Earlier this fall, David Brooks wrote a New York Times column bemoaning the loss of Russian intellectualism. The idea was a simple one: There once was a Russia of poetry and prose and people who valued principle, and it is no more.
What this analysis missed, however, is that Great Russian Culture has always been created and preserved by a small but exceptional portion of society. Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested because he and his friends were caught huddling together to read a letter written to Nikolai Gogol. In more recent history, the Russian dissident movement in the late Soviet period — say, from Joseph Stalin’s death until perestroika — was composed of people who believed themselves to be the most interesting and most intellectually honest in what they perceived to be the gray, fearful mass of Soviet society. One dissident’s widow once described her social circle to me as a “warm orb” in the cold of Soviet Russia. In his memoirs, general-turned-dissident Petro Grigorenko called it “a circle of friends.” And so it isn’t that Russian intellectualism was a blazing flame that has recently been blown out. Rather, it has always been composed of mere embers, flickering, somehow, despite everything.
Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent, the latest novel by the internationally acclaimed author, out this month from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, is a beautiful reminder of this. Originally published in Russian five years ago, the book appears now for English-speaking readers (courtesy of a masterful translation by Polly Gannon) at a time when Russia and Russians are as misunderstood and essentialized as ever.
The simplest description of The Big Green Tent is that it is the story of three childhood friends who grow up and become, in their own ways, involved in the dissident movement, trying their best to preserve their individualism, integrity, and identity in a system that encouraged the opposite.
But any plot-based retelling of The Big Green Tent misses the point entirely. It is the story of three boys growing up, yes, but so, too, is it a portrait of a time, and a sketch of so many types who lived in and through it, and of Russian literature itself.
Ulitskaya traces one character, and then another, and then another, veering off to tell the innermost tales of even the most minor characters (taking a clear cue from Leo Tolstoy, who is directly referenced at great length by the boys’ Russian literature teacher early on in the book), and to trace how all of the characters’ various paths accidentally and intentionally crossed (a nod to both Vladimir Nabokov and Boris Pasternak, both of whom are name-checked throughout). In doing so, she paints picture after picture of vibrant individuals, each equally entitled to empathy.
She also, however, sketches out a section of time, spanning from Stalin’s death to post-perestroika. She does so not only by privileging that which the many dissidents themselves did (literature) in her book, but also by focusing throughout on what was arguably more important to them than any piece of poetry: the relationships between them. One need only read The Thaw Generation, written by another great Ludmila (Alexeyeva, historian, activist, and founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group) to hear how important interpersonal relations were to the identity of intellectual outsiders as a group and as individuals. In this way, Ulitskaya has not only described the spirit of an era, but also captured it. (She also invites the historical individuals themselves to appear. The brilliant but eccentric mathematician “Alik” who shows up at a wedding attended by “a circle of like-minded people” is almost certainly Aleksandr Esenin-Vol’pin, father of the Soviet dissident movement and organizer of the first civil protest in the history of the Soviet Union. Natalia Gorbanevskaya, poet and one of seven to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on Red Square, is made the featured subject of the first issue of an underground publication edited by one of the main (fictional) characters.)
None of this makes The Big Green Tent an easy book. In fact, it is, if not a difficult read, then a demanding one. Each character expects our full attention, for each is awarded interiority. Every interaction could end up being important 20 pages later. Every bit player or throwaway line of poetry could be a literary or historical allusion, lovingly inserted to bring the times onto the page and then, for the reader, back to life. And, this being Russian literature, it demands that we subject ourselves to sadness after sadness. It is set, after all, “in a country where you had to live a long time” to see things set right, and in times that made doing so difficult, particularly for those who wanted to live differently.
But each satisfied demand is rewarded, and each sadness is returned with acute awareness of how full this book is of life and literature.
It is not simple. But one cannot think that the author of The Big Green Tent would believe that what’s true possibly could be.