The author of numerous works on Russian cultural history races through the 300-year rule of the Romanovs (1613–1917), examining the rulers’ complicated relationships with creative artists.
Volkov (The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, 2008, etc.) is not so much interested in specific works, but rather the choreography of artists and emperors. Although he occasionally devotes a few paragraphs to a major work (e.g., Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin), the author maintains focus on the personalities and political atmosphere. He begins at the premiere of Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar in 1836; both Pushkin and Turgenev were in the audience awaiting the arrival of Nicholas I. Volkov then moves back to the beginning of the dynasty, to Peter I, whose view of the arts “was utilitarian”—a view shared by a number of his successors. The next major figure is Catherine the Great (the author dispels some of the more bizarre stories about her sexual appetites), who was a writer, a passionate art collector and a patron of the poet Gavrila Derzhavin. Volkov points out a tsarist pattern: Each new one endeavored to ignore the accomplishments of his/her predecessor and to forge a new sort of leadership. Nicholas I, a voracious reader, pulled Pushkin back from exile; other artists danced in and out of favor, as well. The author also tells stories of painters and musicians—sometimes expending pages on sexual speculations (why did the homosexual Tchaikovsky marry?) and with wicked asides about some notables (Tolstoy was “clumsy, ugly, and passive-aggressive”). Volkov often declares the obvious—Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky’s most popular work, and to be fully appreciated, the novel should be read in Russian.
Occasionally cantankerous, but swift, erudite and easy to follow.