The Big Green Tent is the sort of novel that should be experienced in a secluded library basement, preferably with plenty of Russian history books and strong tea within reach.
Originally published in Russia in 2010, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel is vast in scope — almost 600 pages — and focuses on dissident culture in the post-Stalin years of the Soviet Union. There are generals, detainees, KGB informers, scholars, writers and others who make up the cast, against the backdrop of Soviet policy, a beast that never sleeps. As one character, Mikha, says: “How strange our Soviet — or maybe Russian — life is: you never know who will denounce you, report you to the authorities, or who will help you out; or how quickly those roles might reverse.”
The novel opens with a brief prologue in which the death of Stalin in 1953 serves as the catalyst for all future action. The following chapters focus on the beginnings of the postwar dissident movement, its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s, up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. People who spoke out against the government ran the risk of exile, imprisonment, work in labor camps, even death.
Ulitskaya has close ties to the subject matter. In the 1970s she was a young biologist who was fired from the Institute of General Genetics at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences for distributing a samizdat (banned) book. Since then she has published stories, novellas, novels and plays, is outspoken against Putin and is considered one of Russia’s most acclaimed authors, with work that includes Sonechka, Daniel Stein, Interpreter and Discarded Relics.
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Of course, fascinating subject matter does not always make for a fascinating read. The way in which Ulitskaya lays out the characters and conflicts is for the most part reduced to surface level description. We rarely inhabit their inner lives, and the facts she provides are given to us straight, without emotion. The real focus here is plot, which is convoluted, messy and often confusing. Flash-forwards are used generously to reveal characters’ fates in one or two sentences before veering off in a different direction, only to circle back pages (sometimes hundreds) later.
Early on, The Big Green Tent is at its best, focusing on three young, artistic friends: Ilya, a photographer who “liked to cut up and play the clown, making a spectacle of his poverty and thereby overcoming it” and later grows up to distribute samizdat; the emotional Mikha, who loves poetry and “was bespectacled, and a Jew, to boot”; and Sanya, a pianist turned scholar, whose classmates “were filled with envy and disgust at his zippered jacket, his girlish eyelashes, the irksome sweetness of his face, and the cloth napkin his homemade lunch came wrapped in every day.”
Getting caught up in their adolescent struggles is easy: They’re plagued by feelings of isolation and the confusion that comes with the end of one regime and the ushering in of a new one. Friendship, trust and books are paramount to their survival: “Life outside the bounds of literature was harsh and abusive, but the world of books offered living thought, and feeling, and learning.”
Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t stay with the boys for long. Instead, they serve more as the center pole of the metaphorical tent, the foundation that holds the other stories from dozens of characters together. With the seventh chapter entitled “The Big Green Tent,” Ilya, Mikha and Sanya fade in and out and are used more as pawns to explore what it means to live in a politically repressive society.
Rather than shine light on the many sides of the dissident movement or capture the danger, elation and misery of life underground, Ulitskaya wants us to read to see what happens next. But becoming invested in characters is hard when they’re used as stand-ins for greater moral objectives or themes. When a major character kills himself, the event is neither surprising nor impactful precisely because the events unfold in a cold, deadpan manner. While The Big Green Tent looks good from certain angles, it’s rather empty inside, devoid of a vibrant heart.
Dana de Greff is a writer in Miami.