Wide-ranging study of the arts in Russia during the Communist era, bracketed by a decade of relative freedom on either end.
Expat radio journalist Volkov (Shostakovich and Stalin, 2004, etc.) opens his fluent, swiftly moving narrative with Leo Tolstoy, who, though strongly identified with the preceding century, “dominated both the cultural and the political life of the early twentieth century also.” Tolstoy was an especially strong influence on Maxim Gorky, valued by Lenin as a writer and propagandist and enshrined as the author of canonical retorts to anticommunist dissidents, but murdered—allegedly—by Stalin’s agents all the same. One of the greatest surprises here, for readers reared on Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the Gulag, is that Stalin could be clement and merciful, even argued with: Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokov, for instance, replied to a withering query from the Boss about his vodka consumption with the remark, “A life like this, Comrade Stalin, will drive you to drink.” Volkov defends Sholokov against the charges that his novel The Quiet Don was plagiarized, noting that Sholokov threatened to denounce the Soviet regime if his writing was in any way hindered: “You have to be certain of your own genius to write like this to Stalin; it’s unlikely that an ordinary plagiarist would be so bold,” writes Volkov. Others, such as the eccentric writer Andrei Platonov and the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, did not fare so well, and Stalin kept Russia’s prisons and graveyards well stocked with intellectuals. Post-Stalin cultural figures, such as the poet Joseph Brodsky and pop singer Vladimir Vysotsky, had no end of trouble with the regime but at least were not killed. The KGB, Volkov notes, even decided to permit rock concerts in the 1970s, reasoning that otherwise the youth movement would be driven underground and keep on growing all the same.
Volkov is a stern critic and a smart observer of the Russian scene, and this book, a fine complement to Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (2002), is essential for anyone following modern political and cultural events there.