The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov

There’s nothing like having well-trained children…. Mothering Sunday in the UK fell at the beginning of March this year, and my clever offspring – knowing that I’m not really in line for smellies or chocolates – turned to my online wishlist and presented me with these three lovelies:

m day 2016

Aren’t they lovely??

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Well done offspring! The hardest thing was choosing which to read first, but I settled for the Volkov volume, courtesy of Middle Child – and it turned out to be a good one.

magical chorus

Here in the West it’s very rare for the arts to have a strong political impact, except on the odd occasion – the 1960s counterculture, 1970s punk or even the furore surrounding the publication of Timur Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back” are perhaps examples, but these are intermittent blips, not a regular thing. However, in Russia the landscape has always been very different – from the time of Gogol and Dostoevsky onwards, any kind of cultural participation has been an intrinsically political act, and continues to be so up till today.

Solomon Volkov’s book, published in 2008, takes this fact and explores how the cultural and political world of Russia during the 20th century were intertwined – and it makes fascinating reading! Opening with the death of Tolstoy, a towering force in the Russian world, Volkov goes on to explore artistic life in the last days of the empire of the Romanovs. The arts (and when I use the term art in this review, I mean all the disciplines) are entwined with its downfall, involved with supporting the Revolution and the eventual Bolshevik seizure of power. As the Soviet regime takes hold, the struggles of writers to retain their integrity along with their lives are revealed in sharp relief. The effects of the second world war and Stalin’s death are examined; followed by a slight thaw and then a tightening of controls again. Dissident literature circulates in Samizdat format; Russian writers are offered the Nobel prize; Solzhenitsyn goes into exile and blasts the Soviet leaders in prose; and finally the Soviet regime collapses.

The book ends with the death of Solzhenitsyn and on a note of uncertainty. With the rapid Westernisation taking place in Russia, it isn’t clear whether the traditional connection between the country and its arts will survive. Despite the constant emergence of strong writers, Volkov sees his country at a crossroads and which path it will take is unclear.

I’ve read a lot of books about Russian history and culture over the year, but this one really was a stand-out. For a start, Volkov knew many of the artists featured in the book, having met and interviewed them over the years; so he’s able to bring personal insights into their work and their cultural standing. The book is wide-ranging enough to take in émigré writers likes Gazdanov and Adlanov as well as Soviet heavy-weights like Gorky and Shostakovich – basically, if you can think of a Russian cultural figure, they’re probably featured in the book.

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What Volkov is particularly good at is context; instead of seeing the events and artists in isolation, we see them in situ; what has made them the way they are, the political events taking place and how they affect them, and the influences they have on future artists. TMC really reinforced for me how unusual a country Russia is, as I can’t think of any other place where the arts are so important and have an effect on the whole life of the nation. But it’s perhaps the globalisation of the world which has affected this more than anything else; there are no cultural borders, and Russians are now subject to so many Western influences that it seems to have diluted what made them so influential (and the same could probably be said about many nations nowadays).

Volkov himself has sometimes been a controversial figure, most notable for his publication of “Testimony”, the apparent memoirs of Shostakovich. As far as I’m aware that controversy still rumbles on; but his work here is excellent. Readable and lucid, he throws much new light on the arts of the 20th century in Russia, and if nothing else TMC made me want to go and haul a load of as yet unread Russian books off the shelves. Let’s hope the other Mothers Day books turn out to be so good!

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