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14 November 2018

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The Magical Chorus

by Solomon Volkov

In Russia, it has been said, “a poet is much more than a poet” (Pushkin), and “a great writer is like a second government” (Solzhenitsyn). Indeed, in few countries is culture so intertwined with politics. Particularly during the last century, when art (be it film, literature, music or painting) was unceremoniously dragooned into the service of the State.

How Russian politics and culture battled during the 20th century is the subject of Solomon Volkov’s fine new book, a volume that is part memoir, part history, part rumination on the Russian worldview. Sprinkled liberally with first-hand accounts (many of the author himself), it brings to light fascinating episodes, from the various Nobel Prize scandals, to the real roots of the Thaw (American films, perhaps?), to bards like Vysotsky and Okudzhava, made popular by official scorn.

Through it, there is a sense of continuity, of politicians hopelessly trying to reign in culture, to dictate what shall be proper and sanctioned, of artists giving a nod to the Powers That Be, then quietly writing “for the drawer” or singing subversive songs for friends.

In one episode, Volkov tells of the buses full of riot police, hunkered down outside the Taganka Theater during Vysotsky’s wake there in 1980. It brought to mind more recent deployments of excessive OMON legions against a miserly collection of liberals and oppositionists. In Russia, after all, a demonstrator is much more than a demonstrator.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2008