Pen and Sickle

Brodsky In the NYT Keith Gessen reviews Solomon Volkov’s The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn:

Volkov is not [morally] outraged because, in his view, he is telling a triumphant tale. In the book’s livelier second half, he narrates the post-Stalin era as a story of the irreversible liberalization of the arts, a liberalization that eventually spread to the rest of Soviet life. He may overstate the political significance for the arts, but even the crudest of crude oil determinists will admit that the yearning of the Soviet intelligentsia toward the West helped demoralize the regime. Volkov also spends some time on his own milieu, the émigrés and exiles who came to Paris, Boston and especially New York in the 1970s. Solzhenitsyn, thundering from his Vermont hermitage against the Soviets and, increasingly, the decadent West, was a distant presence for these émigrés; their true avatar was Brodsky, of Mount Holyoke and the West Village.

For a 20th-century Russian writer, Brodsky was notably apolitical — or, put another way, art was his politics. His poetry, partly confessional, partly metaphysical, held as its highest value the sanctity of the private self. Brodsky was anti-Soviet as a matter of course, but also a cosmopolitan. “Like a despotic sheik … untrue / To his vast seraglio and multiple desires,” he wrote in “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” “I have switched Empires.” The only constant was poetry, music and art. “I close my eyes and almost see them standing in their dilapidated kitchens, holding glasses in their hands, with ironic grimaces across their faces,” Brodsky wrote about his generation. “‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité. … Why does nobody add culture?’” This is the world that Volkov came from…