Women can do everything, and men can do the rest. I first heard the proverb thirty years ago when I was teaching English as a second language to Soviet Jewish immigrants at a place called NYANA (the New York Association for New Americans). My female students relished quoting it, and, probably because they always prefaced it with “In Russia we say,” I have remembered it as “Russian women can do everything.”

I remember also that, when I was a child and before I had ever met any Russian person, the thought of a Russian woman brought either of two starkly contrasting images to mind: an ethereally lithe and beautiful young dancer costumed as a swan, or a burly woman of indeterminate age with a weathered face, wearing a babushka and gripping the huge wheel of a tractor. Whenever I heard the proverb—and despite my knowing that it takes far greater muscle to dance Odette/Odile than to drive a tractor—it was the tractor driver I saw.

All this came back to me as I read and watched interviews with Ludmila Ulitskaya, the eighty-one-year-old Russian Jewish writer who has received international acclaim for her fiction (she has often been named as a contender for the Nobel) and who is also known for her political activism and opposition to Vladimir Putin. A lifelong resident of Moscow, Ulitskaya was trained as a scientist and worked as a geneticist before turning her hand first to theater and later to fiction. (Ending her first profession had not been a choice: she was deprived of it after a worker in her laboratory turned her and four fellow scientists in to the KGB for distributing samizdat.) She published her first short story in 1990 and, soon after, her first novel, Sonechka, which was short-listed for the 1993 Russian Booker Prize.*

Thus began a late-blooming but remarkably prolific career that has won Ulitskaya a vast readership in Russia and throughout Europe and a long list of literary accolades, including the 2001 Russian Booker for her novel The Kukotsky Enigma. She is both the first woman to be awarded that prize and the writer who has received the most nominations for it. Another distinction has been her willingness to write about subjects considered taboo in Russia, such as religion, lesbianism, and abortion. (For information about her life and career, I recommend Masha Gessen’s excellent profile published in The New Yorker in 2014 under the title “The Weight of Words,” which was my own introduction to Ulitskaya.)

At the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, in a statement published in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Ulitskaya denounced “the madness of one man and his loyal accomplices” and described her feelings of “pain, fear, shame.” “Shame—because it’s clear that the leadership of our country bears the responsibility of creating this situation, fraught with great misery for all of us.” She then exiled herself from her homeland and, since March 2022, has been living in Berlin.

Earlier, in an interview in May 2014, responding to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his justifying claim that Ukraine was never its own nation, that Russians and Ukrainians shared a unified history and cultural heritage, she protested:

The Russians and the Ukrainians are two peoples who have suffered a trauma inflicted by the Soviet power…. It is very important for the Russians to get rid of the imperial syndrome and to reject the “big brother–little brother” dynamic.

“My sad conclusion is that Russia, by her nature, is an archaic country, and even events as profound as the Revolution of 1917 result in the same persistent movement toward the past, toward antiquity,” she said in an online exchange with a New Yorker editor occasioned by the publication of one of her short stories in March 2023.

The process of choosing a path—to the West or to the East—ended with the decision to find a third, independent way. But it turned out that there is no third way. There is the development of human civilization, and there is a resistance to this development. Marxist ideas, which so inspired people of the nineteenth century, are a thing of the past, and today we can only analyze mistakes and lost illusions.

In novels like The Kukotsky Enigma (published in English in 2016), Jacob’s Ladder (2019), and The Big Green Tent (2015)—to name three of her books available in American editions—Ulitskaya has made analyzing the mistakes and lost illusions of the pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras a central concern. These are epic works, intergenerational family sagas covering more than a century of life in Russia and Ukraine (though she set her short 2011 novel, The Funeral Party, in a Russian émigré enclave in New York City). She writes about the lives of ordinary people, lives that are filled with other kinds of pain, fear, and shame she herself has also not been spared—both the ordinary unhappiness that afflicts human beings everywhere and the particular suffering endured by those struggling to survive under corrupt and harshly oppressive regimes. But hers is a generous and compassionate vision, and her books are filled with warmth and humor, with the irrepressible joy of living, and no doubt it is her skill at depicting both the dark and the bright sides of Russian life so encompassingly and believably that is largely responsible for her great popularity. She is among the most read contemporary Russian authors, and The Kukotsky Enigma, which unfolds over decades (roughly the 1930s through the 1960s) in the complicated professional and family life of a male gynecologist who is committed to providing abortions even at a time when there is a government ban against them, became a hit series on Russian TV.


Ulitskaya often uses her scientific knowledge in her fiction, and one of her work’s most satisfying features is the authenticity and precision of detail of that material. Sometimes real people appear as themselves (an especially moving instance of this is the poet Joseph Brodsky and his wife and child in The Big Green Tent). Ulitskaya has also used real people in her creation of certain characters, most notably in Daniel Stein, Interpreter (2011), whose eponymous hero is based on Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who during World War II saved hundreds of Jewish lives in a scheme in which, while working as a translator in a local police station, he faked his identity well enough to pass as a gentile. He later converted to Catholicism and became a priest. (Ulitskaya herself for a time embraced Christianity, and although she later broke with the Russian Orthodox Church, Christian spiritual beliefs run deep in her work.)

Though undeniably modern, Ulitskaya’s writing gives the kind of pleasure that many readers associate with nineteenth-century fiction: the expansive storytelling and the meticulous description; characters who are introduced at birth or as children and followed well into adult life; the ambitious, dexterously controlled plotting filled with neatly timed twists. And again, the compassion: to counter even the bleakest and most tragic events, there is the author’s unsentimental but tender attitude toward human weakness, her respect for people’s hopes and dreams, her reverence for the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.

A common Ulitskaya protagonist is a woman of independent thinking and levelheadedness, a woman who knows what she wants in life and who is determined, usually despite considerable resistance, to pursue it.

Asked in the New Yorker interview about the situation of women, Ulitskaya replied:

Women are more flexible creatures than men, and their natures are more empathetic. I have an abundance of stories about the wonderful women of our country, who were almost unnoticed during that notorious perestroika era, which, as we now see, failed in so many respects…. Frankly speaking, I think if there were a greater participation of women in state governance it would benefit society.

She told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “Russia is a country of very strong women. Everywhere but in power, of course. If this war is stopped, it will only be because of women.” Russian women can do everything. Or maybe not. And if the war isn’t stopped, “it will mean that those in power don’t care one iota about what women think about all this.”

Some of Ulitskaya’s abundance of fictional stories about the women of her country can now be read in The Body of the Soul, a new collection translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Divided into two parts, The Body of the Soul begins with “Girlfriends,” which itself begins, fittingly, with a loving address: “I Need No Others…”—no others than the female friends the narrator has known over a lifetime. “Amazons,” she calls them, naming young and old, living and dead, and lauding all—for their strength, their loyalty, their humor, their ability to forgive one another’s transgressions (even girlfriends seducing other girlfriends’ husbands): a full-throated paean to “sisterly gentleness and friendship,” in which she joins a chain dance with those who’ve seen one another through “all the infidelities, abortions, betrayals, KGB searches, shameful envies.”

In “The Dragon and the Phoenix,” the first of the four stories that make up part one, we meet a lesbian couple, Zarifa and Musya. They are originally from the same town in Karabakh, but their relationship did not begin until many years later, when they got to know each other in Moscow. Now they live in Cyprus. Zarifa and Musya—“the first couple of this kind from Russia to register their marriage in Amsterdam”—have been married for twelve years. And though Musya knows that “only a man could be a husband,” and “to this day the word lesbian” makes her “freeze, like a little girl caught stealing”—and though the marriage has alienated both women from their Armenian and Azerbaijani relatives—Musya and Zarifa have been happy together (because of or in spite of their completely opposite personalities?).


But now Zarifa is dying of cancer, a fact so unacceptable to Musya that she has been secretly consulting a pair of old sorceresses “about a complicated exchange of one soul for another.” She is thrown into a state when she must deal with Zarifa’s estranged older brother, Saïd, who hates her (for him, the women’s union is blasphemy), but whom Zarifa has summoned from Karabakh with instructions to bring a certain family heirloom: a rug to be placed on the coffin at her funeral. Meanwhile Zarifa has also summoned “our most intelligent friend,” Zhenya, in order to put to her some deathbed questions, among them “why it’s impossible to seat Armenians and Azerbaijanis at the same table.” For which the flummoxed Zhenya has no good answer.

Musya marvels at the rug’s elaborate design, a dragon and a phoenix “locked in deadly and endless combat.” “It is impossible to tell who in it is the warrior, who the sorcerer, who is evil and who is good, because they are bound forever into one immobile and indissoluble ring.” But it is this violent imagery that later pierces her long-pent-up grief, her unrestrained outburst leading to a moment of oneness and mutual solace among mourners, an embrace of enemies, a moment when “who was the husband, who the wife, no one cared.”

From girlhood, the main character in “Alisa Buys Death” is determined not to become her mother, who committed suicide and whom she remembers with contempt; she “was always passionately in love and suffered spectacularly, to the point of the psycho wards.” (That last phrase is one of several that kept me from ever wholly forgetting that, although for the most part enjoyably readable, the text is a translation. Among other rough spots where my attention snagged: “A woman, her body flattened on the sides and with resolute breasts”; “the only thing Lilya knew about her deceased father was the bristly name she bore”—Schiltz—“because of which she was teased as ‘shilly-shally.’”)

For Alisa, “the fear of falling into another person’s power was stronger than all other fears proper to women: of solitude, of childlessness, of poverty.” Meaning, marriage was out. At sixty-four, after a successful career as an engineering draftsman and ten years of comfy retirement, Alisa hits a bump in her well-planned life when a fainting spell leads to thoughts of mortality. The fainting turns out to be nothing serious, but the question nags: Who will take care of her when the inevitable arrives? Ever practical, she visits a doctor and asks him to give her sleeping pills. For when the time comes, she explains: “I simply want to buy myself an easy death.”

The doctor is a widower, a kind and cultured man who has also been living a solitary life. He does not give Alisa the pills, but after they meet again—by chance, at a concert—they begin an affair whose rejuvenating bliss surprises and delights them both. Though willing to accept his proposal of marriage, Alisa reminds him: nothing lasts forever; when the time comes, she’ll still want that easy death. Knowing it would be useless to argue with her, the doctor agrees to this most unusual wedding gift.

Life rolls happily along, and then “another unforeseen and improbable event came to light”—words heralding one of Ulitskaya’s signature moves. In fact, a string of such events will occur before the story’s end, proving that, however one might plan one’s death, planning one’s fate is impossible.

Like Alisa, Lilya, the soon-to-be eighteen-year-old at the center of “A Foreigner,” considers her mother a model of how not to be. She, too, has a practical nature and firm future plans:

a good, well-paying job as an accountant or a teacher…a professional diploma and her own room, a whole room, without a partition; and she would dress not in rustic fashion, like all the women in the building, but in a nice outfit, like a schoolteacher.

Less practically, she covets a pair of white high-heeled shoes. In spite of her disdain for marriage, Lilya agrees to be the bride of Salikh, an Iraqi graduate student in mathematics at Moscow University, to whom her mother offers her after a chance encounter with him one day on a park bench. He’s a foreigner and a total stranger, but he seems all right and, as her mother slyly points out, “there’ll be white shoes.” Salikh, who has never even touched a woman, knows that by agreeing to this match he’ll be breaking all the rules he has been raised by back home. His mind is swayed when he sees that Lilya wears glasses. In Iraq,

only old women, who had already fulfilled their female mission, could allow themselves to acknowledge poor vision. It was Lilya’s glasses that for him were the sign of unquestionable truthfulness.

Big breasts don’t hurt, either.

“According to her former plan, she was supposed to have a baby after finishing her studies,” but, to her dismay, Lilya is soon pregnant. She is indignant when, just before their daughter’s birth, Salikh flies home to attend his father’s funeral. When he fails to return, she doesn’t know what to think. Could her mother be right, that he has turned out to be “a traitor, like all men”? Whatever is happening in Iraq at the moment—revolution? war?—is unclear, and the Iraqi embassy “could not be bothered” to explain. What is clear soon enough is that Salikh, from whom Lilya receives not a word, is gone. Abandoned, she musters the grit to earn a living and raise their child alone. It will be years before the truth about her husband’s disappearance is revealed, along with her mother’s secret act of betrayal.

The final story of part one, “Blessed Are Those Who…,” takes up yet another fraught maternal relationship. Two half-sisters arrive in an Italian village where they have been summoned to an unoccupied house by its owner, a disciple of their recently deceased mother, “a distinguished linguist and specialist in ancient texts.” She explains that their mother had often stayed in the house and has left behind some possessions, which she now asks them to sort out.

Neither sister has any stomach for the task. They have already been through the ninety-year-old woman’s Moscow apartment and found only heaps of papers and books for which they had no use and which were in fact a painful reminder of that “dry stick” whom they had loathed. Devoted to her work, famous, revered, and beloved among scholars, she had “completely abandoned the female battlefield” and given her children no time at all, not even to educate them. In their words:

“She never loved me…”

“Nor me.”

“She was a terrible mother.”

“Not a mother at all.”

“She didn’t love anyone…. She ruined our lives.”

But it is also true that the sisters, almost eighteen years apart and in all ways “absolutely dissimilar,” have never loved each other either. “Each thought that the other had the greater part of their mother’s attention and love. With the years their mutual antipathy only grew.” Sadly, “the only thing they had in common was their loneliness.”

In the bedroom of the house they find some pages of what appears to be a translation from the Italian that their mother must have been working on: “Nostra Signora della Terza Età.” They can make out that it’s some kind of prayer, and the lines—each of which begins with the phrase “Blessed are those who”—perplex and, in some elusive way, seem to be speaking to them. As far as they knew, their mother was not a believer. And yet her funeral, which she must herself have arranged, had been a Christian one. And now this prayer. Could it be that this translation was meant for them?

In fact, the text comes from the wall of a local church, where it had been hanging by a “sculpture of the Mother of God of Old People—Nostra Signora della Terza Età. Maybe it was better to translate it that way—not ‘the third age,’ but ‘old people’?” (And maybe, for readers of English, it would have been better to translate “Nostra Signora” not as “Mother of God” but as “Our Lady”?)

The attempt to decipher their mother’s state of mind floods the sisters with emotion. How terribly lonely her old age must have been. Coming to the line “Blessed is the one who will hold my hand in the moment of my departure,” they can only weep: “who held her hand…we’ll never know.” But if, for their mother, it is too late for forgiveness, too late for loneliness to be cured, thanks to her it is not too late for them.

Part two, which shares the book’s title, begins with verses unmistakably addressed to the author, who has herself entered life’s terza età, “and whether it’s sweet or sour matters not, so long as it formulates the ultimate meaning.” (Here again: Would not “bitter” be better than “sour”?) The stories that follow are mostly shorter than those in part one, some mere sketches, with less plotting and little attempt at character development, and they are not as true to life. Ulitskaya’s oeuvre includes writing for children, and these stories have the kinds of magical elements and moral messages familiar from children’s literature and traditional folktales.

In one story, a young woman working in a biochemistry lab is sent to a meat factory to collect pigs’ glands to be used for research. At what she sees there: “Life came to a full stop.” Two hours later, having collected her material, she leaves, a new human being set on an entirely different path from the one she’d been on before. Another story tells how “Sonya Solodova, a lean, middle-aged woman with clear, angry eyes, grasped the meaning of life after her divorce from her husband.” This involves a radical change in her eating habits and a loss of appetite that leads to less and less hunger and a more and more desirable feeling of “happy lightness.” Weak and tired but strangely sated, she takes to her bed and undergoes a miraculous metamorphosis.

A different kind of transformation occurs in “The Autopsy,” which finds an elderly pathoanatomist stumped by two inexplicable symmetrical incisions in the shoulder blades of a corpse he has been called out of retirement to dissect. That, unlike him, the reader should have no trouble guessing at once the purpose of those cuts does not spoil the true mystery at the heart of this beautiful story.

“A Man in a Mountainous Landscape” tells the life story of Tolik, the only son of a lowly worker in factory management. In the orphanage where his mother was raised, “she had learned how to survive, but had not learned how to love, and she was unable to teach her son to love. She also had not managed to love any man.” Exactly who his father is she cannot say, but she has loved her son “as she was able to.” They share a room in a communal apartment, where Tolik grows from a sad and seemingly backward child into a gifted teenager with a passion for photography. After serving in the army (turns out he’s as good at shooting a rifle as he is at shooting pictures), he becomes an increasingly successful photographer who soon takes his “well-earned place among the professionals.” All the while he continues to live in the same apartment with his mother.

As it has been since childhood, Tolik has no friends. He has found all he needs in his art. But when he is thirty he is stricken by a grave degenerative disease that leaves him unable to hold his camera steady and, in a short time, as dependent on his mother as an infant:

Valentina showed great patience. She had it where others have love. Tolik, too, knew little about love, but gratitude, love’s neighbor, was familiar to him. His patience was great, just like his mother’s. He showed it in his illness—not complaining, not being angry, only surprised.

Of course, about the cruelty of fate there is nothing at all surprising. But in Ulitskaya’s world, such an exemplary life—a soul so pure and meekly accepting—must, in the end, be rewarded.

“Her memory was boundless,” we are told of the main character in “A Serpentine Road,” a librarian, one of that “special breed of people…who believe in books as others believe in the Lord God.” Now, though not yet sixty, she has dementia. Her decline is swift, her memory filling up with blanks where once knowledge had been, and she is placed in an old people’s home. But as the emptiness inside her expands, it begins also to feel “calming, gentle, reassuring,” like the snow deepening outside her window. When what “turned out to be only a curtain” falls—on her and on the story, which closes the collection—she is granted the ultimate meaning of the author’s introductory verses: a radiant vision of a world of “complete knowledge, perfect and constantly increasing,” a world without boundaries as she is now without boundaries, a place she never imagined she’d see but where she knows she will be loved and needed forever.

Ulitskaya’s vision of Russia’s future is undeniably, even hopelessly bleak. And yet The Body of the Soul reflects the “wondrous optimism” that, according to Gessen, “comes across in all of her writing and her interviews” and “sets her apart from almost every Russian writer, past and present.” Whether it is true that having more women in government positions would be better for all, or that Russian women are capable of stopping the war, it is clear that this optimism is buoyed by her belief in the potency of female friendship and female morality. More significantly, and notwithstanding her disillusionment with the organized Church, it is rooted in her enduring spiritual faith.

Though they lack the complexity and absorbing power of her novels, Ulitskaya’s tales enchant, and, in our brutalized times, they offer comforting reading. Here we see people who suffer but who also find the strength to bear. There is always the possibility of transcendence, even transfiguration, and sad endings can be beatific ones. Death must come—but who can say that on the other side there won’t be peace and joy?