saves the book’s owner when the KGB shows up to search his house. The scene is typical of Ulitskaya’s sprawling portrayal of the Moscow intelligentsia between 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, and 1996, half a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse. In showing what life was like for the people who made the subversive power of books so disproportionately valuable, she skirts heroics and aggrandizing rhetoric. The Big Green Tent is like the sharp-tongued gossip that flowed in many a crowded kitchen—enlivened by dangerous undercurrents, and never boring.
Ulitskaya is not a master of invention. In two of her richest novels—The Kukotsky Case, featuring an eminent gynecologist who struggles with life in a society that prohibits abortions and persecutes geneticists, and Daniel Stein, Interpreter, loosely based on the life of a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and became a Catholic priest—she built on facts, favoring down-to-earth realism over subtle psychology. In The Big Green Tent, Ulitskaya does the same, drawing material from her life and the stories of her intimate friends, of whom she has accumulated dozens over the decades. A strong social network was essential for survival in a hostile system. “We served each other, helped each other survive, bring up kids and bury our old folks,” she wrote in an essay titled “Close Circle.” “This whole life flowed in happy penury, a freewheeling party that seemed never to end.”