Art and Power

Samuel Goldwyn, the movie studio head, told his writers: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." What he meant was that he was not interested in scripts that expressed social or political opinions. Lenin and the soviet leaders after him, on the other hand, felt that all art should have a message: theirs. With the publication of Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time, I'd like to take a look at fictional treatments of artists under soviet rule.

The Noise of Time is a fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the great composers of the 20th century. Even given numerous opportunities, he never defected despite his treatment by the soviet authorities, particularly Stalin. Shostakovich signed his name to letters he didn't write, gave speeches he didn't believe, and made innumerable other compromises to keep on composing in the USSR. He felt great music would survive, rising above the noise of time. This book is not strictly linear, though it tends to head in that general direction. Julian Barnes seems to get at the Russian psyche, and particularly Shostakovich's. One develops a palpable sense of dread, shame, and fear, but also faith in the power of art. This is book reads quickly, but you will want to slow down and savor it.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a more humorous tale, dealing with what happens when the Devil comes to Moscow on the 1920s. A suppressed writer and his lover, Margarita, make a Faustian bargain with said Father of Lies. Bulgakov peppered his manuscript with allusions and in-jokes about life under Stalin, and if pure satire isn't enough for you, there is a good companion book: The Master & Margarita, a Literary Companion.

Colum McCann's Dancer is about the famed ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Starting out dancing for wounded soviet soldiers, young Nureyev is selected for  the Kirov ballet school and troupe. Defecting to France, he becomes the most famous ballet dancer in the world. He eventually goes back to the USSR to visit his family, which ends the book. This is an engaging, stylistically complex novel that moves between narrators. McCann mixes fact and fiction seamlessly, and the details of Nureyev's life make this an enjoyable read even for those not familiar with the world of ballet.

Liudmila Ulitskaia has written the big-hearted The Big Green Tent, the story of three artistic friends in post-Stalin Russia. Ostracized by their classmates for their intellectual interests and lack of enthusiasm for playground cruelty, Mikha, Sanya, and Ilya end up as dissident writers and musicians. This is an epic book, and encompasses a wide range of soviet society, all of the members trying to bend the rules towards humanity. For all its sweep, the characters are complex and well-drawn. Another good book to pick up for a view of the arts under Communism.

Got stories of your own about art and power? Leave them in the comments section below.

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