Art Versus Autocracy

Book cover
The Magical Chorusby By Solomon Volkov, trans. by Antonina W. BouisKnopf. 352p $30

Russia’s cultural history in the 20th century presents both “triumph and tragedy.” For every masterpiece published or exhibited, countless more never saw the light; the state mobilized artists and writers to serve its goals, but kept them on a short leash, ready to break any who dared venture outside the accepted lines. This complex and sometimes fatal interplay between art and politics is the focus of Solomon Volkov’s latest book. Volkov, drawing on a range of sources, including journals, memoirs, letters, newly published archival materials and interviews, presents a tantalizing tapestry of personal profiles, captivating anecdotes and gossipy intrigue, as well as critical commentary about the cultural and political landscape of modern Russia.

Volkov is a journalist, musicologist and cultural historian who, after emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1979, worked for Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. He raised a storm of controversy with his publication of Testimony, which he claimed to be the memoirs of Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich as dictated to him; scholars have disputed its authenticity, particularly its portrayal of him as a closet dissident. The Magical Chorus contains no explicit reference to this dispute, but portrays Shostakovich as typical of many Soviet artists who had to wear multiple masks as they walked a political tightrope in their relations with the state. In order to survive, a person had to be alternately brave and cowering, defiant and submissive, a dissident as well as a loyal follower.


As a cultural history, The Magical Chorus focuses primarily on the artists and their stories, with only limited textual analysis. Volkov frames the narrative around Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, each of whom sought to act as a moral compass and social conscience for state and society. The author considers them to be representative of attempts made throughout the century by artists seeking to influence state policy through a variety of means—personal collaboration, intervention, communication and opposition, often with little success and, particularly under Stalin, at great personal risk. Volkov’s engaging pen also brings to life many other prominent figures, including playwrights, musicians, visual artists, ballet virtuosos, poets, singers, composers and directors. He spotlights their achievements while also exploring their personal relations, their likes and dislikes, love affairs and disappointments. He critiques the legends surrounding such iconic figures as Alexander Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, exposing their human foibles as well as their role in generating myths about themselves.

The chapters divide the century chronologically and cover the waning years of tsarist Russia, revolution and the first decade of Soviet rule, Stalinism, post-Stalinism and the upheavals of reform, collapse and the rebirth of Russia under Yeltsin’s rule. Two compelling features are the author’s incorporation of émigré artists, particularly their relationship with the Soviet state, and his examination of the impact of Western music, fashion and radio broadcasting in the post-Stalinist period. He attributes critical significance to the role played by émigrés, particularly those who worked for the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and the British Broadcasting Corporation. He argues that their broadcasts from the West provided an open, alternative cultural dialogue, while also exposing to the world the Soviet state’s repression of artistic figures.

Volkov presents intriguing portraits of Soviet leaders and their different approaches to culture. He shows how cultural policies were often driven less by aesthetic concerns than by the leader’s own individual tastes and whims. According to Volkov, the early Bolshevik regime did not have a fully formulated cultural policy, but saw art principally as a political tool. Interestingly, of all the leaders, Stalin comes out as the most highly cultured; most were pedantic and rather crude in their tastes, particularly Khrushchev, and had little understanding of the movements they sought to harness for their political goals. Volkov argues for a more nuanced approach to the Stalinist genre known as Socialist Realism, which he believes has been unfairly overlooked as mere propaganda. He sees it as a form of ritualistic art much akin to Orthodox iconography, designed to inspire awe and emotion in its audience. Yet, as Volkov acknowledges, Stalin manipulated culture and human lives as if they were pieces in a chess game, and destroyed some of the greatest creative spirits of the age.

Himself a product of the Soviet cultural establishment, Volkov is completely at ease with the context he is describing. Volkov met personally many of the figures he discusses, and frequently interjects youthful memories or tidbits from interviews or conversations with them. He conveys firsthand what it was like for artists living within a system that held arbitrary power over them, the capacity to shower them one minute with accolades and the next send them to imprisonment, exile or death. It is easy to understand how this could drive them either to a paranoid and compromising servitude or to varying forms of self-destruction. The easiest course was to be mediocre; for the untalented it was not much of a stretch to follow the rules and conform, simply taking the rewards the state was willing to provide.

Antonina Bouis’s fine translation provides a fluid narrative that captures the author’s fast-paced, informal style. But what some find appealing may frustrate others. The author jumps around chronologically and frequently shifts focus without always completing his analysis of an artist or a movement. Volkov’s commentary is highly subjective and covers a broad range of artistic genres, some beyond the range of his own academic training. He uses sources unquestioningly, freely indulging in gossipy tales of artistic jealousy, philandering and petty intrigue. This is not a book for a casual reader or novice student of Russian culture; some names and concepts go unexplained, and prior knowledge of Russian history is useful. The ending disappoints by failing to provide a final analysis of what the experiences of Tolstoy, Gorky and Solzhenitsyn tell us ultimately about the political significance of art and the artist in Russia.

The Magical Chorus leaves the readerhaunted by the senseless waste of lives and talents by a state that too often abused rather than cultivated artistic genius. The author pays tribute in the end to the eternal nature of Russia and its creative spirit, but seems uncertain as to what role culture will play in the new Russia. It remains a country in search of itself and its place in the world, still too willing to subordinate itself to political leaders who view culture only as a means to an end, and not as the essence of life itself.








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