The theme of writers and the regime is familiar in Russian history, but Volkov brings a fresh, voluptuous quality to it by featuring the personal entanglement of tsars -- from Peter the Great’s father, Alexis I, to Vladimir Lenin, the first of the Soviet “tsars” -- with certain authors, artists, and composers. Up until the early nineteenth century, these were principally writers, often poets, such as Gavrila Derzhavin, Catherine the Great’s favorite, or Vasily Zhukovsky, a leading literary figure in Alexander I’s era. Later, beginning with Nicholas I, composers and artists also made their entrance into the royal court, preoccupied as it was with art’s utility in embellishing the imperial order and, before the century’s end, with its capacity play to the people’s rising sense of nationalism. The intriguing element in Volkov’s book is not so much the choice of the celebrated (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov by the last two tsars), the shunned (Modest Mussorgsky in Alexander III’s day and Maxim Gorky in Nicholas II’s), and the enfants terribles (Alexander Pushkin for Nicholas I). Rather, it is the time the emperor or empress took to influence an opera’s title or scene, alter a stanza of poetry, or secure the election of someone as an honorary member to the Imperial Academy of Sciences.
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