Independent senior reporter McSmith (No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s, 2010, etc.) explores how arts and artists in Russia somehow managed to flourish despite Joseph Stalin’s iron control.
Stalin decided whose work was acceptable. If it was not, it ended up in the ash heap—unless someone, like Pasternak or Gorky, interceded. The only literary style suitable in those days was social realism that lauded the Russian way of life. There were attempts to modernize, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s addition of jazz to his films, and there were successes—e.g., his Battleship Potemkin (1925). Stalin knew that artistic success reflected on his regime, and he obsessively controlled everything, especially movies but also the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Writers of poetry and plays all lived under his vigilance, as well. The greatest poets of the generation, under the eye of the censors, were never sure what would offend. Throughout his oppressive reign, Stalin had no problem sending artists to their deaths. Though he claimed that writers were the engineers of the human soul, every word written, every play or movie proposed was subject to review before, during, and after completion. McSmith shows how many persisted in the worst conditions and even returned after emigrating, for love of the homeland. Perhaps their strength came from knowing how much Russians loved the arts. Osip Mandelstam said, “there’s no place where more people are killed for it.” An epigram he wrote about Stalin was never written down, only recited twice, but the secret services still found out about it. Paranoia was a way of life. The author has a deep affinity for these artists, and his portrayal of their struggles makes our appreciation of them even stronger.
Lovers of Russian literature and music will find this valuable, and history buffs will get a fearsome picture of life under Stalin.