The book revolves around the Russian intelligentsia - writers, film-makers, dancers, composers - and their fate during the upheavals of the twentieth century.
Much of it is the usual gossip and catty rivalry between different artistic groups, as one faction rises and another falls, from Tolstoy through Gorky, Eisenstein, and Sholokhov, Pasternak, to Yevtushenko, and Solzhenitsyn. It is a book about Russian modernism in the 1920s and socialist realism in the 30s and 40s, and it makes for a constellation of great names in the arts.
But it is against the backdrop of violent revolution, exile, purges, the camps, and the terror.
Stalin was well-read and kept up with the latest literary periodicals. High culture gratifyingly received attention at the highest levels of state - but sometimes with grave results. And not even great talent was a protection against the knock on the door.
One story is that of the artist Alexander Drevin and his wife Nadezhda Udaltsova. Drevin was arrested in February 1938. According to Volkov,
But the intelligentsia was important to the state, and to the wider culture.
..he was exectuted ten years later in a Stalinist prison. Udaltsova was not told of her husband's death, and she continued submitting appeals for his pardon for almost twenty years, before she learned the horrible truth in 1956.
That did not last. The book concludes in the 1990s, when society opened up - but official money for high culture collapsed. And Russia become more interested in gameshows than poetry.