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Exiled on Main Street:
Solomon Volkov on the Fate of Russian Art

The Stop Smiling Review

(Alfred A. Knopf)

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008


The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture in the Twentieth Century from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn
By Solomon Volkov, trans. by Antonina W. Bouis
(Alfred A. Knopf)

Reviewed by Mark Grueter

The Magical Chorus, the latest book by Solomon Volkov, a Russian émigré and veteran journalist and historian, offers a fresh and complex history of the interplay between art and politics in 20th century Russia.

Volkov begins by showing how the avant-garde played a critical role in bringing about political revolution. Many Russian artists in the early 20th century were attracted to the idea of a market-free society as extolled by Marxist and Bolshevik ideas. After a visit to America, the poet Sergei Esenin complained of the country’s lack of interest in art: “The supremacy of the dollar has destroyed any striving in them for complicated issues… Art in America is on the lowest level of development.” Russian artists would eventually ally themselves with the Bolsheviks in the hope of creating a viable alternative to the capitalist model.

Ultimately, however, the alliance proved fleeting. Vladimir Lenin revealed his cultural conservatism when he admitted that he did not understand or like most art. Though uncomfortable with the alliance, Lenin decided that providing the cultural intelligentsia with ample resources for their work, in exchange for their political support, would best serve his interests.

Problems arose almost immediately. Lenin wrote to Maxim Gorky that “petty intellectuals” thought they were the brains of the revolution, but were nothing more than “lackeys of capital.” Before Lenin died in 1924, he had 160 artists and philosophers sent into exile.

In 1925, shortly before Joseph Stalin took over as sole leader of the Soviet Union, his soon-to-be rivals Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin drafted the liberal Politburo resolution, “On the party’s policy in the sphere of literature,” which proclaimed Party neutrality on literary forms and free competition among various cultural groups. Volkov is quick to qualify this fact by noting that Trotsky and Bukharin, as hardcore Marxist ideologues, were as ruthless and hypocritical as any Stalinist when they accused artists of political deviation, both before and after passage of this resolution.

Once Stalin took power, he intensified the manipulation of the cultural intelligentsia for his own ends. Stalin’s interest in high culture helped cement a relationship with Gorky, who similarly aspired to “civilize” and “acculturate” the Russian people. Both stressed the importance of tradition in art, of language and form. “An awful lot depends on the form, without it there can be no content,” wrote Stalin. This belief was the basis for Socialist realism in the arts, created in 1934 as the Soviet Union’s official cultural doctrine.

Stalin would then launch an attack on aesthetic formalism (the representation of the disparity between form and content) — or, rather, his understanding of it. The “antiformalist” campaign began with a 1936 Pravda editorial, “Muddle Instead of Music,” a polemic against the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District, offended Stalin. “The listener from the very first minute is stunned by the opera’s intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds,” wrote Pravda in a rebuke that Volkov argues Stalin wrote himself. Shostakovich remained physically untouched, however, partly because Gorky broke with his partner, asking that Stalin disavow the assault. Stalin, Volkov demonstrates, was not a mere autocrat, as often depicted: he listened to others and thought carefully about the effects of short- and long-term strategy. Thereafter, Stalin endorsed Shostakovich’s 1937 Fifth Symphony, as he would his later works.

Another example of what might be described as Stalin’s unexpected lenience toward artists concerned writer Andrei Platonov, whom Stalin thought a “fool,” a “bastard,” a “counterrevolutionary,” whose existential writings amounted to a “heap of oddities.” Stalin nevertheless treated Platonov with mysterious forbearance. Volkov speculates that Stalin knew, perhaps unconsciously, that his hatred for Platonov was rooted in an inability to understand the work of this subtle master, and Stalin, a shrewd operator in the realm of human affairs, couldn’t help but feel respect for how this peculiar artist had put one over on him.

In another case, Stalin secretly patronized the singer Alexander Vertinsky, whose songs were outlawed in the Soviet Union as “decadent” and “high kitsch.” Nevertheless, Vertinsky received the Stalin Prize in 1951, in part for his participation in the anti-American film Conspiracy of the Doomed.

Other artists, like Nikolai Zabolotsky, one of the leaders of the Dadaist group OBERIU (Association of Real Art), were less fortunate. Zabolotsky was sent to Siberia for writing Triumph of Agriculture, a poem seen by authorities as a “lampoon on collectivization.” Pravda wrote: “He presented the greatest struggle in the world as a pointless and mad pastime. He danced… stuck out his tongue, and made scabrous jokes when talking about work led by the Leninist Party.” Politics and culture, Volkov writes, had become “dialectically intertwined.”

In the Thirties, Stalin, who had become paranoid about Western influences on Russian culture, had well-known artists such as Mikhail Koltsov, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Isaac Babel killed. Volkov describes how these murders, aside from the obvious moral outrage involved, effectively poisoned the already tenuous relationship between the Soviets and the intelligentsia.

After the Second World War, during which Russia had united successfully with America against the Axis forces, Stalin’s rule began to relax somewhat. In a fit of goodwill, Stalin allowed certain American movies to be screened. In a completely different way, Stalin had blundered again. The poet Joseph Brodsky argued that these films did more to promote de-Stalinization than “The Personality Cult and its Consequences,” the anti-Stalin speech Nikita Khrushchev delivered years later. “They were presented to us as entertaining stories,” wrote Brodsky, “but we perceived them as a sermon on individualism.” These films included The Roaring Twenties and the Tarzan series, which prompted many Russians to grow long hair.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev took over. A notoriously loose cannon (recall his “We will bury you!” threat to the West), Khrushchev behaved pugnaciously with artists. At a 1962 Moscow exhibit, Khrushchev attacked the Modernist paintings of Pavel Kuznetsov and Robert Falk, labeling them “dog shit.” Khrushchev was so revolted by Ernst Neizvestny’s sculpture of a woman that he called the artist a “fag” to his face, then added, “We give ten years for that.” Undaunted, Neizvetny insisted they bring him a girl so he could set the dictator straight. It is impossible to imagine anyone standing up to Stalin in this fashion. It was only the beginning: artists would continue to assert their power to undermine the regime.

Art and culture under Khrushchev, and later Leonid Brezhnev, throve within the Soviet Union and among the Russian émigré community. Popular in these times were Yuri Lyubimov’s experimental, subversive Taganka Theater, along with the work of the actor-singer Vladimir Vysotsky, whose songs were more popular in Russia than the Beatles and Elvis Presley combined.

Before assessing the impact of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings on Russian culture and society, Volkov describes the author’s struggle against Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, the KGB head (and future General Secretary). In 1973, Solzhenitsyn ran afoul of the Soviets when he sent a letter to certain high-ranking Soviet officials. Later published in both Russia and the West as “Letter to the Soviet Leaders,” this work was the author’s attempt to both influence the regime and put into practice his belief that a writer could function as a “second government” within his society. (Volkov notes that the letters today read like a fascinating prophecy.) In spite of having dismissed Solzhenitsyn’s “Letters” as a “delirium,” Soviet authorities had by 1974 become fed up with his growing popularity. After confiscating his manuscript of Gulag Archipelago — for being a “crude, anti-Soviet lampoon” — the regime exiled the author to America.

The Soviets thought that by removing “internal émigrés” like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, they would suffer the loss of their cachet. Rather, they saw their status on the world stage grow. Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky were broadcast on Western radio, causing Yuri Andropov to remark: “No matter how loudly they shout about them, [they] are nothing but the dregs of society…But since the Western ideologues have nothing better, they have to fuss over these rejects.”

It is, however, important to note that Solzhenitsyn’s relationship with American officials was not exactly a warm and fuzzy one. The writer became angry with American counterpropaganda efforts, such as the Voice of America radio transmissions, for suppressing some of his works and ideas while choosing instead to broadcast “an incredible amount of piffle” into Soviet territory, an activity which he believed would “cause revulsion, nothing but indignation, in the Soviet listener.” There is certainly some truth in this. Past and present anti-American sentiment in Russia is in part based on a rejection of American popular culture.

No discussion of 20th century Russian culture and politics is complete without a mention of the group of thinkers and artists known as the Eurasianists. One of the original, leading Eurasianists was the literary émigré critic D.S. Mirsky. This group believed Russia had a special geopolitical place and destiny that existed independently from Europe. “Prince” Mirsky, along with the music critic Pierre Souvtchinsky and the philosopher Lev Karsavin, published the literary almanac Versty (Mileposts). Volkov writes that contemporary “neo-Eurasianist” thinkers depict the United States as the Great Satan, which is in part a reaction to the cultural backwardness of the Nineties, seen by many in Russia as essentially the result of American interference.

Volkov concludes The Magical Chorus with a relevant, if somber, discourse on the fate of Russian art. As the Soviet Union crumbled, art and culture crumbled with it. The expectation that Russian culture would explode after the fall of Communism fell flat. State sponsorship for art essentially vanished (Boris Yeltsin did not believe in supporting art) while literary journals saw their circulations plummet. Similar to neo-Eurasianists, Volkov argues that the economic and social chaos of the Nineties, combined with the mass influx of Western popular culture, delivered a devastating if not lethal blow to Russian high art and culture. This trend, as we suspect of our own societies, may be impossible to ever reverse.

 

 

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