Books: Beethoven down on the farm

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The Independent Culture
The Cambridge Companion to Modern Russian Culture

ed Nicholas Rzhevsky

Cambridge University Press pounds 13.95

This is a volume in what is, at present, a series of five Cambridge Companions, the others covering the modern cultures of Spain, Germany, Italy and Latin America. All four of the European countries chosen have, in the 20th century, experienced periods which represented a sharp break with tradition and attempts for political reasons to impose a particular version of the national culture. Nowhere was this interlude longer or more profound than in Russia, where the outlook of whole generations was shaped by Marxism, so that it was possible to be born after the 1917 Revolution and (provided one could survive civil war, famine, political purges and Nazi invasion) to die at the age of 70, having lived one's entire life as a Soviet citizen. Every chapter in this guide, whether on ideological structures, religion, popular culture, literature or the arts, has to allow for this sudden fracture in the course of the country's history and the overlaying of Russian tradition with Soviet norms.

This does not make the contributors' task any easier, particularly since cultural upheavals did not always coincide with political ones. Mayakovsky and Stravinsky were revolutionising poetry, theatre and music before 1917; Kandinsky was among those doing the same for art. By contrast, Soviet culture quite often preferred to adopt the safe procedures of the past rather than follow up the experiments of the early part of the century. From the 1930s onwards, despite the apparent novelty of the doctrine of Socialist Realism, art was expected to be stylistically conservative. The party that for so long considered itself the vanguard of the world revolutionary movement was notoriously suspicious of modernism and the avant-garde.

The emphasis in these overviews is, perhaps inevitably, on continuity. The writers, mainly American academics, find themselves underlining the recurrent strands in Russian culture, both before and during the Soviet period, especially the old opposition between "Asiatic" and "European", and the enduring influence of the Orthodox Church. Indeed, the word "modern" in the title is highly misleading, given that most contributors choose as their starting-point the adoption of Christianity by Prince Vladimir in AD988. On the other hand, this sweeping historical perspective makes the book more interesting for the general reader. Fuller than an encyclopaedia, it provides a potted history of Russian religion, art, language, literature, music and cinema since the earliest times. It allows one to draw parallels between such different works as Dostoyevsky's The Devils, Gorky's Mother and Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, all of which (according to contributor David M Bethea) help to illustrate the "maximalist streak" in Russian spirituality.

The effect of Soviet cultural policy, as Catriona Kelly says in her chapter on popular culture, was to erode distinctions between "high" and "low" art, so that opera, ballet, theatre and classical music were made both more acceptable and more widely available to working-class audiences (one surprising lack in the chapter on theatre, incidentally, is an indication of the importance of the ballet in Soviet times). Of course, the regime was inclined to exaggerate its achievements in the field. In 1938, the model industrial worker Alexei Stakhanov was quoted in the cinema review Isskustvo Kino as saying that workers wanted more culturally improving films, including filmed records of classical concerts: "The miner has time to study, to relax and enjoy himself ... Kolkhoz [collective farm] workers travel to the big cities to listen to Beethoven ... Shakespeare's plays are popular with the miners ..." The style is unmistakeable and its disappearance unmourned; and it comes as no surprise to see that post- Soviet Russians, freer to choose than their grandparents, tend to opt for the detective novels of Alexandra Marinina or American soaps such as Santa Barbara. But enough people emerged from Soviet times with a basic level of education to guarantee the future of a still more modern Russian culture than that described here.