Lyudmila Ulitskaya - The Weight of Words

About three-quarters of the way through Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel, “The Big Green Tent,” set in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, a character named Mikha stays up all night reading. In the morning, when he arrives at work late, overemotional from the night of reading and from the discovery that his colleagues have covered for him, Mikha is compelled to share his reading with an older co-worker. It is a set of photographs of manuscripts that could not be published in the Soviet Union, and one look at it is enough for the older man to grasp the gravity of the crime that is being confessed. He reports Mikha to the authorities, setting in motion a series of events that will end Mikha’s career and, ultimately, his life.

Back when many books were banned in the Soviet Union, books had that kind of power. The official publishing houses printed vast quantities of a tiny selection of titles. The underground canon—the samizdat—was also small, chosen nearly at random with questionable literary taste and eclectic political beliefs: retyped manuscripts of recently written unpublishable books; facsimile copies of rediscovered books from an earlier, freer era; and printed volumes smuggled into the country by proselytizers of various kinds. In another scene in “The Big Green Tent,” which will be published in the United States next year, a character comes across an entire discarded home library of unapproved books and discovers, to her disappointment, that she has already read all of them—meaning that she has read these physical copies, which once belonged to the parents of a friend.

A book can be an inspiration or a murder weapon. Ulitskaya is fascinated by these transformations, but even more so by the peculiar trajectories that create fate—the travels of a person, a picture, a book. If there is a strange journey to be traced, she cannot resist the retelling. On a warm July Saturday afternoon in Moscow, she gave a talk about an anthology of pieces devoted to the memory of the dissident poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, her lifelong friend, who died last year. She noted Gorbanevskaya’s political activism and the persecution she faced. Gorbanevskaya was first arrested at the age of twenty, for associating with people who protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary, in 1956. She spent two years in a psychiatric hospital for daring to document the dissident movement, having helped found a newsletter that tracked arrests and dissident activities. In 1975, she was forced to emigrate. But the focus of Ulitskaya’s talk was Gorbanevskaya’s nonlinear private life. The poet never married but, like her mother, adopted a girl; she also had two biological sons. Both of her sons had children out of wedlock before marrying women who were not the children’s mothers. It fell to Gorbanevskaya to create connections among all these people. “She made friends of everyone; she made everyone love one another,” Ulitskaya said, and an extended family took shape. She died a happy death, sudden and peaceful. But she was penniless. As one of her sons sat in her Paris apartment trying to figure out how to pay for her burial, a friend’s widower called to offer his condolences—and ended up offering a cemetery plot as well, which he had bought for himself before remarrying. “And so she lies next to her friend, in a gifted grave,” Ulitskaya concluded.

It’s a great story. It also showcases the human qualities that Ulitskaya seems to prize most: personal loyalty—not to be confused with niceness, which Gorbanevskaya did not possess—and a boundless capacity for inclusion. Ulitskaya speaks of her friend with admiration as if for a member of a higher caste. “I wasn’t a dissident,” she explains. “I was a girl who washed the dishes in the kitchen while they talked. I remember all of them, but hardly any of them remembered me.” Now, at seventy-one, she has become a voice of moral authority for differently minded Russians, and one of Russia’s most famous writers.

In recent years, as Russia has grown politically repressive and culturally conservative, Ulitskaya’s fiction, which addresses both religion and politics, has moved in for a confrontation. Increasingly, Ulitskaya has also become a public intellectual. During the anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012, Ulitskaya joined the board of the League of Voters, which tried to coördinate and direct the disparate components of the protests. She continued speaking out even after the protests were crushed; by the end of this past summer, she, along with a handful of other writers and a couple of musicians, had been branded a traitor for her opposition to the war in Ukraine. The musicians in the group have had their concerts cancelled all over the country. The writers’ punishment may be slower in coming, but already Ulitskaya is the object of regular assaults by Kremlin mouthpieces in such venues as the newspaper Izvestia, which apes the rhetoric used against writers who were excommunicated by Soviet authorities, half a century ago. Like some of those writers, she is widely read outside Russia. She has amassed many of Europe’s most prestigious literary prizes, even as she has come under attack at home.

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