The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (2010, transl. 2015), is a novel I never would have heard of if I hadn’t been looking for contemporary Russian novels for my Transmongolian Reading List. That’s why I love doing challenges like this – I’m so glad I picked it up. This saga starts off three friends from the early days of their connection with one another as schoolboys through decades of life, following them as they gradually turn into Soviet dissidents. Mikha, the poet; Ilya, the photographer; Sanya, the musician. It feels like a very old-fashioned novel in a lot of ways, but then at times – when Ulitskaya subverts the typical structure of a novel – it feels incredibly contemporary. It’s a novel that’s almost impossible to summarise or review, but I will do my very best.
The Big Green Tent begins with the death of Stalin in 1953, and runs in a completely higgeldy-piggeldy way until the break-up of the Soviet Union. Combined with extensive discussion of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, and occasional glimpses at what characters are doing “now” (presumably 2010, when this was written?), it really feels like it encompasses almost 200 years. Much of the focus is on Soviet dissident activity after Khruschev was ousted, though that’s never completely clear – you just feel the tightening and loosening of the law over the years. Mikha, Sanya, and Ilya are teenagers in the years immediately following Stalin’s death, and grow up with a relatively liberal and very passionate literature teacher, who discusses banned books with them and encourages them to think for themselves, and generally nurtures their nascent dissident tendencies. Because this is during the Khruschev Thaw, this doesn’t really become a problem until much later – but when we visit these men as adults, it’s easy to see where they got their start as people who are willing to kick back against the status quo.
The has the feeling of almost being a relay race – one character handing the baton to another and then another, before it eventually circles round to the first again. I can’t quite remember the last time I read a novel that had so many vital characters – it might have been Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. It certainly feels like a big, chunky Victorian novel in a lot of ways – or indeed like Tolstoy, to whom Ulitskaya seems to be compared in a lot of reviews. I assumed that was just Anglophone reviewers identifying her with the Russian novelist they’re most familiar, but actually once I’d read this I could absolutely see the similarities to Anna Karenina, though that’s the only Tolstoy I’ve read so far. The way that every character – seemingly irrespective of their importance – is given a backstory and fleshed out in a lot of detail; that feels very like Tolstoy.
I said this felt very contemporary as well, though, and the main way Ulitskaya accomplishes this is that the story doesn’t unfold in a linear way. For example, Ulitskaya will introduce us to one or two people, rush us through their marriage and death while simultaneously mentioning a previous spouse in a throwaway line, then double back and tells the story of meeting that previous spouse. The story then moves onto a person only tangentially related to the couple, then perhaps a brief aside about the history of antisemitism in Russia or scientific advances in the 1960s, and then at last goes into vignettes from the relationship of the couple – whose deaths by now are a hundred pages ago – vignettes which call into question all sorts of assumptions I made about the relationship. The whole book is more or less like this; it feels more thematic than chronological. Normally I can’t stand this sort of nonsense. Novels are supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end for a reason. That’s the classic formula for a reason; why mess with it? And yet here, I loved it. Perhaps that’s because I almost always had enough information to follow the shifting perspectives from character to character – despite the huge cast, I felt like I knew all the important players at any one time. You get to know the three most important characters – Mikha, Ilya, and Sanya – well enough, despite all the to-ing and fro-ing.
I did find myself wishing at times that I’d read Dr Zhivago before I picked this up, as I think I might have got more out of it if I had. Because a large part of the story is about samizdat, the clandestine publication and dissemination of banned literature, Dr Zhivago (and, to a lesser extent, Pasternak’s other work) is a topic of discussion for many of the characters. There are plenty of other authors and poets whose work is mentioned, but Pasternak is the author everyone in the novel keeps returning to. That rings true to what I remember from Dressed for a Dance in the Snow – everyone seemed to have something to say about Pasternak. Once I’ve read the remainder of the books I’ve put aside for this summer, I’m now very keen to get to Dr Zhivago, as well as perhaps reading some nonfiction about samizdat in general.
One of the things that struck me over and over again was the way in which, during the period towards the end of and immediately following the Khruschev Thaw, people would be seemingly living their lives in a relatively normal way – similar to books I’ve read set in Western Europe at the time – and then a visit from the KGB or a sudden fear that a friend was an informer would completely upend everything. One of the dissidents, Olga, is friends with a woman named Genya, and knows Genya’s husband is an informant. That just kind of hums along in the background, not causing a problem – until suddenly it does. Informants and low-level KGB officials are painted with real nuance in this novel, and I thought that was fascinating. For example, this observation that Olga makes about a man who is trying to convince her that all she needs to do is follow the rules:
He actually means what he’s saying; he’s staked his life on it. Poor guy, he could have been selling vegetables or carpets somewhere – but he got caught up in all this, and this is the result.
The struggle to re-adapt to much harsher restrictions under Brezhnev is one of the main themes of the latter half of the novel, though I felt that (unlike most of the novel’s contents) this theme was underserved by the non-linear narrative. It’s often difficult to tell when a particular interlude or story is occurring, and that hampers the shift in tone that I think Ulitskaya was trying to achieve. There are very few dates in the story, and I assume that the original audience would have been able to tell when things were happening because of the many cultural references, but it was a lot harder without that context. I think the novel fell off its perch a bit towards the end because of this – it’s a big book, nearly 600 pages, and I think that it might have benefited from losing about a hundred of those. It gets a bit lost in its own waffling final pages, which is a real shame.
The Big Green Tent is not an easy book to read – partly because of this zigzagging narrative structure, partly because of all the references to authors I’d never heard of, partly because you know things are going to get really bleak again the minute Khruschev is ousted – but it’s an incredibly rewarding one. This was a perfect read for my In Lieu of Travel challenge – the point of it is to get to know the countries that would have been on my train journey, and like I Am China, The Big Green Tent gave me an insight into a time period and subculture I was barely aware of. It was not such a good choice for 20 Books of Summer, since it’s a novel that I absolutely had to read slowly and sink into. However, I now have three weeks (three weeks!) of holiday, so I’m hoping to get to the many books I have left before the end of the challenge. And I don’t regret reading it, even though it ate into my time – a really fascinating book, and I’m glad I read it.