Books: A lifetime of muffled rage

Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya spins an exquisite tale of a dark, oppressive time.

Ludmila Ulitskaya (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ludmila Ulitskaya
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ludmila Ulitskaya seduces us with her exquisitely inventive narrative voice that somehow combines a sense of deep intimacy and distance. Her characters are all psychologically complex renderings of complicated conflicted people whom she reveals to us without burdening us with excess baggage. It is a wild and delicate balancing act and one she accomplishes with masterful authority.
In her new work, The Big Green Tent, she takes us inside the lives of three adolescent boys who meet in junior high school in Moscow during the 1950s and forge close friendships that will be severely tested. There is Mikha, a delightfully inquisitive Jewish orphan who is forced to rely on various sets of relatives for his survival. And Sanya, a timid boy whose elite aristocratic lineage can’t protect him from the attraction he feels for other boys that confuses him greatly. He finds some comfort in music, but even this sanctuary is partially destroyed for him when bullies purposefully mangle his fingers so he can no longer play his beloved piano. And then there is Ilya, the most practical perhaps, who is wedded to his camera that he uses to chronicle their lives. All three boys comprise an unlikely trio, but a strong one, and they are each enamored with their teacher, Victor Yulievich Shengeli, who lost an arm during the war against the Nazis, and preaches to them religiously on the virtue of poetry and literature as the only remaining saving grace in the world.
Ulitskaya describes what it feels like to grow up in Russia under one oppressive regime after another in the decades following the Second World War. She paints for us a harrowing world where lives can be shattered at a moment’s notice due to an act of carelessness, or for no reason at all. She recounts episode after episode of lives corrupted by the Soviet regime’s intolerance and prejudice and fear of insurrection.
She shows us destroyed marriages, academic careers extinguished and families splintered beyond repair while Jews sought shelter anywhere they could.
But even under all this duress Ulitskaya remains a Russian; and in love with Russia and its people. Her book is littered with references to her heroes: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Khlebnikov, Mandelstam, Brodsky, and of course, Sakharov.
Ludmila Ulitskaya has endured much in her 72 years. She was born in 1943, an ethnic Jew in Siberia, whose parents had been exiled there for political reasons.
She trained to be a scientist and was fired soon after securing her first job when she was caught with a few other colleagues reading Exodus. The end of her career in science ignited her writing career that quickly received great acclaim. She has written over 14 novels and won many literary prizes.
Ulitskaya’s Jewish identity is a disturbing affair. Both her grandfathers were sent by Stalin to labor camps. She mentions being displeased by the refusal of one of her grandfathers to immerse himself in Tolstoy; choosing instead a life studying Torah. She has been divorced twice, mothered two sons who are now adults, and cared for years for her ailing mother.
She is a breast cancer survivor. She has spent her own life constantly measuring how far she can go; aware that a false step could have harrowing consequences.
When one looks at photographs of her, it is hard not to notice a certain exhaustion around her eyes that seems to have set in, and her smile is sad and strained. When she has been asked in interviews about the rise of anti-Semitic sentiment around the world she offers vague responses about the general horror of the world. She has confessed to finding solace in practicing Christianity in the Russian Orthodox Church. This seems at odds with her fiction that is charged with a Jewish pathos that is electrifyingly authentic, particularly in her characterization of the Jewish orphan Mikha.
She describes Mikha early on with a special tenderness: “Mikha was the one who brought Sanya and Ilya together when he appeared in their midst in fifth grade. His arrival was greeted with delight. A classic redhead, a classic target, he was the ideal target for gibes. His head was shaved bare, except for a crooked, reddish-gold tuft in front. He had translucent magenta-colored ears that stuck out from the sides of his head like sails, but they were in the wrong place, too close to his cheeks, somehow. He had milky white skin and freckles, and his eyes even had an orangey hue. As if that weren’t enough, he was bespectacled, and a Jew, to boot.”
Mikha knew little about his dead parents.
He knew his mother had perished during the bombardment of the last train headed east from Kiev in 1941 as the Germans were advancing upon the Popol district.
His father had died at the front.
Mikha began his career teaching hearing- and speech-impaired students whom he loved dearly and who loved him in return.
He got fired unexpectedly when he passed some of the early dissident literature to a close colleague. The man turned on him with anti-Semitic rage and had him terminated. This thrust Mikha into the thick of the growing dissident movement of the late 1960s. Mikha had not prepared for a career as a dissident.
He had once been loyal to the teachings of his youth: “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 grandiose, lie, cynicism, inconceivable cruelty, shameless manipulations of people who had lost their humanity, their human dignity and selfworth, out of fear. This fear enveloped the whole country like a dark cloud. One could call this Stalinism, but Mikha had already understood that Stalinism was only a singular instance of evil in this enormous, universal, timeless political despotism.”
The dissident movement was all Mikha had now; even as it held out the slimmest hope for genuine change. He clung to it with the intensity with which he attached himself to everything and anything he had ever loved.
In Ulitskaya’s hands, Mikha emerges as a most beautiful and sensitive man. A man guided by morality and righteous anger.
A man willing to do almost anything to set things right. But Ulitskaya also knows, from her own weary battles, the futility of such an endeavor in a regime that snuffs out those that seek redemption with a sharp and often lethal smack before they can gain any traction.
Ulitskaya writes “Redemption was perhaps the most frightening of all. It turned out you could not only kill but destroy a person with the most subtle and ingenious methods – force an honest man to be a stool pigeon, an informer, to make him lose his mind. And the worst thing was you couldn’t prove anything to anyone, there was no way of vindicating oneself.”
Ulitskaya has poured a lifetime of muffled rage and idealism into her beloved Mikha and we sense he does not disappoint her in the way we sense she feels she has disappointed herself.