This is the story of three boys who form a lifelong friendship after meeting in school in Moscow in the 1950s. As they grow up, they become part of the poor intelligentsia that has to hide books and other writings by authors who criticize the Soviet Union, that has to avoid being seen with certain people, or doing or saying the wrong things in general, so as not to be branded dissidents by the KGB which is always looking over everyone’s shoulder.
Ulitskaya creates a vivid and moving collage of conditions in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, and gives deep insight into the plight of living under comprehensive censorship and scrutiny by a secret police that employs the most insidious and effective tactics. This aspect was handled extremely well and realistically because mostly, the threat of the KGB is just lingering in the background so that one almost forgets about it until it strikes mercilessly. Furthermore, the book is a love letter to Russian culture, especially literature, as works from Russian authors like Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and many others are quoted and discussed frequently.
Although the book starts off rather conventionally by describing the school years of the three main characters, it then veers off into more of a collection of vignettes and episodes that shine a light on various aspects of life in the Cold War Soviet Union, and that have different protagonists, like a relative or acquaintance of one of the main characters. Ulitskaya always comes back to the main plot eventually, but at one point, the book becomes exceedingly fragmented, both in narrative continuity but also chronology, as time jumps happen frequently, too. It feels like a rubber band being stretched further and further, and maybe to far, by jumping from one character to that character’s wife, to the wife’s friend, to the friend’s husband, and so on. Although each of these episodes contains pertinent information or a relevant facet of the topic at hand, it seemed a little too much digressing and meandering to me, and simply too many pages until the plot got back on track.
Otherwise, it is an educational and gripping read, focusing on the difficult topic of dissension but using a wide scope to encompass as many aspects of the subject matter as possible. On top of that, the celebration of the beauty and importance of literature is a welcome addition to and distraction from the ugliness of life under such a repressive regime.