Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Magical Chorus


How easy it is to view Russian-Soviet culture and politics as a zero-sum game and how the Magical Chorus lost, as Keith Gessen suggests in his review,

Reading Volkov’s chatty, well-informed and in many ways enlightened book, you wonder whether he even suspects just how badly, how devastatingly, how possibly lastingly, he and his friends have lost. 

Gessen couches his review of the 2008 book by Solomon Volkov in the election engineering that was going on in Moscow the same year, and what he describes as Volkov's loathing for Orlando Figes.  The only problem is that it is pretty hard to read any of this in the book itself, as Volkov takes the reader on a magic carpet ride over the cultural history of Russia and the Soviet Union the past 100 years.  Volkov takes the title from a term Anna Akhmatova used to describe the young poets of the late 50s and early 60s, which included Joseph Brodsky.

Unlike Figes, Volkov is a native son, albeit a self-exiled one, who shared an intimacy with many of the persons he describes in the later half of the book.  He was especially good friends with Joseph Brodsky and wrote a book on his Conversations with Brodsky.  Whereas Figes views Russia almost exclusively from the lens of a cultural historian in Natasha's Dance, which many Russian critics noted was chock full of errors, Volkov takes a more intimate approach to his subject matter, drawing on letters and personal exchanges, that bring the character of these literary and artistic giants to the forefront.


The book opens with a wonderful chapter on the relationship between Gorky and Chekhov and their fight for control of the Moscow Art Theater, played out largely through their wives, the two leading actresses at the time.  Gorky had a big hit with The Lower Depths, and while Stanislavsky, the theater director, favored Chekhov, the financiers favored Gorky, who appealed more directly to the audience with his simple stories.  There was even a danger of the Moscow Art Theater losing its financing all together when Gorky and his wife decided to take their show to Petersburg.  You think that Russia was big enough to handle two rival theaters, but apparently not according to Volkov.

Through the densely filled pages of his account, Volkov shows how art, theater and literature were inextricably tied together in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia and the impact this had on the country was profound.  He goes onto show how the early Soviet leaders recognized the didactic purpose of the theater, and eventually cinema, and used it effectively to inculcate socialist realism.  The most famous union was that between Gorky and Stalin.


But, Volkov also explores famous emigrees like Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes became the staple of Parisian theater, introducing to the world great talents like Nijinski and Stravinsky.  Volkov amusingly notes that Diaghilev was more interested in opera than he was ballet, but the one-act ballets were easier to produce and easier to follow by the audience, although Stravinsky's Rite of Spring led to a full scale riot in 1913.

The book is a great read, and goes far beyond the polemics during the times he describes.  Gessen seems blithely unaware that even Putin has a strong interest in the theater, and that he has been satired as well.  Not that it really matters since Russian theater, music and ballet has long transcended its native land and has become the staple of theaters worldwide.

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