This review originally appeared in Critics at Large July 18/15 and its relevance to this site I think should be obvious given that six chapters in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) are devoted to the Soviet Union.
I do not want to suggest that Fear and the Muse is devoid of intellectual pleasures. On the contrary, one of its great strengths is that it comfortably shoehorns these artists and their art into one book. Too often, cultural life is relegated to a single chapter in Soviet histories, confined to biographies or specialized monographs on one of the arts. Instead, McSmith combines astute biographical profiles with perceptive insights into their art and how both were related to the larger cultural and political climate of the time, especially given that Stalin paid considerable attention to the arts. There is not much that is new here, and he ignores the role of the visual arts, but McSmith’s major accomplishment has been to synthesize in lucid prose a great amount of material from secondary sources and translated Russian correspondence. One bonus is that he is self-taught in Russian, and some of his more memorable quotations occur when he quotes from untranslated Russian correspondence.