With epic breadth and intimate detail, The Big Green Tent tells the story of three school friends who meet in Moscow in the 1950s and go on to embody the heroism, folly, compromise, and hope of the Soviet dissident experience. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel belongs to the tradition of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pasternak: it is a work consumed with politics, love, and belief—and a revelation of life in dark times.
THOSE WONDROUS SCHOOL YEARS
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.
The three boys all went to the same school. Ilya and Sanya had known each other since the first grade. Mikha joined them later. In the hierarchy that takes shape willy-nilly in every herd, all three of them occupied the lowest rung—due to their complete disinclination to fight or be cruel. Ilya was long and lanky, his hands and feet stuck out from his short sleeves and trouser legs. Moreover, there wasn’t a single nail or sharp piece of metal he hadn’t snagged his clothes on. His mother, the doleful, single Maria Fedorovna, wore herself out attaching unsightly patches to his clothes with her graceless fingers. Sewing was not her forte. Ilya was always dressed more poorly than the other students, who were themselves poorly dressed. He liked to cut up and play the clown, making a spectacle of his poverty and thereby overcoming it.
Sanya had it even worse. His classmates were filled with envy and disgust at his zippered jacket, his girlish eyelashes, the irksome sweetness of his face, and the cloth napkin his homemade lunch came wrapped in every day. Added to that, he took piano lessons. Many of the kids had seen him walking down Chernyshevsky Street, the former and future Pokrovka, to the Igumnov Music School, one of his hands clutching his grandmother’s hand, the other clutching a folder with sheet music. Sometimes they saw him even on days when he was sick with one of his frequent minor, but protracted, illnesses. His grandmother was all profile. She would place one slender leg in front of the other like a circus horse, her head swaying rhythmically in time. Sanya walked by her side, but slightly behind, as befits a groom.
Contrary to his regular school, at music school everyone sang the praises of Sanya. In his second year there, he played Grieg at his recital with a skill that few fifth- year students could muster. The small stature of the performer was also touching. At eight years old he was mistaken for a preschooler, and at twelve he looked like he was eight. For this reason, they dubbed him Gnome at his regular school. And the nickname was not an affectionate one; they made fun of him mercilessly.
Sanya consciously avoided Ilya, not so much because of his teasing—which was not directed at Sanya, but which sometimes grazed him nonetheless—but because of their humiliating difference in size.
Mikha was the one who brought Sanya and Ilya together when he appeared in their midst in the fifth grade. His arrival was greeted with delight. A classic redhead, 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 all that weren’t enough, he was bespectacled, and a Jew, to boot.
The first time Mikha got beaten up was on the first day of school. The beating, which took place in the bathroom during recess, was a mild one—just a formality, to give him something to think about. It wasn’t even Murygin and Mutyukin who did it—they had better things to do—but their sidekicks and underlings. Mikha stoically took what was coming to him, then opened his book bag to take out a handkerchief and wipe away his snot. At that moment, a kitten squirmed out of the bag. The other boys grabbed the kitten and started tossing it back and forth. Just then, Ilya, the tallest boy in the class, walked in. He managed to intercept the kitten in midair, over the heads of the makeshift volleyball team, when the bell sounded, putting an end to the game.
When they returned to the classroom, Ilya thrust the kitten at Sanya, who had materialized right beside him, and who then stuffed the kitten into his book bag.
During the final break, those archenemies of the human race, Murygin and Mutyukin, whose names will serve as the basis for a future philological conceit and so deserve mention, looked around for the kitten, but soon forgot about it. That day, school was dismissed after only four classes, and the boys tore out of the school building, whooping and hollering. These three were left to their own devices in the empty classroom bedecked with brightly colored asters—first-day-of-school offerings for the teacher. Sanya extracted the half-smothered kitten from the satchel and handed it to Ilya. Ilya gave it to Mikha. Sanya smiled at Ilya, Ilya at Mikha, Mikha at Sanya.
“I wrote a poem. About him,” Mikha said shyly. “Here it is.”
He was the handsomest of cats,
And just about to meet his death,
When Ilya jumped into the fray.
And now the kitten’s here today.
“Not bad. Though it’s no Pushkin,” Ilya said.
“‘Now the kitten’s here today’ is too pompous,” said Sanya. Mikha agreed humbly.
“How about ‘And now the kitten’s here to stay.’ That sounds better.”
Mikha then told them in great detail how in the morning, on his way to school, he had snatched the unfortunate creature out of the jaws of a canine predator. He couldn’t take the kitten home, however, because he didn’t know how his aunt would react. He had been living with her only since the previous Monday.
Sanya stroked the kitten’s back and sighed. “I can’t take him home with me. We’ve already got a cat. He wouldn’t like it.”
“Fine, I’ll take him.” Ilya casually scooped up the kitten.
“They won’t mind, at home?” Sanya said.
Ilya grinned. “I’m in charge at home. My mom and I get along great. She listens to me.”
He’s so grown up, I’ll never be like him. I could never say “My mom and I get along great.” It’s true—I’m just a mama’s boy. Though Mama does listen to me. And Grandmother listens, too. Oh, does she ever! But in a different way, Sanya mused.
Sanya looked at Ilya’s bony hands, covered all over in bluish- yellow bruises and scars. His fingers were so long they could reach two octaves. Mikha was trying to balance the kitten on his head, above the reddish gold tuft left there yesterday “for growing back” by the magnanimous barber at the Pokrovsky Gates. The kitten kept slithering off, and Mikha kept planting him on his head again.
Together, the three of them left the school building. They fed the kitten melted ice cream. Sanya had some money, just enough for four portions. As it turned out later, Sanya almost always had money. This was the first time Sanya had ever bought ice cream on the street and eaten it straight from the wrapper. When Grandmother bought ice cream, they took it home with them, placed the sagging mound in a special glass dish, and topped it with a dollop of cherry jam. That was the only way they ever ate it.
Ilya told them excitedly about the camera he was going to buy with the first money he earned. He also laid out his precise plan for making that money.
Out of the blue, Sanya blurted out his own secret—he had small, “unpianistic” hands, and that was a handicap for a performer like him. Mikha, who had moved in with his third set of relatives in seven years, told these boys, nearly complete strangers, that he was running out of relatives, and that if his aunt refused to keep him he’d have to go back to the orphanage.
The new aunt, Genya, had a weak constitution and suffered from some undefined illness. “I’m sick from head to toe,” she would say with mournful significance. She complained constantly of pains in her legs, in her back, her chest, and her kidneys. She also had a daughter who was disabled, which put a further strain on her health. Any kind of work was beyond her strength, so her relatives finally decided that her orphaned nephew should move in with her, and that they would all contribute money for his upkeep. Mikha was, after all, the son of their brother, who had perished in the war.
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