Book Review: A Ransomed Dissident by Igor Golomstock

When I studied  20th century Russian literature some years ago the name of the Russian art historian Igor Golomstock (1929 -2017 ) came up from time to time, but I confess my recollection of him was rather hazy.

So I was pleased when his autobiographical work, A Ransomed Dissident, translated by Sara Jolly and Boris Dralyuk and published in 2019, was brought to my attention. Golomstock seemed to know everyone who was anyone in the art and literary world during the fascinating era of ‘the thaw’ in the later 1950’s and 1960’s, and he was also involved in the human rights movement in Russia. In 1972 he emigrated, and the later years of his life were spent in England where he taught at different universities, including Oxford and the University of Essex, He also worked for the BBC Russian Service.

I really wish that I had read Golomstock’s book while doing my course. He was a child during the purges of the 1930’s, but even during later years artists and academics were obliged to work in an uneasy, frustrating and sometimes frightening atmosphere, a time which the book brings vividly to life. Golomstock’s comments on individuals, both artists and others, are illuminating, and his discussion of the rivalry and squabbles among soviet dissidents quite riveting at times. I was particularly engaged by his close association with the writer Andrey SInyavsky (1925 – 1997) who, with Yury Daniel (1925-1988), was tried in 1965 for ‘Anti-Soviet agitation’ under the Criminal Code. The trial and sentencing of these two men were often mentioned darkly by our lecturer, who never really elaborated the story. It was particularly satisfying therefore to learn what happened from someone who was not just there, but who himself got into trouble for refusing to co-operate at the trial.

Part of Golomstock’s early career was spent as a researcher and curator at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. His reminiscences reminded me of our own wonderful visit to the museum in 2019 when we accompanied the exhibits from Gainsborough’s House to the first exhibition dedicated to Thomas Gainsborough in Russia.

The translation of A Ransomed Dissident is unobtrusive and elegant, and the distinctive voice of the author reaches the reader clearly and affectingly.  As one individual’s perspective of a seminal era in Russian artistic history Golomstock’s book is highly recommended for any reader who is interested in the period, and would be an invaluable supplement for those studying 20th century Russian literature and history.

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