Totalitarian Sprawl

Was the Soviet Union a totalitarian state, ruled by a highly centralized power and demanding absolute subservience from its citizens? Or was it instead a more complex polity, one that only projected ...

Was the Soviet Union a totalitarian state, ruled by a highly centralized power and demanding absolute subservience from its citizens? Or was it instead a more complex polity, one that only projected a tempting illusion of homogeneity? This has been a central debate in the historiography of the Soviet era since the fall of the USSR.1 Many Western scholars have offered alternatives to the totalitarian model (with especially influential studies coming from Stephen Kotkin and from Alexei Yurchak2). In Russia, on the other hand, the totalitarian model remains relatively unchallenged, even as the Soviet Union and Stalinism have taken on disturbingly rosy hues in retrospect.

Ludmila Ulitskaya’s work presents something of a compromise between these two positions. Arguably Russia’s most popular novelist, Ulitskaya is beloved in the West for her reliably liberal stances on everything from Putin (she’s anti) to religious tolerance and gay rights (pro and pro). Since the Moscow protest bubble of 2011–12, she has been spending much of her time and ink considering the late Soviet Union. She is not a historian, but the forms of her narratives seem to argue powerfully for a more granular approach to history. Drawing on the Tolstoyan realist tradition, her comfortable, undemanding prose and meandering plots provide plenty of space for the unpredictability of individual human choices. Her fictional worlds are complex and chaotic in a way that undermines any systematic vision of the world as centrally controlled.

This is certainly the case in The Big Green Tent, a sprawling, nearly six-hundred-page novel that spans more than 40 years of late Soviet and post-Soviet history. Like most of Ulitskaya’s work, the novel is broadly inclusive, bringing together an enormous and sometimes unwieldy cast of characters from across generations, genders, classes, religions, and sexual orientations. At times the diversity grows organically from the plot; at others it rings hollow, as in the novel’s gesture towards gender balance (ostensibly about three boys and three girls who grew up together, the novel all but ignores the girls throughout their childhood and reincorporates them only when they re-enter the orbits of the three male leads). But mostly the huge cast allows Ulitskaya to lead the reader on delightful tours of all those late Soviet phenomena most fetishized in hindsight: samizdat, underground dissidence, and steamy kitchen conversations about jazz, politics, and forbidden literature.

The main characters first come together as schoolchildren around their unorthodox and charismatic literature teacher Viktor Yulievich, a war hero and, it seems, a man from a different time. He leads them on literary walks around Moscow during which he recreates a familiar (for the reader) but thrilling (for the students) prerevolutionary world where literature trumped all. “In some ways, literature is a more exact science than history,” he says in the course of one of their first outings. “There is no definitive proof that Salieri poisoned Mozart. This is just historical speculation. Pushkin’s work, however, is what one could call undiluted fact. A great fact of Russian literature. History may find proof that Salieri never poisoned Mozart, but there will still be no gainsaying The Little Tragedies.”

This description of literature’s power not only captivates Viktor Yulievich’s students, it also suggests Ulitskaya’s aspirations to express such “undiluted facts” in the present novel. Whatever the reader’s response to this, the three schoolboys (the girls have already disappeared) are utterly enchanted. Despite their diverse backgrounds, Sanya, Mikha, and Ilya become lifelong friends, bound together by the shared experience of these walks and the un-Soviet values they instilled.

The values are un-Soviet, not anti-Soviet, and none of the boys has much of a political consciousness until Stalin dies and teenaged Ilya, new camera in hand, sets off to photograph the tyrant’s massive public funeral. The lethal stampede—a brilliant set piece, and one of the best scenes in the novel—squeezes Ilya from street level. He first tries to climb a ledge for a better view, but to no avail. Then, suddenly, he tumbles into an open manhole, and as other bodies fall down on top of him, he has to scramble through the dark and narrow sewage system to safety. The subtle nod to Les Misérables—with the crucial difference that Ilya is chased not by the law, but by unthinking masses—implicitly aligns Ulitskaya with Victor Hugo’s novelistic and political tradition. For Ilya, the experience of literally being pushed underground by other Soviet citizens seals his fate. He quickly drops out of official life and into the much-romanticized (here and elsewhere) Soviet underground, where he retypes samizdat and assembles an extensive photo archive of dissident life. The others also withdraw from mainstream society, though less dramatically. Sanya’s passion for the piano (and physical inability to play) takes him high into the esoteric world of music theory; Mikha retreats to a country school where he teaches literature to the hearing-impaired.

At times, the novel’s apparent nostalgia for late Soviet dissidence brings its depiction perilously close to Viktor Yulievich’s whitewashed and romanticized vision of 19th-century literary culture. But Ulitskaya salvages her novel from its own wistful charms by following her characters’ fates to their painful and inevitable conclusions.

The KGB gets involved. Ilya’s apartment is searched several times, his samizdat is confiscated, and he’s hounded until he shamefully agrees to share his photo archive with state security. Sanya fares no better. He agrees to a sham marriage in order to emigrate.

Most tragic, though, is Mikha’s fate. He gets entangled in the underground, arrested, and interrogated. Throughout, his suffering is described in detail. He is the only major character sent to hard labor, and though the novel elides his years in the camps, it treats his trauma seriously—as cold empty pain rather than heroism. He never recovers. After his return, he is arrested again and faces the same choice as everyone else: collaborate or emigrate.

The pattern is hard to miss. Though Ulitskaya seems to give her characters room to make their own choices, the society she depicts gently coerces them all to a similar place. The Big Green Tent suggests that the underground ideal—that it was possible to live outside the Soviet system while physically existing inside the country—was illusory. In Ulitskaya’s novel, escape is possible only through emigration or death. Though the book features no central authority figure (the various General Secretaries are mentioned only rarely, and the KGB has many faces), it nevertheless depicts a totalizing, if diffuse, power. Ulitskaya’s characters are not controlled so much as they are contained, constricted, circumscribed by an authority that leaves its subjects very little room for self-determination. In this way, Ulitskaya’s vision of the epoch doesn’t so much provide an alternative to the totalitarian model of Soviet history as an update. Her sprawling realist novel depicts a sprawling totalitarianism: decentered, complex, but nevertheless total and unrelenting. icon

  1. See Catriona Kelly, “What Was Soviet Studies and What Came Next?” Journal of Modern History, vol. 85, no. 1 (March 2013), pp. 109–49
  2. See Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization (University of California Press, 1995), and Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press, 2005).
Featured image: Soviet Union 1980. Photograph by Cer C / Flickr