The Big Green Tent

Written by Ludmila Ulitskaya Polly Gannon (trans.)
Review by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi

Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 500-plus page, classically Russian novel The Big Green Tent offers a tale of three schoolboys drawn together by their shared status as outcasts—intelligent, artistic, regular targets of the schoolyard bullies—who become lifelong friends. This is a richly layered story that manages to be both intimate and grand in scale simultaneously.

When Ulitskaya appears to complete the entire life story of two of the main characters within the first 150 pages of the book, a reader is tempted to wonder where else she is going to take the story. The answer is that she circles back again and again to explore different elements of her characters’ lives, to expose more details and to follow various trajectories of actions and events that in turn spawn other trajectories. Each chapter or section, as tangential to the central action as it may appear to be, eventually ties back to the main characters and reveals yet another facet of the expanding story. Permeating every aspect of the novel—in both mundane details and in seismic, life-changing events—is the calculated, heartless, and systematic brutality of the Soviet regime, which retains its character well beyond the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev, an era the characters misread as offering a respite from the cultural chokehold of Stalin. Each of the main characters is tripped up in one way or another by the system, and must choose a path forward. Sharing a love of Russia and a hatred of the regime, some would do anything to leave and others would do anything to stay—anything, of course, but accept the mindless, unquestioning obedience the Soviet system demands of them.