From Russia, With Love and Regret

Solomon Volkov, The Magical Chorus:

A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn


Vladislav Zubok, Zhivago’s Children:

The Last Russian Intelligentsia


Notwithstanding a fractious relationship between Russia and the West over the last two centuries, as well as an enduring division within the country between inward-looking “Slovophiles” and those who wish to emulate the West, the Russian contribution to Western culture in literature, music and art has been staggeringly rich.  In “The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn,” translated from Russian by Antonina Bouis, Solomon Volkov explores how Russian writers, musicians and artists flourished against the challenging backdrop of Tsarist tyranny, Communist totalitarianism and post-Communist manipulation.  Vladislav Zubok’s focus in “Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligensia” is narrower, treating cultural, artistic and intellectual currents in the period from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  During this time, young artists and intellectuals reprised the 19th century notion of the “intelligentsia,” those Russian artists and intellectuals who had challenged Tsarist regimes in the name of human rights and social justice.  But, Zubok contends, a virulent anti-Semitism resurfaced amidst the mid-20th century intellectual and spiritual reawakening in the Soviet Union, undermining the moral authority of the movement.  Looking forward, both authors are profoundly pessimistic about the prospects for a vibrant cultural, artistic, or intellectual life in Russia in the near future.

As Volkov’s title indicates, two of Russia’s greatest writers, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, serve as bookends to his story.  Volkov starts with Tolstoy’s funeral and provides an extensive analysis of Solzhenitsyn, an “enormous talent” very much in the Tolstoy tradition, who “presented the bitter truth and Soviet life,” writing “not from secondhand accounts but as a fearless eye-witness using his own tragic experience as an inmate in a Stalin concentration camp” (p.219).  Solzhenitsyn spent a significant portion of his career in the United States.  He was, of course, hardly the only Russian cultural figure to flourish far from Mother Russia’s borders.  Painters like Marc Chagall and Vassily Kandinsky fled to the West to make their careers, as did a host of musicians –Vladimir Horowitz, Serge Koussevitzky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Mstislav Rostropovich — and the poet Joseph Brodsky who, arrested for “parasitism” in 1964,  went on to win a Noble Prize.

Volkov elaborates upon Russian and Soviet leaders’ varying approaches to culture.  For Lenin, culture was by definition a bourgeois notion that had no place in the new revolutionary state.  The more cunning Stalin, an unlikely fan of opera and ballet, saw that culture could serve revolutionary purposes and left room for some traditional activity.  Stalin’s attitude toward the cultural elite, Volkov explains, was “outwardly friendlier than that of Lenin, which is sometimes explained by the fact that Stalin, a less educated man than Lenin, felt more respect for people of culture” (p.188).

The peasant Khrushchev was, according to Volkov, incapable of understanding culture, and closer to Lenin than Stalin in dealing with potentially subversive art, music and literature.  Brezhnev, after authorizing the arrest of Solzhenitsyn, opened the door for a better cultural climate.  Gorbachev exploited what Brezhnev had begun, using cultural forces like a “battering ram” (p.265) to combat reform-resistant cadres within the Communist Party.  Yeltsin, by contrast, “did not see high culture as his useful ally” (p.278).

Although he does not analyze Putin’s approach in the same manner, Volkov offers a somber analysis of Russian intellectual and cultural life in the 21st century.  He observes a “general decline of ‘high’ culture, painful for the intelligentsia” (p.296), as Russians try to find their natural identity and free themselves from the “vestiges of totalitarianism while overcoming the allure of anarchy” (p.296-97).  Public idols are no longer writers and poets but “pop musicians, film actors, and television celebrities” (p.290).  Volkov concludes that today’s Russia faces “grave cultural and demographic challenges that threaten its very existence . . . Once again, as it was at the start of the twentieth century, Russia – anxious, brooding, enigmatic – is at a crossroads, choosing its way” (p.298).

Vladislav Zubok uses Dr. Zhivago, the lead character in Boris Pasternak’s novel of that name, as the linchpin of his story.  Zhivago’s children were those Russians born mostly in the 1930s and 1940s, too young to have fought Hitler’s armies but raised during the height of Stalinist oppression, when it was “absurd and criminal to even think about any kind of criticism of Lenin and Stalin” (p.37).  Zubok shows how Zhivago’s children “broke loose,” turning out to be not minions of Stalin but a “vibrant and diverse tribe, with intellectual curiosity, artistic yearnings, and a passion for high culture” (p.21-22).   Beginning with Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union interlaced periods of repressive crackdowns and censorship with tentative steps toward liberalization — termed “thaws” in the 1950s and 1960s,  “glasnost” in the age of Gorbachev.  To Zubok, Zhivago’s children reincarnated the 19th century Russian intelligentsia, with views of the “uses of the mind and spirit” which sought to rekindle the intelligentsia’s “dream of a just and humane Russian society” (p.21-22).

Khruschev’s not-so-secret speech of 1956, in which he exposed to his fellow Communist party members the extent of Stalin’s crimes against his people, reactivated the “traditional alienation between the ‘thinking’ segment of the younger generation and the ruling class” (p.66), reminiscent of Russia a century earlier.  Once again, small circles of  young writers, intellectuals, artists would “question the existing regime in the name of universal ideals of justice and human rights” (p.66).   Although Khrushchev’s 1956 speech gave impetus to the unraveling of the Stalinist cult in the Soviet Union, in Zubok’s view Khrushchev did not have the vision or the intellectual ability to turn de-Stalinization into a consistent policy after the speech.  It was, Zubok writes, as if Khrushchev had “pushed a huge boulder down a mountain and could not comprehend the magnitude of the avalanche it produced” (p.62).

1960, the year Pasternak died, coincided with the beginning of an extraordinary fervor in Russian intellectual and cultural life.  The early 1960s saw a “small but growing number of educated Russians begin to develop a common self-awareness, distinct from that of the Soviet mainstream” (p.161).  This “quasi-religious phenomenon,” which earlier “only a few aging representatives of the older, pre-revolutionary generation of scholars, artists, and teachers had shared, began to spread among the younger people brought up and educated during the late Stalinist period and the Thaw” (p.161).  In the 1960s, a widespread feeling gained hold among Russian intellectuals that:

the legacy of Stalinism could be gradually overcome and reforms could set the Soviet Union on the right track.  Many intellectuals, so-called genuine Marxist-Leninists, still believed that the party and its leadership could be the vehicle for reform and change.  Above all, they believed that their expertise and the forces of enlightenment and knowledge would inevitably prevail over the uncultured and conservative majority in the bureaucracy (p.160).

But the pressures toward liberalization also revealed the 19th century fault lines between Western-looking intellectuals and so-called “Slavophiles.” On one side, the outward-looking liberal thinkers tended to be cosmopolitan and secular in orientation, and were frequently Jewish.  On the other, Slavophiles were more nationalist, inward-looking, sometimes xenophobic, and frequently anti-Semitic.  In the officially atheistic Soviet Union, moreover, Slavophiles stressed Russia’s Orthodox Christian heritage and often espoused views about Jews which echoed those of Third Reich Germany.  These Slavophiles belonged to the same generation and sometimes the same milieu as their liberal antagonists.  “When they discovered that many places in the professions were occupied by Jews, these Russians reacted by resorting to an anti-Semitism of convenience,” (p.240) Zubok writes.  They had numerous sponsors and supporters within the Soviet bureaucracy, and challenged the right of the Western-looking intellectuals to call themselves an intelligentsia.  Nationalist writers felt:

attracted to Russian philosophers and writers, rather than Hemmingway, Remarque, or translated Western novels.  Many of them admired the poetry of Boris Pasternak. . . They also looked for scapegoats who could be made responsible for Russia’s tragic past.  When they read Russian classical literature, they considered their most influential author Fyodor Dostoevsky and valued especially his long-suppressed work The Writer’s Diary, in which he lashed out at Jews and other enemies of Russian Orthodoxy (p.241).

To Zubok, the “great moral tragedy” of the intellectual fervor in the post-Stalin years was that Russian national feelings “remained fatally contaminated by xenophobia and anti-Semitism” (p.257).

In Zubok’s account, Solzhenitsyn personified the reaction against Westernized liberalism, and “complicated the venomous intellectual politics” in dissident circles during the 1970s (p.308).  Solzhenitsyn used his fame to promote an agenda that was “at sharp variance with the views and values of most of his intellectual admirers.  He was an Orthodox believer and a conservative Russian nationalist who idealized premodern Russian history and the Russian peasantry and preached isolationism from the West and Western influence” (p.309).  Solzhenitsyn came to the conclusion that the “radical, secular, socialist groups among the assimilated Jewry had been guilty in siding with the Bolsheviks and destroying the old Russia. . . For Solzhenitsyn it was not the cosmopolitan urban intelligentsia but rather the ‘righteous people’ of the Russian peasantry who represented the only hope for salvation of the land” (p.254).

Then, when the Soviet Union crumbled, so did the two faces of the Russian intelligentsia, as the battle for the soul of Russia became less important, superseded by the frantic pursuit of material pleasure.  “The intellectual, spiritual, and moral collapse of the early 1990s was unrivaled in Russian history” (p.353), Zubok writes.  “The death of the intelligentsia was an unintended result of the failure of the communist project.  The movement of intellectuals, scientists, human rights activists, and artists contributed to the strange end of the communist empire – or even its suicide.  At the same time, bringing down the temple of communism brought to an end the intelligentsia’s historical mission” (p.357).  Zubok mourns the death of the intelligentsia from both camps, arguing that today’s Russia is poorer because the competing versions of what Russia ought to be no longer matter.

These are two highly-engaging, nimbly-written books.  Antonina Bouis provides an eminently readable translation of Volkov’s work.  Zubok, who teaches Russian studies at Temple University, writes in an erudite yet easy-to-read style.  Although I was unable to confirm his background via an internet search, I suspect that Zubok was born in Russia and that English is not his native language, making his lucid English prose all the more remarkable.  Among their common threads, neither author sees much hope for renewed cultural and intellectual vitality in today’s Russia.  But as a guileless amateur, I asked myself whether the two experts’ pessimism might be unwarranted or overstated.  After all, the central point of both books is that Russia’s vibrant cultural and intellectual traditions somehow survived both Tsarist authoritarianism and Soviet totalitarianism.  We in the West have every reason to hope that Zhivago’s grandchildren will pick up the venerable banner of their forebears.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

November 4, 2012


Filed under History

5 responses to “From Russia, With Love and Regret

  1. David

    I am so indebted to you, Tom, for enriching my intellectual life. If I ever get to retire I hope to be able to read some of your bibliophilia.

  2. Tom F.

    Ochen horosho, moy droog.

  3. Spasiva to Tom; to David: keep plugging away; I hope you don’t have to wait to retirement to read a book or two that you want to read. But work is indeed an inconvenient reality many of us our age still have to deal with.

    • The Soviet Union knew how to make idols of a number of writers and poets tthe way it made a hero of Alexey Stakhanov but usually only a privileged minority of people enjoy enough education and leisure to fully appreciate
      literature or poetry and they may not idolize their favorite writers or poets.
      Since visibility is an essential ingredient in popularity it’s only natural that

      show business is best when it comes to making idols!


  4. Pingback: Lenin’s Century | tomsbooks

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