The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn

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9781400042722: The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn
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From the reign of Tsar Nicholas II to the brutal cult of Stalin to the ebullient, uncertain days of perestroika, nowhere has the inextricable relationship between politics and culture been more starkly illustrated than in twentieth-century Russia. In the first book to fully examine the intricate and often deadly interconnection between Russian rulers and Russian artists, cultural historian Solomon Volkov (who experienced firsthand many of the events he describes) brings to life the human stories behind some of the greatest masterpieces of our time.

Here is Tolstoy, who used his godlike place among the Russian people to rail against the autocracy, even as he eschewed violence; Gorky, the first native writer to openly welcome the revolution and who would go on to become Stalin’s closest cultural advisor; Solzhenitsyn, who famously brought the horrors of the Soviet regime to light. Here. too, are Nabokov, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova. In each case, Volkov analyzes the alternate determination and despair, hope and terror borne by writers in a country where, in Solzhenitsyn’s maxim, “a great writer is like a second government.”

This is also the story of the nation’s leading lights in painting, music, dance, theater, and cinema—Kandinsky and Malevich, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nijinsky, Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, and Eisenstein and Tarkovsky—and the ways in which their triumphs influenced, and were influenced by, the leadership of the time.

With an insider’s insight, Volkov describes what it was like to work under constant threat of arrest, exile, or execution. He reminds us of the many artists who were compelled to live as émigrés, and explores not only their complicated relationships with their adopted countries but Russia’s love-hate relationship with Western culture as a whole—a relationship that has grown increasingly charged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Epic in scope and intimate in detail, The Magical Chorus is the definitive account of a remarkable era in Russia’s complex cultural life.

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About the Author:

Solomon Volkov is the award-winning author of several notable books about Russian culture, including St. Petersburg: A Cultural History and Shostakovich and Stalin, published worldwide. After moving to the United States from the Soviet Union, he became a cultural commentator for Voice of America and later for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, broadcasting to the USSR (and later, Russia), where he discussed contemporary artistic developments in his former homeland. He lives in New York City with his wife, Marianna.

The prizewinning translator Antonina W. Bouis is known for her work with contemporary Russian literature.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part One: THE GATHERING STORM
On November 8, 1910, people all over Russia snatched up the latest editions of newspapers reporting the death of Count Leo Tolstoy on the previous day, at 6:05 a.m. at Astapovo Station. The photographs showed perhaps the most famous writer in the world at that time: an austere, gray-bearded man of eighty-two, with high-set, very large ears and shaggy brows drawn over his piercing (some said “vulpine”) eyes.

Another world-celebrated writer, though a lesser light, Maxim Gorky, was living in exile on the Italian island of Capri and wrote when he learned of Tolstoy’s death: “This struck the heart, and I howled with hurt and longing.”1 In a letter to a friend, Gorky exclaimed in a typically fanciful manner, “A great soul has departed, a soul that had embraced all of Russia, everything that was Russian—about whom save Tolstoy can that be said?”2 The cosmopolitan modernist poet Valery Briusov stressed the writer’s universality in his memorial essay: “Tolstoy was for the entire world. His words went to Englishmen, and Frenchmen, and the Japa-nese, and the Buryats.”3 From Paris, the political émigré Bolshevik Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), doggedly—as only he could—insisted that Tolstoy’s “global significance as an artist and his worldwide fame as a thinker and preacher, both reflect in their own way the widespread significance of the Russian revolution.”4

As it happens, all three were probably right. We tend to think of Tolstoy as a cultural phenomenon of the nineteenth century, the author of War and Peace (1863–77, perhaps the greatest novel in the history of the genre) and such masterpieces as Anna Karenina (1873– 77) and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886). Yet this giant dominated both the cultural and the political life of the early twentieth century also. Briusov wasn’t exaggerating: Tolstoy combined the fame of Voltaire, the popularity of Rousseau, and the authority of Goethe; he was compared routinely to biblical prophets. In his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, two hundred kilometers south of Moscow, Tolstoy received devotees from all over the world, who flocked to hear his antigovernment and antibourgeois sermons. Gorky, in his memoirs of Tolstoy (a tour de force of twentieth-century Russian nonfiction), confessed that when he looked at him, he thought, not without envy: “That man is godlike!”

However, Tolstoy was made up of contradictions, containing “multitudes,” to use Walt Whitman’s phrase. He was simultaneously a born archaist and a natural innovator—in his life, in his writing, and in his passionate religious and political beliefs, which sometimes verged on total anarchism. Gorky noted, somewhat caustically (and in seeming contradiction to his worship of Tolstoy): “Psychologically it would be quite natural for great artists to be larger than life in their sins, as well.”5

Tolstoy’s works, while belonging to the apex of nineteenth-century realism, boldly went beyond its framework: another contradiction. Tolstoy rejected and mocked the modernists, but they made good use of his artistic breakthroughs. It’s a surprisingly short distance from Tolstoy’s “interior monologue” to James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Viktor Shklovsky, the bad boy of Russian formalism, early on placed Leo Tolstoy among the avant-garde: “Tolstoy in his works, which were constructed as formally as music, used such devices as defamiliarization (calling a thing not by its usual name)” and cited his description of the institution of property through the perceptions of a horse.6 This “alienation technique” (Verfremdungseffekt) was later used and abused by Bertolt Brecht and other European avant-garde writers.

The publication in 1911–1912 of three shabby gray volumes came as a revelation for the Russian public: The Posthumous Fiction of L. N. Tolstoy included the short story “Father Sergius”; the play The Living Corpse, in which, according to Shklovsky, Tolstoy “captured the living speech of trailing sentences”; and the prophetic novella about the endless Russo-Chechen war, Khadji Murat, on which he had worked until 1906. A half century later, Shklovsky, no longer holding the radical views of his youth but still habitually spouting paradoxes, maintained that in Khadji Murat Tolstoy had been a forerunner of socialist realism (“documentary subject seen through a romantic prism”). “It is Tolstoy who is the father of socialist realism, not Gorky, as they teach you,” Shklovsky told me, still cocky at eighty-two.7

Since Tolstoy the writer was cast by critics as the patron saint of everything from realism to socialist realism, it comes as no surprise that politically he was variously labeled as well. Contemporaries tried to pin him down as a repentant aristocrat, or the voice of the patriarchal Russian peasantry, or a Christian anarchist, and even as a diehard revolutionary. It was all true to a point: Tolstoy preached an extreme simplicity of life and took a hard libertarian stance toward government, which he considered immoral and illegal, yet he also rejected all forms of violence. In his famous 1909 article “I Cannot Be Silent,” he protested capital punishment in Russia and did not recognize the authority of organized religion. This inevitably led the rebel count into conflict with the autocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many believed that a confrontation with Tolstoy gravely weakened both institutions.
Even in April 1896, just before the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the all-powerful High Procurator of the Holy Synod, in charge of the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, denounced Tolstoy (in approximately the same indignant language that three-quarters of a century later was heaped on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by the Soviet Politburo): “He spreads the terrible contagion of anarchy and disbelief throughout Russia. . . . It is obvious that he is the enemy of the Church, the enemy of all government and of all civil order. There is a proposal at the Synod to excommunicate him from the Church, in order to avoid any doubts and misunderstanding in the people, who see and hear that the intelligentsia admires Tolstoy.”8

So, the Holy Synod excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901; a year later he wrote to Nicholas II (calling the tsar “beloved brother”), putting forth his provocative views on the regime and the church: “Autocracy is an obsolete form of rule. . . . And therefore this form of rule and the Orthodoxy connected to it can be supported, as it is today, only through violence: excessive security measures, administrative exiles, executions, religious persecutions, the banning of books and newspapers, warped education, and all sorts of evil and cruel acts.”9

Did Tolstoy actually expect his bold address to so influence the tsar that he would “understand the evil he does”? Nicholas II simply ignored him, and the writer decided the tsar was “a pathetic, weak, and stupid” ruler. Tolstoy wanted to teach, not to advise modestly and respectfully, as ritual demanded. Nicholas II (whose advisor then was Pobedonostsev and after 1907, Grigory Rasputin) had no intention of playing pupil. Thus a dialogue did not ensue. Accordingly, Tolstoy’s model for the twentieth-century discourse between monarch and great writer, between regime and cultural hero, never took hold. It was this model that later Gorky and Solzhenitsyn—each in his own way—also tried to establish. Solzheni-tsyn would depict Nicholas II with sympathy and understanding in his novel August 1914: did he perhaps imagine himself as the last tsar’s ideal interlocutor and advisor?

The shrewd Alexei Suvorin, the influential publisher of the pro- monarchist newspaper Novoye Vremya [New Times], wrote in his diary on May 29, 1901: “We have two tsars: Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy. Which is stronger? Nicholas II can’t do anything with Tolstoy, he can’t shake his throne, while Tolstoy is undoubtedly shaking the throne of Nicholas and his dynasty. Tolstoy is excommunicated by the Synod’s decision. Tolstoy replies, the reply is disseminated widely in manuscript form and in the foreign press. Just let anyone try to hurt Tolstoy. The whole world will raise a hue and cry, and our administration will turn tail and run.”10

Suvorin accurately described the situation, which was unprecedented for Russian society. In Tolstoy, Russia’s educated classes had a leader who wanted to dictate his solutions to the tsarist government on key social and political issues: war and peace (literally), the distribution of land, and also administrative and judicial reform. “The strength of his position,” wrote Boris Eikhenbaum, the leading Tolstoy scholar, “was that even though he opposed his era, he was still a part of it.”11

It was that tremendous strength that led Lenin to his famous description of Tolstoy in 1908 as “the mirror of the Russian revolution.” For Lenin, Tolstoy was revolutionary because of his “ruthless criticism of capitalist exploitation, his exposé of government coercion and the comedy of the courts and government administration, his baring of the yawning contradictions between the growth of wealth and the growth of poverty.”12

Yet for Tolstoy, earthly power and influence were not enough. Even as a twenty-seven-year-old, Tolstoy came up with a new religion (he noted it in his diary), and he spent his life shaping it, step by step building his image of demigod. In his scheme of things, Christ and Buddha were mere teachers of human wisdom, alongside whom the writer’s “godlike” (in Gorky’s phrase) figure could naturally take its place.

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