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The cult of forbidden thoughts.

The Big Green Tent

By Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon

New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015, 573 pp., $35.00, hardcover

If human beings ever manage to travel back into the past, I want Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya in my time machine. No matter when or where we land, Ulitskaya will gather the most dirt, in both senses of the word. This 72-year-old award-winning author still conceives of herself as a biologist or an anthropologist. She packs her writing with more of the serendipitous, corporeal human past than any other contemporary writer I know--chance encounters, diseases caused or cured by love, lives changed by evocative smells or bags of ancestral bones. I read Ulitskaya's novels--The Funeral Party (1997), Medea and Her Children (1996), The Kukotsky Enigma (2001), to name my favorites--the same way I read memoirs written by smart underdogs: to find out about the probable historical characters and relationships that the great and entitled overlook, those "C-list extras" that she deems worthy of fate's, and, therefore, her narrators', generous attention.


Ulitskaya's ahierarchical, charactercentric, and often untidy packaging of the past is nowhere so evident as in The Big Green Tent, a novel first published in 2010 and now available in Polly Gannon's sturdy English translation. It clocks in at 573 pages, a length that inevitably prompts publicists to declare it "a classic Russian novel," which may serve as a pre-emptive defense against critiques of its "loose, baggy monstrosity," to paraphrase Henry James's objection to War and Peace and other great nineteenth-century novels. Reviewers, in turn, identify Ulitskaya's novel as a twenty-first-century descendant of Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago (English translation, 1958). That The Big Green Tent tracks the convoluted, intertwined lives of post-Stalin dissidents in the Soviet Union reinforces the Zhivago connection on two counts. Ulitskaya's novel tells the stories of young men and women inspired anew by Russian poetry, including Alexander Pushkin's early nineteenth-century gems, Pasternak's later, plainer verse, and Joseph Brodsky's forbidden output during his internal Soviet exile. Memorizing and reciting this eclectic corpus amounted to a spiritual renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, a ritual celebration of non-Communist Party values. The Big Green Tent also circles around the cult and business of the forbidden book, the complementary phenomena of samizdat (self-publishing) and tamizdat (publishing abroad) launched by the Italian publication of Doctor Zhivago in 1957.

Ulitskaya pays specific homage to Doctor Zhivago in The Big Green Tent, dwelling on how one of her mentoring characters savored and analyzed it in its samizdat version. Yet her novel is not designed as a sequel to Pasternak's. Ulitskaya projects no bold vision and foregrounds no poethero. Instead, The Big Green Tent fulfills a more pragmatic function. It gathers up the experiences of several generations of dissidents and their intimates during the four decades following Stalin's death in 1953. Ulitskaya first approaches this exhaustive coverage according to the familiar traditions of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, assembling a circle of three young male idealists in the 1950s--Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya--and acquainting them, through assorted teachers and texts, with select historical predecessors: the aristocratic Decembrists who sought to replace the tsar with a constitutional monarchy in 1825, and the young writer-activists Aleksander Herzen and Nikolai Ogarev, who swore an oath to fight tyranny on the Sparrow Hills above Moscow in 1840.

Ulitskaya avoids entangling her trio with the legends of later underground political groups that led to the formation of the Bolshevik branch of the National Democrat Party. Under the tutelage of their history teacher, a Georgian veteran of World War II who loathes Stalin, her boys configure themselves as the "LORLs" or "lovers of Russian literature," an identity that better accommodates their wide-ranging passions for justice and art.

While Ulitskaya's narrator periodically circles back to the respective biographies of Ilya, the photographer and samizdat entrepreneur; Mikha, the poet wannabe and ardent champion of the oppressed; and Sanya, the exceptional music scholar, the author's commitment to rendering history through lived experience means that she expands her cast quickly, most often by familial, collegial, or romantic association. The big green tent of her title covers these scores of characters. The tent itself appears in the dream of Olga, one of the protagonists, as a grand marquee or a shining gold pavilion placed on an enormous meadow, before which all the people Olga knows are lined up, waiting for admission. Olga, of course, wakes up before she can peek inside. This tent may represent a gussied-up afterlife or, more likely, Ulitskaya's human-friendly metaphor for history.

Such a large, diverse cast enables Ulitskaya to embody, first hand and close-up, the experience of most of the era's infamous repressions: the 1953 stampede of Muscovites hoping to view Stalin's body, which resulted in hundreds of deaths by asphyxiation; the traumatic memories of the Gulag for those finally released in the 1960s; the uncovering of heretofore unknown Stalin-era crimes such as the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars; regular KGB searches, interrogations, and recruitment of informants; prison terms for new forms of anti-Soviet activity, particularly the production and distribution of samizdat books and journals; the committing of dissidents to psychiatric hospitals, where they were systematically drugged; and the dissidents' voluntary and involuntary exile to Israel or Western Europe.

This cast also gives Ulitskaya license to travel the wilds of the Soviet Union and lavish attention on the fascinating company of internal emigres and eccentrics. She lets her characters bear witness to the unexpected joys and opportunities of dissident life as they move as far off the system's grid as humanly possible. A family of three discover a magical, life-changing world near the ancient city of Vologda--in "the vanishing frescoes of the icon painter Dionysius, the crumbling monastery, and the slow, somnolent beauty of the north." Two couples make a pilgrimage to the grave of the poet Maximilian Voloshin in Koktebel, Crimea, and are entranced by a raging Black Sea and the unexpected hospitality of Voloshin's widow, who struggles to maintain the famous home of the artist--with the help of just such visiting pilgrims. When an artist escapes arrest by the KGB for the anti-Soviet cartoons he has published abroad, he finds altogether new inspiration in a remote village, where he shares a hut with an old, hard-drinking peasant woman. Once his hostess arranges a steam bath for herself and her female drinking buddies, he cannot help sketching their bony white bodies, webbed with wrinkles and deformed by sagging sacks that were once breasts and wombs. Yet, as the narrator informs us with satisfaction, his drawings depict no "'Hell' of any kind": "The women were laughing, smiling, guffawing. They were happy--from the hot water, from the ritual bathing."

The grand cast and seemingly disordered, episodic plot of The Big Green Tent certainly may confuse readers, regardless of their knowledge of Russian and Soviet history. In some cases, the plot line simply disappoints, particularly in the final chapter. Here the narrator solemnly announces the death of the poet Joseph Brodsky in 1996, abruptly unplugging the novel's storytelling energy and headlong character development and leaving us with the bland comfort of convention. Some reviewers have likened Ulitskaya's narration to gossip or kitchen table talk by way of justifying her work's addictive, page-turning appeal. This comparison, however well-intentioned, echoes the tired defamations of women's writing as unrestrained scribbling or emotion-fueled graphomania, defamations used to demote Russian women's prose only a few decades ago. This is not to say that it is easy to write convincing gossip. But that is not what Ulitskaya is doing.

Instead, after the tightly structured early chapters seem to establish an all-male progression of Romantic rebels, Ulitskaya loosens her plot to admit a range of dissident players and roles. In consequence, female characters regularly appear center stage. The endocrinologist Tamara, mentored by an older female scientist who served time and lost a child in the Gulag, abandons both scientific atheism and her Jewish roots to convert to Christianity, an orthodoxy transformed into an exciting conspiracy by the Soviet regime. The adventures of Olga, who becomes Ilya's true love, and who dreams of that green tent, best capture the exhilaration of joining the opposition. She breaks away from her parents, highly placed Party members, and finds true camaraderie among the misfits, true happiness traveling the countryside with Ilya, and true purpose in typing manuscripts for samizdat distribution. Over the long course of the book, Ulitskaya resists the traditional privileging of male activists over female helpers, dissident tourists over iconized peasants. She wants the raucous laughter of those naked crones to resonate.

Nor does Ulitskaya allow her narrator the stylistic and space-consuming indulgence of gossiping. The narrator's sometimes personalized voice passes judgment and may editorialize, but mainly marshals one exhibit after another of post-Stalin real life for the novel's collection. This voice frog-marches us through characters' biographies to reach a punchline or an instructive conclusion. As I mentioned above, The Big Green Tent has a job to do, and as it turns out, Ulitskaya is the only author who can do it properly. She published the Russian original in 2010, before the Russian invasion of Crimea, but several years after she had emerged as a public intellectual, prepared to criticize the powers that be. She is intrepid, prolific, and charmed, the only woman, in a country with many excellent women writers, to have won the Russian Booker Prize (in 2002, for The Kukotsky Enigma) and the Big Book ("Bol'shaia kniga") Literary Prize (in 2007 for Daniel Stein, Interpreter). She exchanged letters publicly with the famed political prisoner, jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, over several months in 2008-2009. And though Ulitskaya had the good fortune to debut as a writer in the uncensored 1990s, she came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when she was fired from her job as a geneticist because of her involvement in circulating samizdat. As she told the journalist Masha Gessen in an interview in The New Yorker (October 16, 2014), this was her generation's "most difficult period," when "Brezhnev sucked all the air out."

It has been hard to tell exactly for whom Ulitskaya writes now that she has established herself as a world-renowned novelist. But the narration, length, thematic breadth, and many characters in The Big Green Tent strongly suggest that Ulitskaya here is in full-blown recovery and deployment mode for present and future Russian readers. In this novel she strives to reinvoke all that embattled and threatened her airless youth and, at the same time, to highlight her characters' experiences of surviving, connecting, acting, and finding pleasure and breathing space. At a recent PEN club meeting in New York, Ulitskaya worried aloud that the atmosphere of the Brezhnev era is returning in Putin's Russia. If this is the case, then the time machine of The Big Green Tent will provide not only the interesting dirt that Ulitskaya carefully collects, but also an essential source of oxygen.

Beth Holmgren, whose most recent book is Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America (2012), is a professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University. Holmgren is currently writing on the experience of Jewish cabaret performers entertaining the Polish II Corps during World War II.
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Title Annotation:The Big Green Tent
Author:Holmgren, Beth
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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