The Magical Chorus

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The Ukranian poet Anna Akhmatova once described the group of young poets living and working in Leningrad after World War II as a “magical chorus.” Solomon Volkov borrows the phrase for the title of his book on twentieth century Russian cultural history, a work in which the dissident Akhmatova figures prominently. Using material from official records, personal memoirs, scholarly publications, newspaper accounts, and interviews with many of the people whose stories he relates, Volkov creates a lively and at times poignant narrative of struggle in which alienated artists are constantly pitted against superior forces bound to make them conform or be silent. In Volkov’s estimation, the writers, performers, and visual artists living in Russiawhich for most of the century was the centerpiece of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Unionwere somehow endowed with a kind of magic, allowing them to raise their voices against various forms of oppression that affected not only the arts community but also the population as a whole. Hence The Magical Chorus is cultural history, but with a decidedly political slant.

When Volkov speaks of “culture,” he means “high culture” in the sense it has been defined in the West by writers such as the nineteenth century British critic Matthew Arnold and the twentieth century American scholars Lionel Trilling, Allan Bloom, and E. D. Hirsch. Although Volkov pays some attention to the genre in which individuals worked and at times comments on individual works or performances, he is interested principally in the relationship between individual artists and the stateor, more appropriately, the various dictators in charge of Russia’s government. Whether writing about Nicholas II, the last czar to rule before Vladimir Lenin and his supporters ousted the monarchy and set up their Communist utopia, or about the men who succeeded Lenin as head of stateJoseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mikhail Gorbachev the most prominent among themVolkov stresses the important role these leaders had in shaping the direction of the arts in Russia and determining the fate of individual artists.

Like their counterparts in other countries, Russian artists began the twentieth century struggling to define the nature of art. There were clashes within the various communities of writers and performers as proponents of modernism, expressionism, and abstract art challenged supporters of traditional realism, itself a tradition less than three centuries old in fiction and even newer in the visual arts. In addition to battles over aesthetics, however, Russian artists seem always to find themselves engaged in conflict with the various forms of authority. In the early years of the century Leo Tolstoy, one of the world’s most distinguished novelists and a figure revered throughout his homeland, was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for his heretical views on religion. Unfazed, Tolstoy went on trying to tell anyone who would listen what Russia (and all humankind, for that matter) must do to achieve personal and social salvation. Nicholas II ignored Tolstoy’s advice on government, but the czar took some interest in art being produced in the country. The czar seemed to favor realistic art that celebrated traditional (that is, monarchist) values, and he was averse to allowing subordinates to make life difficult for those who were experimenting with new forms of expression.

Despite the crackdown by Nicholas’s forces, avant-garde writers, dramatists, musicians, and painters seemed to be gaining the upper hand by the time Lenin’s Red Army defeated the czar’s supporters. For a brief period, these artists held a privileged place in society, seen by Communist leaders as harbingers of a new style that was replacing the moribund practices of traditionalists, whose ties to the old regime were apparent in many ways. Eventually, however, these men and women came under suspicion for what Lenin and his followers described as subversive and decadent practices; it was not wise, leaders thought, to let people interpret art or...

(The entire section is 1670 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

America 198, no. 4 (April 28, 2008): 40-42.

Booklist 104, no. 14 (March 15, 2008): 23.

The Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2008, p. 17.

Commentary 125, no. 5 (May, 2008): 50-52.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 2 (January 15, 2008): 84-85.

The New Leader 91, no. 2 (March/April, 2008): 21-22.

The New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, p. 18.

Russian Life 51, no. 3 (May/June, 2008): 62.