Monday, July 18, 2011

Politics, War, and Faberge Eggs

Solomon Volkov's Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under The Tsars delineates the complicated and evolving relationship between Russian autocracy and Russian cultural genius between 1613 and 1917.
This is a self-described prequel to another work, the Magical Chorus, which treats the same topic during the Twentieth Century. See my earlier blog post on this wonderful book.

Romanov Riches is a short book, and Volkov cannot claim to have analyzed any of the tsar's aesthetic predilections or cultural policies in any detail. Even so, Volkov manages to say something interesting and original about Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III, Nicholas II, and even Lenin. In just slightly more than 200 pages, we tract the collapse of imperial authority in the arts. Where the emperors once dominated almost every aspect of the art market, Nicholas II's patronage was often spurned by liberal or radical artists for ideological reasons. Moreover, by the turn of the century, wealthy bourgeois patrons competed with the tsar for role of taste-maker and patron of the arts. Volkov is well established as once of the most balanced and knowledgeable experts on Russian culture, and feels equally at home analyzing trends in ballet, music, theater, fine art, poetry, and prose.

This book, like his treatise on the influence of Stalin on Shastokovich, is filled with insights into the influence of high culture on state policy. How did Pushkin and Nicholas I use one another and who got the better end of the bargain? Why was Pushkin's death, as well as that of Lermontov, a political problem for the tsars? How did the government use Dostoevsky and Gogol, and were the risks of relying on these Slavophiles to make their case to the literate classes? And who couldn't be fascinated by the way autocrats read and understood Tolstoy? Tolstoy, of course, interpreted the Franco-Russian War of 1812 for the Russian public, but he also shaped public perception of the Crimean War with his Sevastopol Sketches, and of course had a lot to say about how Alexander III dealt with his father's murderers.

All in all, the Romanovs come off rather well in Volkov's history. Although military and political matters necessarily dominated their worldviews, most of these conservative autocrats were sensitive, well-read, polyglots with serious personal interest in participating in the arts. Some were even educated by Russia's greatest authors, including the historian Karamzin. Volkov's point is that political leadership of the Russian nation necessarily entailed cultural fluency if not cultural mastery.

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