Artists under the Soviet thumb

An insider’s view of culture and politics in 20th-century Russia.

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

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. 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.

Volkov describes Solzhenitsyn and his confrontations with Khrushchev and Communist leaders during the Brezhnev period, and later notes how the writer’s dramatic role failed to “take” with Boris Yeltsin.

The book’s chief weakness is its ambition to include absolutely every important Russian cultural figure whom Volkov thinks Westerners should know about. Many writers are allotted anywhere from two or three paragraphs to two or three pages without a vivid evocation of their life and work, which will probably leave many readers wanting much more information.

Reading the book reminded me, at points, of a time when I watched the film “Russian Ark” with a friend who had never studied Russian culture – I could identify all the names, neuroses, and historical debates, while my friend felt left out.

However, a word of advice to readers who may feel excluded at the beginning of this book: persevere. Volkov offers a unique perspective from his position as an eyewitness: He had close friendships with many of the people he describes and his work is filled with an insider’s insights.

Over the course of the book, Volkov shares the gossip about the fight to get the Nobel Prize for the “correct” Soviet writers – and the consternation when the prize went to the “wrong” writer, such as Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, or Solzhenitsyn. He describes going to parties in the 1970s thrown by his peers who were also children of government officials – and discovering forbidden books on their parents’ shelves.

The moral authority commanded by Russian artists in the face of a totalitarian regime has inspired people around the world. Yet, as Anatolii Pristavkin warned in 1994, this should not make us conclude that “it is best to do your creative work in prison.”

Volkov occasionally fails to go as deep as a reader would wish. By taking Solzhenitsyn as the measure of Russian artists, he avoids a deeper analysis of the model of the artist as moral compass. When he wonders why there was no flowering of culture after the Communist era ended, his nearest answer is that Russian culture fragmented into competing pieces (just as in the West), losing its moral authority.

Perhaps another writer will build on Volkov’s work, probing even more deeply into the social and political dynamics of today’s Russia.

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