Volkov’s account of Russian culture in the 20th century is ambitious and informative but occasionally jumpy, with a profusion of names and movements. While he covers visual arts, ballet and music, he spends the most time describing Russian writers. Russian writers, he notes, had a special place of power and influence not found in any other country. Tolstoy was like a living saint, Gorky’s relationship with Stalin gave him a wide influence and Solzhenitsyn created a government panic at the same time as he sent Brezhnev a letter outlining good governing strategies. Some special areas of focus include the Nobel prize controversies of Ivan Bunin, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky. Volkov has a number of interesting stories and does give clear background. He is especially good at describing how various artists were able to manipulate their own images at home and abroad. However, what with the large number of artists that he has to cover, it doesn’t help to give nonstop quotes of what writer X said about writer Y. When he focuses on one life or one arc, the analysis is clear and involving but the jumping from person to person makes the account lose momentum. I found his first person interruptions more distracting than helpful. It’s worth reading but could have been better.Volkov starts off well by analyzing Tolstoy’s impact in Russian culture and the 20th century. It’s interesting because he is often seen as a 19th c author as Volkov notes. The section on Tolstoy touches on themes that the author will cover throughout the book – the relation of the Tolstoy to the public and government, his varying stances in his work and his effort to shape his self-image. Tolstoy will recur frequently in the history – authors will model themselves after him, comparisons are made to his funeral. After that, things get a bit scattered as Volkov covers a number of artistic movements and historical incidents, though the feuding actress/author pairs of Gorky and his wife, with Chekhov and his wife, were particularly interesting. It was also enlightening to read about other chaotic premieres, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Kashchey the Immortal – usually Stravinsky is the only one mentioned. Of course any cultural history will be full of names and movements but as this is a relatively short book, things feel crowded. It doesn’t help that Volkov includes an abundance of quotes attributed to other artists and authors, some of who have been introduced, others who are just dropped in. There’s also the distracting mention of his personal experiences. After the Bolshevik Revolution, there were three main artistic camps and though many of the leading Bolsheviks had conservative tastes, the avant-garde camp was the one willing to collaborate which explains why a number of experimental pieces and productions were sanctioned in the 20’s. Anatoly Lunacharsky was the tolerant cultural minister until 1929 and he was able to smooth things over between the artistic community and Lenin and Stalin.Stalin, though less formally educated than Lenin, was a voracious reader and loved classical music and opera (and he had been a poet back in Georgia). He sacked Lunacharsky and had been covertly shaping cultural policy even before his famous trashing of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk. Stalin loved the Russian classics of realism of the 19th c and soon everything had to be in the mode of socialist realism. Experimental art, “formalism”, was looked on suspiciously as anti-Soviet. This is a pretty interesting section and Volkov skillfully describes the motivations for a number of writers and artists. He looks at the nuances of the Stalin-Gorky relationship and changing attitudes towards ‘peasant writers’. In examining the first winners of the Stalin Prize (some odd ones such as Shostakovich and Eisenstein), Volkov illustrates Stalin’s control of culture as well as his capriciousness. Sholokhov, the author of And Quiet Flows the Don, was one of the winners. Contradictory things are often said about Sholokhov so it was good to see the story in detail. Several Nobel controversies are covered, the first being the politics behind the anti-Communist émigré Bunin’s prize. The Soviets had lobbied for Gorky and his loss was a clear message. The deaths, suicides and repressive atmosphere under the Great Terror, as well as the deaths, suicides and loosening of restrictions during World War II are described. Also well-done is Volkov’s portrayal of the balancing act of artists such as the poet Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovich.Stalin’s personal, hands-on approach to artistic control was lessened under Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev did not have the personal interest and love of reading and music and he seemed to favor public humiliation and hounding instead of arrests and executions. Pasternak, a pariah after he smuggled his novel Doctor Zhivago out to the West and was awarded the Nobel, was targeted by Khrushchev, who he compared unfavorably to Stalin. To him, Stalin was powerful and terrible, a sort of Ubermensch, but Khrushchev was just petty and mean. Like Stalin, though, Khrushchev was very capricious, one day allowing the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of the Gulag in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the next yelling at and threatening artists. The Nobel aspirations of Sholokhov and Solzhenistyn as well as their efforts to shape their images at home and abroad are nicely detailed but some movements just get a quick summary. The controversies and struggles of three Soviet artists – the director Andrei Tarkovsky, the writer Joseph Brodsky and the composer Alfred Schnittke – are oddly and confusingly compared. However, the nuances in their fight against the government are interesting, as Volkov notes that Tarkovsky was difficult to work with, Brodsky carefully cultivated his martyr image, and Schnittke’s popularity was likely based on the fact that his music was banned.In later years, some things are glossed over again, but most areas are at least touched on – popular folk singers, rock bands, experimental visual artists, ballet. One book that inspired controversy and worry in the government, one of the last, was Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of Arbat. With the end of the Soviet Union, a repressive artistic system was also dismantled but Volkov notes that nothing came to take its place. He is pessimistic about art and culture in the 21st century – not only is there less funding but also less government and public interest in the arts. A good overview of Russian culture but had some issues with the presentation.