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.”
The Moscow intelligentsia, as Ulitskaya faithfully describes it, was small enough for everyone to be a handshake away from everyone else. To people outside the web—by choice, or thanks to a working-class or provincial upbringing, or a fear of reprisal, or a lack of intellectual curiosity—it could seem smugly clannish. Ulitskaya doesn’t lionize her circle. Her sense of solidarity, as relayed through a distinctly female narrative voice, is remarkably clear-eyed, to the point that even when the husband and wife at the center of the novel’s most touching romantic subplot separately sign agreements to cooperate with the KGB—and never tell each other—their author extends them her sympathetic understanding. In Ulitskaya’s pages, there is no such thing as an uncompromised haven of dissidence.
The three central characters are embodiments of the classic Soviet antiestablishment types, the sort you were guaranteed to run into during those decades. Ilya is the hard-nosed dealer who makes money reselling books in the underground economy. Mikha, the idealist, can’t help risking his freedom for the sake of doing good, by helping exiled Crimean Tatars regain their homeland. Sanya, a highbrow music theorist, is the escapist. Big parts of their stories are told through the eyes of the women in their lives. The men are lovable, capable of unexpected courage as well as wry humor, compassion, and intellectual daring. But none is remotely close to perfect—weak, irresponsible, and fallible is more like it. One of them takes his own life, and the other two eventually emigrate; only the escapist does relatively well, ending up as a teacher at a world-renowned music school in New York. In her own way, Ulitskaya is merciless. There is no victory for the dissidents in The Big Green Tent, even if, in the mid-1990s, when her chronicle leaves off, they could imagine they have won.
Ulitskaya never had any such illusion herself. On the contrary, realist that she is, she favored lustration (the stringent weeding-out of old Soviet functionaries, akin to post–World War II denazification), as she recalled in a letter she wrote to the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2008, when he had already spent five years in prison. And The Big Green Tent—which came out in Russia in 2010, before the Crimean annexation and the accompanying surge of Soviet-style intimidation—has proved all too pertinent in its evocation of a stifling reality. Ulitskaya has since joined in protests while professing an apolitical stance (and riling critics by, for example, welcoming Putin’s hard-line cultural minister at her 70th birthday party). “I am described as a member of a ‘fifth column,’ accused of hating my country,” she impatiently wrote last year. “It’s stupid and counterproductive for me to justify myself. I have no hatred, only shame and powerlessness. Russia’s policies today—suicidal and dangerous—are mainly a threat to Russia, but they may trigger World War III.”
Even as she makes clear which side she’s on, Ulitskaya resists reductive ideological thinking, in her fiction as in life. She specializes in swerves of fate, not lockstep plots. Ulitskaya’s signature narrative perspective—a self-consciously feminine eye and ear intently at work—takes in matchmaking possibilities, mundane coincidences, and unexpected human chemistry. In The Big Green Tent, Ilya, the underground bookseller, nearly ends up in jail after a female friend of his wife’s marries a KGB agent charged with watching him. The marriage is just the kind of juicy twist Ulitskaya lives for:
It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special effort of fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events—say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school; they get to know each other at college or at work. In other cases, something unexpected is called for: train schedules out of whack, a minor misfortune orchestrated on high, like a small fire or a leaky pipe on an upper floor, or a ticket bought from someone else for the last movie show. Or else a chance meeting, when a watcher is standing in one spot, on the lookout for a target, and suddenly a girl glides by out of nowhere, once, twice, a third time. And there’s a weak smile, and then, suddenly, like dawn breaking—she’s your own dear wife.
Perhaps in tribute to the small miracle, Ulitskaya makes sure that the agent turns out to be blameless for Ilya’s predicament.
The presiding female sensibility is part of a larger project. Ulitskaya has bemoaned the lack of convincing female characters in Russian literary classics. Even Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostova, in her view, is the author’s unrealistic fantasy. The same goes for the women who populate contemporary Russian pulp fare, and literary fiction has continued the male-centered tradition. Ulitskaya is perhaps the only serious novelist fighting for balance. (Ludmilla Petrushevskaya joins in with shorter fiction.) She’s determined to give the Soviet woman’s power of passive resistance the literary attention it deserves.
Her view is far from conventionally feminist, however. In The Big Green Tent, women willingly play second fiddle to men and devote their lives to serving them. Tamara, a reclusive biologist, hands over three valuable paintings—prized possessions—to bribe an official who can help her married lover, a Zionist activist, emigrate to Israel with his family. Sophia, a general’s secretary and paramour, disappears into the prison-camp system after he proves unwilling to protect her. She starts seeing him again upon her return. Ilya’s wife, Olga, gets cancer after her husband abandons her to leave the Soviet Union—and is suddenly cured after receiving a letter from him that gives her hope of a reunion. Still, compared with the men—who are almost without exception emasculated by the pitiless Soviet machine’s indifferent cruelty—the women in Ulitskaya’s work come off as strong and resilient, even magical at times.
I have lived in, and left, Ulitskaya’s Moscow. So I can attest to her astute evocation of its inhabitants’ mix of love and hate for the city, and to her portrayal of the special circle within it that has vexed every Russian regime since the czars. But you don’t have to be a compatriot to admire Ulitskaya’s honesty and straight-faced irony, or her uncanny ability to marshal endless digressions and intentional stumbles into a gripping tale. To Russian and foreign readers alike, her novel offers what they may have hoped they didn’t need. For the grandchildren of Ulitskaya’s generation, the reality of The Big Green Tent is almost as foreign as it will be to an American reader. They grew up with the freedom to travel, study abroad, do business, buy nice things. Yet the experience Ulitskaya evokes is now more relevant to their present and immediate future than they would ever have imagined. Her resurrection of that world couldn’t be better timed for an audience far from Moscow, too.