Communism's Culture Wars

By Robinson, Harlow | The New Leader (Online), March/April 2008 | Go to article overview

Communism's Culture Wars


Robinson, Harlow, The New Leader (Online)


THE 20TH CENTURY was action-packed and frequently hair-raising for Russian artists and intellectuals. Drawing on an impressive variety of sources, Solomon Volkov takes us on a wideranging, gossip-spiked stroll through the thickets of Russia's fierce culture wars in The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn (Knopf, 333 pp., $30.00). The author of six previous books on such Russian artistic icons as composer Dmitri Shostakovich, poets Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky, and choreographer George Balanchine, Volkov here adopts the role of wellinformed tour guide, stopping at each significant site along the way to deliver a neat, brief and accessible commentary.

Volkov 's forte is his ability to create minibiographies that provide a strong sense of personality, complete with drinking and sexual habits. If his chronologically organized volume occasionally resembles a catalogue raisonné of Russian cultural celebrities without a clear central thesis, he can be mostly forgiven. For the literary/journalistic survey he has assembled contains so many insights, dramatic confrontations and insider reports that it rarely bores. Since Volkov spent half his life as a music student and critic in the USSR before moving to the epicenter of the Russian artistic diaspora in New York, The Magical Chorus also illustrates the often unexpected consequences ofmerging émigré and "mainland" culture following the collapse of Communism in 1991.

As in the case of his Shostakovich and Stalin (2004), Volkov is fascinated by the highly charged and dangerously close relationship between artists and the state under the Soviet regime. Despite Lenin's enormous intellect and erudition, he found the Futurist art of the revolutionary era puzzling and deferred most cultural questions to Anatoly Lunacharsky, his genial and persuasive commissar of education. Lenin called Tolstoy, who died in 1910, "the mirror of the Russian Revolution," but not long before his crippling stroke in 1923 he expelled 160 of the country's most talented philosophers, calling them "active bourgeois ideologues." Stalin, by contrast, was a much more discriminating cultural consumer than has widely been perceived.

A prodigious reader (allegedly 400 pages a day), Stalin considered himself a connoisseur of the arts and enjoyed exerting his influence in this arena. He cultivated something approaching friendship with the writers Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov, yet had "at least 600 published authors" arrested during the Great Terror - "almost a third of the members of the Union of Soviet Writers." The "corrosive atmosphere of omnipresent fear, suspicion, uncertainty, and epidemic levels of informing and self- censorship" introduced by the purges, Volkov observes, "fatally poisoned the moral climate." Some years later, artist Ilya Kabakov reflected: "Fear as a state of mind persisted in every second of our life, in every action, and like coffee and milk . . . there was not a word or deed that was not diluted by a certain dose of fear."

Stalin was obsessed with prizes and awards, viewing them as tools for rewarding and punishing prominent cultural figures. The Stalin Prize was instituted in 1939, on the dictator's 60th birthday, and carried a large cash award plus enormous prestige. Of particular interest is Volkov's extensive discussion of the behind-the-scenes scheming by Stalin and his asso- ciates over the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature. When it was given to the émigré Russian writer Ivan Bunin in 1 93 3 - rather than to Stalin's candidate, Gorky - Stalin denounced it as "an unforgivable cultural humiliation for the entire country."

This humiliation deepened in 1958, Boris Pasternak received the Nobel Prize just two years after the publication in the Westof Doctor Zhivago, which was banned in Russia until 1988. Subjected to scurrilous attacks in the official Soviet press, Pasternak did not attend the awards cere- mony in Stockholm. …

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