and Sergei Prokofiev), Mikhail Vrubel, Mikhail Fokine, Fedor Chaliapin, Pavel Filonov, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Alfred Schnittke, and such cultural milestones as the Moscow Art Theater, the liturgical music of the turn of the century, Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons, and the “Amazons” of the Russian avant-garde (as well as the “second avant-garde,” still not studied thoroughly), placing all these nonliterary institutions and movements in a political and social context. Together, these exceptionally strong and beautiful voices unite in a “Magical Chorus,” to use the poet Anna Akhmatova’s evocative metaphorical description.

However, there is no denying the fact that Russia—no matter what the Western view may be—has always been a logocentric country, and therefore writers hold center stage in The Magical Chorus. Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn each tried to realize the idea later crystallized in Solzhenitsyn’s maxim that in Russia a great writer is like a second government.2 They wanted to influence the regime, while the authorities attempted to manipulate them. None of these giants managed to implement his program fully, but in the process, all three created their enormous personal, heavily politicized legends. It is impossible to overestimate the role played by these writers in Russia’s public life.

Political turbulence in the twentieth century increased the worldwide resonance of the Russian Magical Chorus, but at too high a cost: death, ruined lives, and creative devastation. For seventy years, the Iron Curtain separated the Russian mainland from the emigre diaspora. They began merging comparatively recently, and that complex and tortuous process is observed in my book. Another painful ideological split in Russian culture—between “urbanites” and “villagers”—cut across the entire century and is still hurting today. It sometimes seems that this conflict is growing more acute in contemporary Russia.

I am fortunate in having good relationships with major figures in both camps. Paradoxically, I would like to think that my move to the United States, where I continue to write and lecture about the old and the new Russian cultures and have been a longtime commentator on the subject, first at the Voice of America and then for Radio Liberty, gives me the opportunity to be more objective. I recall the words of Joseph Brodsky, who once told me he considered his cultural situation in New York as an observer’s position high on a hilltop, with a view of both slopes.3

A long-distance view is definitely needed as the globalization of culture increases. There are those in Russia who fiercely attack globalization, some who criticize only its excesses, and still others who warily welcome it; but in fact, Russia has been part of this process since the country opened up to Western Europe in the late seventeenth century. It is just that events have accelerated immeasurably.

Lenin and especially Stalin understood the usefulness of culture as a political tool not only inside the country but in the international arena, too, and they wielded the weapon well. The Bolsheviks were innovators in cultural propaganda, making the constant complaints of the Communist leaders about the West’s ideological aggression sound disingenuous: they themselves had created this confrontational arena.4

The Nobel Prize in Literature became one such highly publicized political event; it was given to five great Russians: Ivan Bunin (1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Mikhail Sholokhov (1965), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970), and Joseph Brodsky (1987). Year after year, the Soviet authorities expressed outrage that the Nobel Prize was politicized. Responding to such attacks, Solzhenitsyn noted reasonably, “Even though the Swedish Academy was always being accused of politics, it was our barking voices that made any other assessment impossible.”5 Thus, each prize came enveloped in a cloud of controversy, and I give special attention to the behind-the-scenes intrigues leading up to the awards.

Nowadays, every significant local cultural gesture sooner or later takes on a global resonance, usually a political one; when it does not, the reason is also political. There is probably no way back to truly autonomous cultural reservations. Russian culture, even domestically, is more and more judged as part of a global marketplace, a situation the Russian intelligentsia finds unusual and painful after seventy years of isolation.

For me, the best Russian examples of sophisticated cultural analysis were always the writings of Alexandre Benois and Prince Dmitri Svyatopolk-Mirsky (D. S. Mirsky) in their emigre period, when their style, authoritative for connoisseurs and accessible for neophytes, was marked by a rare balance of “gentle anger and ironic love.”6 It still resonates today.

Throughout the years I spent working on this book, my guiding star was the memory of my precious conversations with some of its protagonists: Natan Altman, Anna Akhmatova, George Balanchine, Joseph Brodsky, Sergei Dovlatov, Kirill Kondrashin, Yuri Lyubimov, Anatoli Rybakov, Georgi Sviridov, Viktor Shklovsky, Alfred Schnittke, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

I am also deeply grateful to the following, who generously responded to my queries about those dramatic times: Nikolai Akimov, Vassily Aksyonov, Grigori Alexandrov, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Nina Bruni-Balmont, Rudolf Barshai, Tatiana Bek, Isaiah Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Andrei Bitov, Dmitri Bobyshev, Valerian Bogdanov- Berezovsky, Nikita Bogoslovsky, Elena Bonner, Alexander Borovsky, Lili Brik, Yevgeny Brusilovsky, Sergei Chigrakov, Marietta Chudakova, Boris Eifman, Alexander Galich, Leonid Girshovich, Evdokiya Glebov, Alexander Godunov, Yakov Gordin, Vladimir Horowitz, Boris Grebenshchikov, Irina Graham, Sofia Gubaidulina, Lev Gumilev, Alexandra Danilova, Edison Denisov, Oleg Efremov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Natalia Ivanova, Roman Jakobson, Mariss Jansons, Gia Kancheli, Vassily Katanyan, Nikolai Khardzhiev, Aram Khachaturian, Igor Kholin, Andrei Khrzhanovsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Kline, Elem Klimov, Leonid Kogan, Alexander Kosolapov, Yuri Kochnev, Gidon Kremer, Natalia Krymova, Savva Kulish, Sergei Kurekhin, Jay Leyda, Eduard Limonov, Fedor Lopukhov, Lev Losev, Alexei Lyubimov, Vladimir Maximov, Berthe Malko, Yuri Mamleyev, Sulamif Messerer, Czeslaw Milosz, Nathan Milstein, Igor Moiseyev, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Anatoly Nayman, Ernst Neizvestny, Viktor Nekrasov, Natalya Nesterova, Irina Nijinska, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Odnoralov, David Oistrakh, Bulat Okudzhava, Alla Osipenko, Nadezhda Pavlovich, Vladimir Paperny, Sergei Paradjanov, Viktor Pivovarov, Maya Plisetskaya, Boris Pokrovsky, Lina Prokofiev, Irina Prokhorova, Lev Raaben, Edvard Radzinsky, Rita Rait-Kovaleva, Yevgeny Rein, Sviatoslav Richter, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Maria Rozanova, Mstislav Rostropovich, Harrison Salisbury, Andrei Sedykh, Marietta Shaginyan, Rodion Shchedrin, Angelina Shchekin-Krotova, Iosif Sher, Yuri Shevchuk, Konstantin Simonov, Andrei Sinyavsky, Boris Slutsky, Vassily Solovyov-Sedoi, Vladimir Soloukhin, Arnold Sokhor, Vladimir Spivakov, Anna Sten, Isaac Stern, Vera Stravinsky, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Flora Syrkina, Alexander Tcherepnin, Yuri Temirkanov, Nikolai Tikhonov, Alexander Tyshler, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Vladimir Vasiliev, Oleg Vassiliev, Georgy Vladimov, Andrei Voznesensky, Pavel Vulfius, Vladimir Vysotsky, Maria Yudina, Leonid Yakobson, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Sergei Yutkevich, Vyacheslav Zavalishin, and Alexander Zinoviev.

Conversations with Vagrich Bakhchanyan, Alexander Genis, Yuri Handler, Boris Paramonov, Yevgenia Petrova, Alexander Rabinovich-Burakovsky, Alla Rosenfeld, Ivan Tolstoy, and Peter Vail were very helpful. Some ideas in this book were first discussed in the friendly homes of Grisha and Alexandra Bruskin and Tatiana Rybakov and Elena Kolat. Naturally, none of them is responsible for my conclusions and opinions. Thanks to my wife, Marianna, for transcribing the interviews cited here and for her gallery of photographic portraits, which contains some of the most vivid personalities of twentieth-century Russian culture. Some photos were graciously supplied by Natalia and Ignat Solzhenitsyn and by Gennady Krochik. The present book is once again the result of deeply satisfying collaboration with my translator, Antonina W. Bouis, and my editor at Knopf, Ashbel Green.

Chapter One

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.

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