“It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special help from fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events – say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school.”
So begins Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Big Green Tent”, the epic tale of three friends alternately shaped and bound by Soviet Russia. Ilya, Sanya, and Mikha are thrown together as young misfits, their only similarity the status of outsiders. This is not, however, a typical “coming of age” story. These boys must become men under the constant intrusion and threats of the Soviet state. Their growing dissidence is tempered with, or perhaps even fueled by, a sense of hope and a deep-held belief in the power and importance of the arts.
“For so many years Mikha had studied Marxism, trying to work out how such wonderful ideas about justice could become so misshapen, so distorted, in their implementation; but now the truth was laid bare – it was a grandiose lie, cynicism, inconceivable cruelty, shameless manipulations of people who had lost their humanity, their human dignity and self-worth, out of fear. This fear enveloped the whole country like a dark cloud. One could call this cloud Stalinism; but Mikha had already understood that Stalinism was only a singular instance of the evil of this enormous, universal, timeless political despotism.”
Ulitskaya, who first published this book in 2010, may have been writing about Stalin and his successors, but the universal truths of political despotism and the timelessness of its threats are eerily relevant to today. Without needing to manipulate her story into overt allegory, Ulitskaya is able to create both an historical portrait and a compelling warning.
As a woman writing in an environment of male domination and misogyny, Ulitskaya’s choice to build this saga around the live of three boys is an interesting and, at times, troubling one. One of her characters makes the astute observation about Russian literature that: “Still, there was one strange feature in this whole magnificent body of literature: it was all written by men, about boys. For boys. It was all about honor, about bravery, about duty. As though Russian childhood were solely a male affair.” Strange, then, that Ulitskaya has chosen to continue this disturbing trend. Though women are occasionally fleshed out, their roles remain ancillary and merely expository to the male-driven narrative. I’m unsettled and unsure as to whether this was intended as hyperbole, meant to accentuate the point of masculine domination in her culture, or if this domination is so insidious that it has shaped even this strong feminine voice.
Ulitskaya seems to elucidate what she calls “…the enigmatic Slavic soul – tender and courageous, irrational and passionate, with a tinge of madness and sacrificial cruelty.” Reading “The Big Green Tent” simultaneously educated me about the historical and cultural context while epitomizing the stereotypical Russian. Her characters and her narrative voice are stoic even in the face of extreme passions, reserved and restrained but constantly, increasingly pressing against constraints.