This sweeping novel opens with the death in March 1953 of Stalin, and through its three principal characters, schoolboys at the time, carries us up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, without giving the reader any sense that the empire could ever fail. They become friends as they rescue each other from bullying, and their underdog status - Jew, musician, child of yesterday's aristocracy - channels them toward empathy. Their literature teacher, a veteran who hates war, opens their eyes to the world of poetry and Russian history, and they grow up into the underground of artists and writers persecuted by the Soviet regime. Ulitskaya's choice of the death of Stalin to begin the book emphasizes that once the machinery of repression is in place, those who built it are no longer necessary to its function. Beria is gone, but the Lubyanka, the notorious prison in Moscow, is bustling.
"For so many years Mikha had studied Marxism, trying to work out how such wonderful ideas about justice could become so misshapen, so distorted, in their implementation; but now the truth was laid bare -- it was a grandiose lie, cynicism, inconceivable cruelty, shameless manipulations of people who had lost their humanity, their human dignity and self-worth, out of fear. This fear enveloped the whole country like a dark cloud. One could call this cloud Stalinism; but Mikha had already understood that Stalinism was only a singular instance of the evil of this enormous, universal, timeless political despotism."
The informants, spies, secret police, and their bureaucracy maintain deadly efficient means of suppressing free thought, whatever forms it might take. Owning a typewriter is cause for suspicion. You might think that studying Lenin would be encouraged - but those who look deeper than the official version of his thought and rise to power, as taught in schools, are informed on, interrogated, denied jobs then labeled parasites for not working. A middling painter becomes a savage political cartoonist because he cannot keep silent, cannot continue to crank out meaningless portraits. Inquiring minds resort to secret and innovative means to disseminate the novels and poems outlawed by the government. The samizdat (underground publishing) movement sweeps up many people and nourishes a society starved for reflections of truth through art. As one character tells another:
"[Samizdat] itself is remarkable and unprecedented. It's vital energy that is spread from source to source, establishing threads, forming a sort of spiderweb that links many people. It creates passageways that conduct information in the form of books, magazines, poems, both very old and very new..."
One character is imprisoned for publishing a magazine whose circulation at its height is 20 copies - this is how deeply threatening creative work is to those in power.
Ulitskaya brings to life the sense of urgency this artistic minority feels to hear Pasternak's poems, listen to records of performances by great musicians, to read Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky. They all know they are being followed, spied and eavesdropped on, and they have gestures and phrases to stand in for the things they cannot say aloud. Stints in prison camps undermine their health and spirits then render them unemployable.
"On the eve of his departure [for prison]...he was feeling... guilty, guilty for all that had happened... Guilty before [his pregnant wife] Alyona, since he had left her alone; before his friends, for not being able to do anything that would change the disposition of things for the better; before the whole world, to which he was indebted...
It's a strange, inexplicable law that the most innocent people among us are the ones predisposed to the greatest sense of guilt."
But the essence of this novel is that along with the horrors, Ulitskaya's characters find unexpected moments of connection - the cartoonist, having fled Moscow, shelters for the winter in a tiny village with an old peasant woman. When she invites her two ancient friends over for their annual bath, he sees them naked, and discovers in their grotesque time-ravaged bodies more honest beauty than he has ever witnessed - the beauty of old women who have suffered all their lives, but who still cavort like children, delighted, mischievous, and without shame.