cover image The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn

The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn

Solomon Volkov. Alfred A. Knopf, $30 (333pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4272-2

A sweeping history of the arts in Soviet Russia from the revolution to the 1999 ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, the latest from author Volkov (Shostakovich and Stalin) brings together all the players, from emigres such as Nabokov, Bunin and Brodsky, to loyalists like Gorky, Stravinsky and Pasternak, to local legends like Pavel Filonov, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, as well as a wealth of painters, dancers, actors and filmmakers. Growing up in mid-century Russia, Volkov lived much of this history, and brings it to life with an impressive depth of knowledge and an intensely personal voice. An artist's relationship with the official party line could have devastating consequences; some of the conflicts between the government and individual artists (particularly those surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature) were played out on the world stage, but many more were settled with quiet brutality behind the Iron Curtain. Volkov recounts these hidden travesties with indignation and empathy, memorializing well the struggles, contributions and devastating losses. This ambitious work assumes more than a little familiarity with 20th-century Soviet history, making shorthand allusions to people, events and concepts; those without the background, but who are willing to make the effort, will be rewarded with a thorough introduction to the conflicts, artistic and political, that drove Russia in the 20th century.