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Artists under the Soviet thumb

Solomon Volkov offers an insider's view of the struggle between culture and politics in 20th-century Russia.

By Megan Dixon / March 11, 2008

The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn By Solomon Volkov Alfred A. Knopf 333 pp., $30

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In the early summer of 1994, Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia after 20 years of exile. Staying with friends in St. Petersburg, I watched his progress on television: He flew first to Vladivostok and then took the trans-Siberian train westward, stopping in small towns and cities along the way to connect with the people. His arrival in Moscow coincided with steady rain, but thousands of Russians came to hear his speech. Excitement pulsed in the air.

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My hosts had read Solzhenistyn's "Gulag Archipelago" in carbon copied typescript in the 1970s, made on an old typewriter with a dash substituting for the letter D. The sense of contrast between his public appearance and that old hidden life was stark.

Solzhenitsyn is one of the heroes in Solomon Volkov's new book, The Magical Chorus. The "chorus" is made up of dozens of writers, musicians, artists, dancers, and theater and film directors, each an important touchstone in Russian culture.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. "A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn" does not quite cue the reader to expect what Volkov immediately clarifies in the introduction: He wants to outline the struggle between "culture and politics" in 20th-century Russia, and the effect of this struggle on individual artists.

He claims that his book is "the first of its kind in any language" – and certainly as a summary of the fate (often death in obscurity) of the long list of artists he includes, the book is an important contribution. Volkov is ideally suited for the task, having written other important books on Russian cultural figures such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, and George Balanchine.

One of Volkov's recurring themes is the way that writers continually posed themselves as moral alternatives to government leaders. Volkov sketches out Leo Tolstoy's conflicts with the Czarist government. He relates how Maxim Gorky, a protégé of Tolstoy, tried to influence Stalin's campaign to create the "Socialist Realist" model of literature and how Gorky intervened to save the lives or careers of numerous less-favored writers.

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