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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Biblio Curious

    Imagine condensing a 100 years of cultural history into 300 pages of incredibly dense prose with 100's of famous names being dropped into the conversation. It's a flurry of inspiration that's sure to pad your cultural TBR to keep you busy for a few decades. I must give a cheers to Antonina W. Bouis for her translation, this must have been a challenge for her. Because this work was so heavily researched, relied on so many interviews with people who knew other people, the quotations are extensive. Imagine condensing a 100 years of cultural history into 300 pages of incredibly dense prose with 100's of famous names being dropped into the conversation. It's a flurry of inspiration that's sure to pad your cultural TBR to keep you busy for a few decades. I must give a cheers to Antonina W. Bouis for her translation, this must have been a challenge for her. Because this work was so heavily researched, relied on so many interviews with people who knew other people, the quotations are extensive. But as a reading experience, everything still flows where the notes are available but they don't encroach on the reading. I think this is a book you could go into culturally blind. Only knowing that Russians wrote some famous classics, Crime & Punishment is one, they are great at classical music like that Tchaikovsky fellow was cool... oh and they do ballet well. With this level of Russian cultural history, this book could probably pull you into this deep pool of cultural wealth. But chances are, it could just seem like a lot of name-dropping if you have no plans to explore any of the 100's of cultural artifacts mentioned afterwards. What made this such a fast read is basically three things: 1. I'm crazy about Russian literature & am glad to already be familiar with some of the works mentioned. From a literature point of view, to get the most powerful, emotional reading experience from this book, I'd recommend a few books to get you into the groove. I can't say how grateful I am to have read these first. It's only a suggested list, not mandatory by any means. * Some of these giants' works: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, Gorky, Bulgakov * One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn & The House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky * Matryona's House by Solzhenitsyn ... it would be awesome if you're already a diehard fan though. * Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak * And Quiet Flows the Don by Sholokhov * Anything by Vasily Grossman, even the beginnings of his monumental TOMES would work. *Maybe some Nabokov or give Lolita a flip through for the language is sufficient. 2. Knowing a touch of Russian history. I just finished Red Famine by Anne Applebaum & am so glad to be reading this so fresh off that book. When the few pages of Stalin's peasant collectivization came up, it brought me right back to Applebaum's detailed explanations on this subject. Reading a biography of Stalin is certainly on my list, as heartbreaking as that would be. 3. A love of how arts & literature can be life changing. This book constantly emphasizes through examples, how crucial the arts are for social change, that the pen's mightier than the sword & we as humans are amazing at creating art regardless of the barriers. If you have a love of the arts, need examples to make a case for why it's important for society, this book could help rejuvenate that part of your soul. The later sections of this book, Volkov goes into a bit of film & music history. There's some amazing gems to be found in these pages for the more popular art buffs. A few great finds I'm intrigued by the premises of are the films Ivan's Childhood (that Jean Paul Sarte admired) & Andrei Rublev by Director Andrei Tarkovsky, The Russian Ark by Director Alexander Sokurov. I'm so happy for the discovery of the pop singer Vladmir Vysotsky, so far his music is amazing to me. It's basically an encyclopedia of cultural creations, great for exploring off the beaten path. 1st Impressions: Another one to buy and highlight. If you like author bios and their historical context, this would be a great one! I read only the first chapter. It's my next book purchase.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cody

    The title (taken from Anna Akhmatova’s christening of a group of her students) could’ve just as easily been *The Mystical Chorus.* Volkov persuasively shows the requisite religious fervor with which art has been pursued in Russia since Tolstoy--an issue that is reigns relevant, as Putin/Medvedev tighten their grip over current Russian culture and media. For a State that was officially "sans religion," headed by a government that dealt with artists as violently as any persecuted religion (Andropo The title (taken from Anna Akhmatova’s christening of a group of her students) could’ve just as easily been *The Mystical Chorus.* Volkov persuasively shows the requisite religious fervor with which art has been pursued in Russia since Tolstoy--an issue that is reigns relevant, as Putin/Medvedev tighten their grip over current Russian culture and media. For a State that was officially "sans religion," headed by a government that dealt with artists as violently as any persecuted religion (Andropov, the head of the KGB under Brezhnev and, later, General Secretary of the Communist Party in the early 80s, employed the terms “culture” and “ideology” synonymously), pursuing art in Soviet Russia was akin to practicing a forbidden religion or being a political dissident. As Louis Menand points out in his foreword to the NYRB's edition of *To the Finland Station,* history, too, took on a religion-like status in this supposedly (and violently) secular society: "[History:] was an idea indistinguishable from faith, and for many people Marx was its prophet." (p. xiii) As seminal of a role as art plays in my life, it’s hard imagine the extent of the commitment an artist had to make in pursuing their work under the eyes of the KGB and the Soviet State. Volkov does a wonderful job illuminating innumerable artists’ struggles and the significance of their work, often exposing artists that never found their way into deserved recognition in the West. Volkov’s knowledge of Russian culture is immense and personal, which makes for a rich study. He also avoids the trap of stale historiography by following the breadcrumb trail of themes, artists, and genres, rather than sticking to a chronological trajectory. This can feel a bit tangential and be hard to follow at times, but, as a whole, I preferred his style to a more “traditional” history narrative, as it often feels more like listening in on an impassioned conversation, rather than reading a historical text. While essentially a gloss on what seems like every major and secondary artist in Russia since Tolstoy, I’m not sure that this is the place to start for readers that are just beginning their study of twentieth century Russian culture, as I sometimes had a hard time digesting the minutiae all the while keeping the “big picture” in mind, and I have studied a fair bit of Russian history and culture. That said, Volkov’s wit (kudos to Antonina Bouis, the translator, for conveying this), forceful opinions (biographical bits are often almost gossipy at times), and vast knowledge of the subject matter, make *The Magical Chorus* a wonderful read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    "Magical Chorus" is a typical Volkov book--very, very intelligent, very interesting, but challenging to read. Volkov's style (as brought to us by his translator) is deceptively simple, but requires multiple re-reads to follow the narrative and recall all of the players he mentions. In this particular demonstration of his style, Volkov re-tells 20th century Russia by a discussion of its cultural icons. From Tolstoy through "Russian Ark," he shows the interaction between the highest elites of the C "Magical Chorus" is a typical Volkov book--very, very intelligent, very interesting, but challenging to read. Volkov's style (as brought to us by his translator) is deceptively simple, but requires multiple re-reads to follow the narrative and recall all of the players he mentions. In this particular demonstration of his style, Volkov re-tells 20th century Russia by a discussion of its cultural icons. From Tolstoy through "Russian Ark," he shows the interaction between the highest elites of the Communist Party and the highest elites of the Soviet cultural sphere. The key word here, however, is "discussion"--Volkov relies on his own background in this area, his own encounters with these characters, to retell his story, and his style is oftentimes that of an elderly neighbor musing over memories. In addition, Volkov's memory and mastery of detail means he weaves almost *too* easily between politics and culture, dropping names right and left with little set-up of them; he clearly means this book only for those who are already masters of Russian culture. Despite these criticisms, there's no doubt Volkov's work is one to keep on the shelf--it is a much more realistic and informative retelling of the 20th century culture than Figes' "Natasha's Dance."

  4. 5 out of 5

    John Anthony

    Interesting analysis of Russian cultural life c 1890 – 2000 a time of political topsy turvy – Tszardom to perestroika with a revolution thrown in, Soviet Union, glasnost... The book kicks off with the death of Tolstoy in 1910, his influence in life and death. Many less well known figures in Russia's rich cultural and complex make up I was unfamiliar with. I struggled to recall some of their names and roles. I found the effect of regime change on cultural life more than fascinating, Stalin in part Interesting analysis of Russian cultural life c 1890 – 2000 a time of political topsy turvy – Tszardom to perestroika with a revolution thrown in, Soviet Union, glasnost... The book kicks off with the death of Tolstoy in 1910, his influence in life and death. Many less well known figures in Russia's rich cultural and complex make up I was unfamiliar with. I struggled to recall some of their names and roles. I found the effect of regime change on cultural life more than fascinating, Stalin in particular. What a cultural enigma! Some peasant! He towers above predecessors and successors when it comes to cultural influence and knowledge. I could feel the heat and neurosis and the faltering steps over egg shells which artists experienced under Uncle Joe. I'm very keen now to read Volkov's Shostakovich and Stalin. It amazes me that despite all the horrors the Russian people experienced throughout these years the country's cultural life remained strong and vital ( further enriched because of it?) Or is it just the nature of the Russian soul?

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    Surprisingly dull. It didn't seem to have any overall thrust or structure. It was just one anecdote after another--Gorky with Stalin, Akhmatova's persecution, the politicking over the Nobel Prize. I mean, I didn't need convincing about there being a relationship between politics and art in the Soviet Union. I guess I'd hoped for some synthesizing argument. 8/09 Surprisingly dull. It didn't seem to have any overall thrust or structure. It was just one anecdote after another--Gorky with Stalin, Akhmatova's persecution, the politicking over the Nobel Prize. I mean, I didn't need convincing about there being a relationship between politics and art in the Soviet Union. I guess I'd hoped for some synthesizing argument. 8/09

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mehmet Akif Koç

    Solomon Volkov'un Sovyet dönemi devlet-sanat-toplum ilişkilerini ve kültür tarihini incelediği kitap, alanında önemli bir başvuru kaynağı. Özellikle Stalin'in kültür hayatına merakı ve yakın müdahaleleri, ödül-ceza sistemi ve çoğunlukla Sibirya'da veya yurtdışında sürgünde sonlanan kültür adamlarının hayat hikayeleri kaydadeğer. Bilhassa Leo Tolstoy, Gorki, Şolohov, Pasternak, Ahmatova, Soljenitsin'in devrin liderleriyle ve diğer kültür adamlarıyla sıkıntılı ilişkileri ele alınmış... Sovyet tari Solomon Volkov'un Sovyet dönemi devlet-sanat-toplum ilişkilerini ve kültür tarihini incelediği kitap, alanında önemli bir başvuru kaynağı. Özellikle Stalin'in kültür hayatına merakı ve yakın müdahaleleri, ödül-ceza sistemi ve çoğunlukla Sibirya'da veya yurtdışında sürgünde sonlanan kültür adamlarının hayat hikayeleri kaydadeğer. Bilhassa Leo Tolstoy, Gorki, Şolohov, Pasternak, Ahmatova, Soljenitsin'in devrin liderleriyle ve diğer kültür adamlarıyla sıkıntılı ilişkileri ele alınmış... Sovyet tarihinin pek incelenmeyen kültür-sanat hayatı açısından ufuk açıcı bir kitap...

  7. 4 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    Another reviewer says that Volkov's style is 'deceptively simple,' and the book requires multiple re-readings to follow the narrative. That seems to me a very nice way of saying it's a disorganized mass of anecdotes, lacking any guiding thread. On the upside, some of the anecdotes are good. Another reviewer says that Volkov's style is 'deceptively simple,' and the book requires multiple re-readings to follow the narrative. That seems to me a very nice way of saying it's a disorganized mass of anecdotes, lacking any guiding thread. On the upside, some of the anecdotes are good.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Cybermilitia

    Dedikodular dedikodular ve dedikodular. Ama sanata ve 20. yy Rus aydınlarına dair ne varsa bu kitapta var. Adlarını bilmediğim kişileri nette arattım ve özellikle ressamlar arasında hiç bilmediğim onlarca mükemmel insan olduğunu farkettim. Biz işin popüler kısmında takılıyormuşuz. Ve bir de, öyle bir sanat çevresi olan toplum tabi devrim yapar. Sonu pek de iç açıcı olmasa da...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Liviu

    Good but peters out after a great start - maybe its length is just not enough to do the subject justice, maybe the author just scattered himself, but I thought this could have been a great book based on its first third which is superb

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    While I knew I would enjoy the contents of this book, I did not think I would find it to be very readable. After all, it has been lingering on my shelves for close to five years. It outlasted all of my Fitzgeralds, including The Last Tycoon, which I had expected to be the last book I would finish in my mission to read all of the books I own. But The Magical Chorus surprised me by not being dry and dense. It was translated from Russian, so this may have to do with the translator, but I found it t While I knew I would enjoy the contents of this book, I did not think I would find it to be very readable. After all, it has been lingering on my shelves for close to five years. It outlasted all of my Fitzgeralds, including The Last Tycoon, which I had expected to be the last book I would finish in my mission to read all of the books I own. But The Magical Chorus surprised me by not being dry and dense. It was translated from Russian, so this may have to do with the translator, but I found it to be easy to read (although it did take me over a month to finish, but a lot of that had to do with life rather than the book). In The Magical Chorus, Solomon Volkov examines the ties between Russian culture (writers, directors, composers, performers) and the leadership of the Soviet Union. He begins just before the 1917 Russian Revolution, and continues, following a mostly chronological path, to the early 2000s, when Putin came to power. I have always been interested in Russian history, and this book played to that interest without going into an overwhelming amount of detail. If you are at all familiar with global politics of the 20th century, you will not get lost in this book. I do not know much about Russian culture (beyond passing familiarity with Tolstoy and Chekov), and Volkov did a good job of explaining the individuals in this book without relying on the reader to know all of the names. I think that what I liked about the book—its accessibility—would be considered a flaw by many people. If you have a deeper understanding of the Revolution, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, and especially if you are familiar with Russian culture during the Soviet era, then this book probably seems to oversimplify and generalize a complicated time period and people. Volkov grew up in Soviet Russia, and, as we entered the second half of the 20th century, he began writing about people that he knew well or had at least met. This familiarity made the book seem less scholarly and more gossipy (although, based on its accessibility, I don't think scholarly was the goal). Perhaps to a seasoned Russian scholar, the whole book may have come across that way. I know that I enjoyed the first two-thirds much more than the last third, although that may have also had something to do with the significant role that the intelligentsia played in the Revolution and the way that Volkov described Stalin's political approach to them. However, I would have expected culture to play as much of a role in the changes of the 80s and 90s, and I did not enjoy the section detailing those quite as much. All of that being said, I liked this book a lot. I am glad that I picked it up for its pretty cover and that I finally read it.

  11. 5 out of 5

    LucidStyle

    Russian history through cultural expression – beautifully presented! One thing this book needs, however, is a study guide that walks the reader through each piece of artwork, each piece of music, film, and so on. This book evokes the volatile atmosphere of Russia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, times of high ideals, great change, and obscene disappointment. Certainly, history is written through human interaction and reaction, and motifs of experience are played by each participant, contr Russian history through cultural expression – beautifully presented! One thing this book needs, however, is a study guide that walks the reader through each piece of artwork, each piece of music, film, and so on. This book evokes the volatile atmosphere of Russia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, times of high ideals, great change, and obscene disappointment. Certainly, history is written through human interaction and reaction, and motifs of experience are played by each participant, contributing to an illustrious, magical chorus.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Bhig

    Not that I like the book, but it suddenly made me think: maybe Russian literature is worth reading after all?..

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sooz

    this book is an amazing resource that i will likely return to again and again. as i broaden my reading of 20th century Russian writers, i will want to put them into the political/cultural context of their time and country, along side all the other artist mentioned in The Magical Chorus. editing this book must have been a bitch. it is not overly long considering how many artists (mostly writers (journalist, novelist, poets) but also theatre and film directors, painters, and composers) are discuss this book is an amazing resource that i will likely return to again and again. as i broaden my reading of 20th century Russian writers, i will want to put them into the political/cultural context of their time and country, along side all the other artist mentioned in The Magical Chorus. editing this book must have been a bitch. it is not overly long considering how many artists (mostly writers (journalist, novelist, poets) but also theatre and film directors, painters, and composers) are discussed .... AND .... the number of years and political leaders it covers. the book is extremely readable. it never felt to me that Volkov was in danger of losing control of the myriad of threads he had going. neither did he lean too far in any one direction; never going off in a tangent of dry political dogma, or factual details about time and place but neither did he create tangents that were obsessive in detailing the horrific details of the prisons and camps and executions. he seemed always cognizant of the fact that others - people who had been there and lived it - had done a first rate job of recording these things. his job was to create a over view of all those voices in terms of the times ... in terms of the political explotation of culture during the communist reign in Russia. in this he succeeded ... indeed, he created a magical chorus himself. art is political. absolutely it is. everywhere. but it is astonishing to read of a time and place where art was so feared and so persecuted. art was either propaganda (for the state) or counter-revolutionary (against the state). there was nothing that was not one or the other. art for art's sake was a myth. it's also astonishing -but in a good way- to read of the underground movement. the writers who got work published via Tamizdat (work published in the west in the Russian language and smuggled back into the country) of Samizdat (self published ... which usually meant hand-written). the banned western jazz that was copied on to x-ray film to make homemade records. the poetry that was memorized and regularly recited to ensure not a word of a beloved verse would be lost. this is a book i will definitely return to. it's a bit of a paradox, in that, the book is a great introduction to the most notable 20th century artists and so can be a good starting place, but the most memorable parts for me were of the writers who's names were familiar -and even more so- the writers i had actually read. i don't think i would have gotten through it if every name ...well, every name but Solzhenitsyn ... was unfamiliar to me. i see on the back cover Volkov has a book on Saint Petersburg. i think i would like to get my hands on that.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Stop

    Read the STOP SMILING review of The Magical Chorus: 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 Bolsh Read the STOP SMILING review of The Magical Chorus: 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. Read the review...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Stefanie

    an excellent overview of the complex interplay between 20th century russian politics and artists. the examination includes many luminaries, such as tolstoy, chekhov, akhmatova, mandelstam, gorky, bely, bunin, pasternak, babel, platanov, nabakov, brodsky, solzhenitsyn, prokofiev, rachmaninoff, eisenstein, karkovsky, along with many others. this book provides useful reference material for deeper investigations.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I gasped with horror when I looked at this book more closely and realized that it had been written by some Soviet emigre dude and translated into English. I expected dry going. But OMG, this really is what it promises to be - a masterful look at Russian culture in the 20th century. Now if someone could pick up where this leaves off and write a masterful history of popular Soviet culture from the Khrushchev era to the present day ...

  17. 5 out of 5

    Diego

    It's an interesting approach to the natural relation between culture and politics, in this case from the fall of the zar until the 2000's. It's well written despite the (anti)chronology style and invites the reader to go deeper into the cultural events that impacted the development and fall of the URSS. It's an interesting approach to the natural relation between culture and politics, in this case from the fall of the zar until the 2000's. It's well written despite the (anti)chronology style and invites the reader to go deeper into the cultural events that impacted the development and fall of the URSS.

  18. 5 out of 5

    bill greene

    interesting, but a little gossipy. i think taking on all art forms for the entire 20th century in 400 pages was perhaps a bit too ambitious. towering figures like akhmatova, pasternak, babel, mandelstam, prokofiev, stravinsky, stanislavsky... each goes flying by in a few pages. think of this book as a very superficial overview and it's not so bad. interesting, but a little gossipy. i think taking on all art forms for the entire 20th century in 400 pages was perhaps a bit too ambitious. towering figures like akhmatova, pasternak, babel, mandelstam, prokofiev, stravinsky, stanislavsky... each goes flying by in a few pages. think of this book as a very superficial overview and it's not so bad.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Derek Shouba

    I’m a huge fan of everything Volkov has written. He’s a great writer with special insight into Russian high culture. His musical expertise somehow translates into literary sensitivity. This book is nice survey of Russian literary snd culture achievement. Read his other books on Brodsky, Shostikovich, and St. Petersburg too.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Quirkyreader

    This book was a wonderful historical work spanning the age of Tolstoy to the deatho f Solzhenitsy. THe only drawback to this book, in my opinion, was that it didn't have a bibliography. If this book had one, I would tried some new authors. Alas, there isn't one. This book was a wonderful historical work spanning the age of Tolstoy to the deatho f Solzhenitsy. THe only drawback to this book, in my opinion, was that it didn't have a bibliography. If this book had one, I would tried some new authors. Alas, there isn't one.

  21. 5 out of 5

    MoriartyandHerBooks

    I couldn't finish this. I'm sure it's a fascinating read, but the way it's presented is so boring and confusing with all the names that I was getting nothing out of it, and never felt like picking it up. I couldn't finish this. I'm sure it's a fascinating read, but the way it's presented is so boring and confusing with all the names that I was getting nothing out of it, and never felt like picking it up.

  22. 5 out of 5

    John

    Halfway through and will come back to it later.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sue Pit

    This is a most informative read of Russian culture and politics and the intermix of the two since Tolstoy's day. This is a most informative read of Russian culture and politics and the intermix of the two since Tolstoy's day.

  24. 4 out of 5

    John Ellison

    An excellent overview of 20th century Russian/Soviet culture. Disappointingly short on the modern but some very nice readings along the way.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Manda

    Fascinating book on the intersectionality of politics and the arts in 20th century Russia, and one from which I learned a lot.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dmitry

    Very accurate and intelligent guide to Russian culture of XX century.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    It's like a Russian lit class but with the addition of all cultural fields. Awesome!! It's like a Russian lit class but with the addition of all cultural fields. Awesome!!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Boris Kheyfets

    I always take notes of things I find interesting -- even when I read fiction. But with this book I had to write down 95% of text.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mary Beth

    Great overview of Soviet artists, but a little dense because of the language and assumptions needed to understand the Russian terms.

  30. 4 out of 5

    James McAdams

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