The Big Green Tent

The Big Green Tent

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya (author of Just the Plague, reviewed here) is a big book with many things in it. For this heft, it can be somewhat hard to describe with the pithiness required of a review. It is, without question, an epic novel, spanning decades of history and a great many characters to keep track of. It is, in any case, a book I enjoyed very much.

The book starts with the death of Joseph Stalin overheard on the radio, and from there follows, in the first 100 pages or so, the exploits of three schoolboys in the 1950s. You see them grow and flourish as people, gaining friendships and mentors and lovers. Ulitskaya then starts to follow many other characters related to the three boys. The tree of the story becomes massive, but it keeps those three stern roots at the bottom.

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Just the Plague

Just the Plague

I am fond of saying to my friends, especially liberal ones, that the state is not neutral. Any government is fundamentally a “legitimate monopoly on violence,” to use the political-science definition of the word; a blunt instrument of death on those it believes are breaking the social order. Given the country’s history, it makes sense that a Russian writer could elaborate on that point during a period of great upheaval. That writer is Lyudmila Ulitskaya and the novel is Just the Plague.

Just the Plague was written in the 1980s as a movie script, and was rewritten in 2020 as a response to pressing contemporary events. (I should note that Natasha Rapoport claims to have worked with Ulitskaya on the original screenplay. Ulitskaya has not addressed the accusation.) It concerns an outbreak of the pneumonic plague in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but the parallel with our times is clear.

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Monumental Propaganda

Modern Propaganda

Joseph Stalin was synonymous with the Soviet Union until he wasn’t. When Nikita Khrushchev, in 1956, formally denounced the vozhd, the man who had led his country through the nightmare of Barbarossa and emerged victorious, it came as a shock. The red banner flew from Vladivostok to Erfurt, from Murmansk to Tirana. World communism seemed inevitable. But Khrushchev knew Stalin had also hurt the Soviet Union in many ways.

Vladimir Voinovich’s 2000 novel Monumental Propaganda, named after Lenin’s doctrine of monumental art, whose remnants dot the former Soviet Union, addresses that shock. In particular, it revolves around a statue of Stalin in a fictional Russian city that is brought into being by Aglaya Stepanovna Renkina, a local party apparatchik who is intensely devoted to the leader. (She survived Barbarossa) She is stunned when the statue is removed in the wake of de-Stalinization and spends the next several decades trying to cope with that loss. In her nostalgic delirium, she finagles her way into getting the statue established in her living room.

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Volhynia

Volhynia

The region known as Volhynia is not obvious on most maps of Europe. It is remembered in the name of the Volyn Oblast in Ukraine. The region’s boundaries are vague, but today it is somewhere between northwestern Ukraine, southwestern Belarus and southeastern Poland. Before Ukraine gained its independence, it was ruled by the Soviet Union. Before World War II, Volhynia was the southeastern fringe of the Second Polish Republic. It is a region historically populated by Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. During World War II, it descended into a nightmare not unlike what became of Yugoslavia after its dissolution in the 1990s. Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered Poles, and the Poles retaliated in kind.

Volhynia (in Polish Wołyń, on Amazon in English as Hatred, derived from the short-story collection by Stanisław Srokowski on which the movie is based) is a 2016 Polish war drama directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, which dramatizes that awful period in the region’s history.

It is a film that begins, strangely enough, quite happily, with a wedding. There is much singing and dancing and general merriment. Making this even more hopeful is the fact that it is a wedding between a Polish girl and a Ukrainian boy. A Ukrainian priest talks of tolerance. The sister of the bride, Zofia — the main character — is in love with another Ukrainian boy, but her father has decided she is to marry an older Polish municipal authority. Even so, she continues to dally with her beau.

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Kruty 1918

Kruty 1918

When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, it gave various nations a taste of freedom they hadn’t enjoyed in decades or even centuries.

One such nation was the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which existed only a few years before the Red Army came to reinstate Russian rule, this time under the hammer and sickle. It is in this brief interlude that the 2018 film Kruty 1918, directed by Aleksey Shaparev, takes place.

The film is clearly a metaphor for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in our own century. It begins and ends with a veteran of the ongoing war at a monument to the dead at the Battle of Kruty. It is a film that is in its own way deeply nationalistic, for good and for ill.

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White Sun of the Desert

White Sun of the Desert

As an American, I remember being surprised to learn how impactful Westerns have been outside my homeland. It’s a genre that is quintessentially based on American history, but one that has gained currency abroad, particularly in Italy. Quasi-Westerns have also been made in Australia, China and South Africa.

Here I’d like to discuss a “Red Western”: Vladimir Motyl’s 1970 White Sun in the Desert. It’s a film much like American Westerns, but set in what is now Turkmenistan during the Russian Civil War.

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The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures

When we think about the Eastern Bloc, large Brutalist apartment buildings loom from Erfurt to Anadyr. The collapse of the seemingly powerful Soviet empire was a shock to essentially everyone, not in least the people who lived in it. A mistaken turn of phrase by an Eastern German official opened the Berlin Wall, and the winds of change blew across half of a continent. The Soviet jackboot was lifted.

It is this time in East Germany that Jennifer Hofman portrays vividly in her novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, released in 2020.

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City of Thieves

City of Thieves

The Eastern Front of World War II is justly remembered as an exposition of the worst of humanity. It began with an undeclared invasion, was host to genocide and building-to-building combat in major cities, and ended with the largest mass rape in human history. One may be forgiven for thinking there was no decency in the “Bloodlands”, as historian Timothy Snyder called this stretch of Eastern Europe.

David Benioff shows there was in City of Thieves. It was inspired by tapes of the author’s grandfather, who lived through the awfulness. It is an odd thing for the Eastern Front: a coming-of-age novel with a child as its main character. There is hope, in a sense, if not for the country, then for people generally. It may be hard to swallow at first, given the madness of the surroundings, but surprisingly you come around to it.

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Dear Comrades!

Dear Comrades!

There comes a point in every ideological society when reality impinges upon the beliefs held so dearly by the local elite. As complex and totalizing ideologies try to be, some aspect of reality inevitably throws the whole structure of feeling into doubt; Utah got its first Jewish governor in such a moment.

The communist world was prone to these moments. The Soviet Union, among other Marxist-Leninist states, billed itself as a workers’ paradise, free of the parasitic relationship between employer and employee. But, as Lenin dictated, there was a vanguard party that assumed the qualities of the boss not long after the overthrow of the tsar. This led to the unthinkable in the “workers’ state”: strikes.

The 2020 Russian film Dear Comrades!, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, tackles the violent breaking of a strike by the Soviet government in the industrial town of Novocherkassk, near Rostov, not far from the Black Sea and the Ukrainian border. It is a film about the massive hypocrisy undergirding the Soviet state, and how it constantly betrayed the people it purported to serve.

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Mr Jones

Mr Jones

The student of history soon learns that the road to utopia is paved with corpses. The People’s Republic of China starved millions of its own people in pursuit of a classless society. Israel expelled and massacred thousands of Arabs in the war that fashioned the modern state. The United States brutalized its indigenous peoples in an attempt to create an agrarian paradise.

The most infamous example is the original Marxist society-building project, the Soviet Union. In an attempt to bring a country barely out of feudalism into the industrial era, Lenin and Stalin starved their own people, including the Ukrainians in what is remembered as the Holodomor (“death by hunger”).

Before the 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, few in the West had heard of the Holodomor. The fact that Westerners learned about the tragedy at all is thanks to one man: Gareth Jones, a British journalist. His story is dramatized in the 2019 film Mr Jones, directed by Agneiszka Holland.

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