The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn
by Solomon Volkov
Reviewed by Stefan Sullivan
Washington Post Book World
In 1994, when naked cellists and what-not graced the stages of Moscow night clubs, the last thing Russians wanted was adult supervision, least of all the hectoring pieties of a bearded old crank by the name of Solzhenitsyn. With much fanfare, the famous dissident writer and author of the monumental Gulag Archipelago returned to his homeland only to find his televised sermons falling on deaf ears. Few Russians wanted to hear about abuses in Chechnya, government corruption or repentance and salvation. What they really wanted was better telenovellas and more Ace of Base.
In recounting this episode, Solomon Volkov, in The Magical Chorus, doesn't overstate the tragedy of a culture dumbed down. After years in which their only choice was between melancholic samizdat and the plodding fairy tales of socialist realism, the Russian people can be forgiven their new taste for entertainment over enlightenment, massage over message. Western readers might equally be forgiven for considering Volkov's account of long-forgotten poets, choreographers and theater producers -- including their drinking habits, love affairs and clashes with Soviet authorities -- to be encyclopedic overkill. Famous names (Blok, Brodsky, Bulgakov, Shostakovich, Stanislavsky) also parade through this book but often in disconnected, thumbnail sketches.
Still, as a sweeping eulogy to one of the gilded eras of Western culture -- Russia from the late 19th- to the mid-20th century -- The Magical Chorus rewards readers with a gold mine of insider anecdotes and a story of sorts. Despite the subtitle, that story really begins not with the death of Tolstoy but with the Bolshevik seduction of early 20th-century modernist icons: Mayakovsky, Blok and Gorky in literature, Malevich and Rodchenko in art. These radical outsiders responded to the decorous realism of the czarist era with a "burn baby burn" mentality, a militant aesthetic of renewal that, at least early on, conveniently served the Bolshevik agenda. "Blow up, destroy, and wipe the old artistic forms from the face of the earth," thundered the art critic Nikolai Punin. "How could the new artist, the proletarian artist, the new man not dream of this?"
For a brief period, the avant-garde became the state-sanctioned establishment. Traditionalists were marginalized. Urban writers like Maxim Gorky were allowed to rail against "the zoological individualism of the peasantry." The Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich (whose iconic "Black Square" is a painting of...a black square) assumed official curatorial duties, something akin to handing Andy Warhol the keys to the National Gallery.
We know how badly this ended: Lenin and then Stalin, already pedestrian in their artistic tastes, orchestrated a subtle yet brutal repression of cultural heroes. The legendary painters Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall went into exile. Others suffered slow death in prison or labor camps. Vladimir Mayakovsky, the charismatic poet of the Revolution, shot himself in 1930, writing in his cryptic suicide note that "love's boat has crashed against the everyday" -- a fitting epitaph for a revolution gone awry.
For the most part, Volkov deftly traces this tragic arc from euphoria to disillusionment. Unfortunately, the already dense narrative is marred by gratuitous name-dropping, arcane literary gossip and almost comically clunky entanglements:
"Brodsky, on the contrary and perhaps to spite Akhmatova, always considered Nadezhda Mandelstam's prose (which in its stylistic sharpness is comparable with other masterpieces of twentieth-century Russian nonfiction -- Benois's memoirs, Andrei Bely's autobiographical trilogy, and Vladimir Nabokov's Other Shores, in its English version called Speak, Memory) on par with the works of Andrei Platonov, whom he admired greatly."
Aside from such syntactical gems and whopper clichés (an arts patron shoots himself: "It all ended literally with a bang"), Volkov can also be maddeningly noncommittal as a guide through these historical thickets, rarely hazarding an opinion of his own. Nevertheless, he sheds light on one of the more vexing questions of 20th-century culture: How could such beautiful minds support such an ugly regime? Volkov doesn't minimize their repugnant sugarcoating of collectivization and the Great Terror, but he does go some way toward explaining how leading Soviet artists, particularly in the darkest days of Nazi barbarism, could rally around a patriotic mythos. As he rightly points out, in the difficult war years "the concert hall substituted for the church," and Dmitri Shostakovich was its chief liturgist, regularly bringing Soviet audiences to tears.
Though the post-Stalin years featured Tarzan movies from abroad and laxer censorship all around, they did not lead to outright rebellion against state patronage. The perks, public commissions and celebrity were simply too tempting for many cultural figures to pass up. Take the artist Ernst Neizvestny. Khrushchev once described his work as what one would see looking up from inside a toilet. This certainly gave the artist street cred among the hipsters -- except for one minor point. Some years later Neizvestny designed the headstone for Khrushchev's grave. Such compromises abound in Volkov's narrative, peopled with artists and writers who could be both darlings of the West and also servants of the state, feeding the Muse and paying the rent (or securing that coveted dacha).
Given the cultural dynamics of Vladimir Putin's Russia -- a mix of healthy eccentricity and depressing political apathy -- it's perhaps fitting that The Magical Chorus gives short shrift to the post-perestroika years. Art for edification's sake has been driven from the marketplace. All that remains is an unflattering autocratic strain. The culturati who would, could or should challenge it are cowed and corralled. To drive his narrative into the 21st century, Volkov need only have mentioned that intellectuals are now remarkably free in Russia as long as they can afford a Moscow apartment and steer clear of politics.
Stefan Sullivan is the author of two novels on Siberia and Marx for a Post-Communist Era: On Poverty, Corruption and Banality.