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Book Review: The Magical Chorus – A History Of Russian Culture From Tolstoy To Solzhenitsyn by Solomon Volkov

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For those of us who grew up in the West, it is nearly impossible to fathom how difficult life was in 20th century Russia. We know of the events: WWI, The October Revolution, Stalin’s Purges, WWII, The Iron Curtain, and so on. But can any of us really understand what it was like to live under such conditions?

With The Magical Chorus – A History Of Russian Culture From Tolstoy To Solzhenitsyn, author Solomon Volkov has found a unique way of illuminating these years.

The book opens up with the passing of Leo Tolstoy. The legendary author’s 1910 funeral turned in to what Volkov describes as “a media circus.” The death of the literary lion left a spiritual void in the cultural leadership of the nation. Many would attempt to fill the vacuum over the next eighty years or so, but it would take the return of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from exile in the U.S. to complete the cycle.

Volkov vividly illuminates the schizophrenic nature of the relationship between the Soviet government and the artistic community. It was generally a marriage of convenience, which often turned tragic when the honeymoon ended.

Take Stalin’s brief affiliation with the avant-garde. These writers and artists were quite useful when Uncle Joe needed support from the left to shore up his power. A few years later, most of them had either been executed or were toiling in Siberian labor camps.

For a number of reasons though, Stalin developed a deep bond with writer Maxim Gorky, one which was maintained through the end of Gorky’s life. Another unusual relationship Stalin nurtured was with filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, with whom he pressed into service making propaganda films.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became First Secretary of the Soviet Union. He stepped into a position of de facto dictatorship, which had been held for the previous 30 years by the ruthlessly efficient Joseph Stalin. His insecurities led the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon, yet his biggest battle seemed to be in stopping the importation of banned literature, music, film, and art from exiled artists.

His successors, Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev would continue this ultimately futile effort. Volkov makes an effective argument that the culture is what finally doomed the Soviet Union. As the populace slowly but surely absorbed the images of life in the West, their own circumstances became less and less tolerable, until that fateful day in 1991 when it all came crashing down.

Through the course of The Magical Chorus, Volkov introduces us to countless figures, some well-known, others less so to American and European audiences, but all of whom had a significant impact in the USSR.

The biggest of these was exiled author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His Gulag Archipelago, a first-hand account of the labor camps, is possibly the most momentous Russian book of the past 100 years. It was originally published in 1974 in the United States, and there is no telling how many illegal copies were smuggled into Russia over the years.

In 1989, at the height of perestroika, the book was finally published in the Soviet Union. It was a sensation, selling nearly three million copies that year, with hundreds of thousands more to follow.

Solzhenitsyn was poised to carry the voice of what Tolstoy called “the peasant class” into the 21st century. But in many ways, with the collapse of Communism, the role of the intelligenstia had become a moot point. Mother Russia had joined the global village. With the advent of satellite TV and the internet, the populace were poised to become as narcissistic as the rest of us.

For such a potentially dense subject, The Magical Chorus flows along surprisingly well. It also opens up the world of 20th century Russian culture in a very accessible manner, while presenting a provocative theory for the real reasons Communism eventually failed.

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