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Between art and a hard place 

Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov sits comfortably near the top of the Soviet art world during the early days of glasnost, the greater openness of debate and expression ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev. As the editor-in-chief of Art of the World, Sukhanov has for the last three decades been personally responsible for censoring the art world, promoting the most insipid Soviet realism while condemning the wilder forms of painting and sculpture that once inspired him to paint. He is wealthy, privileged, influential and has the favor of the Minister of Culture. He is married to Nina, the daughter of one of the most respected painters in Russia, by whom he has two intelligent children. All is well in Sukhanov's world when Olga Grushin's novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov begins.

Then Lev Belkin reappears in his life. Belkin is poor, disheveled, virtually unknown. He is a painter fond of abstraction and impressionism, and, unlike Sukhanov, he refused to create the art that the Soviets demanded. Once twin firebrands of the Moscow art scene, the two parted ways when Sukhanov published a carefully calculated article titled "Surrealism and Other Western 'Isms' as Manifestations of Capitalist Insolvency," betraying their entire cohort.

At first disgusted by his old friend, Sukhanov has edited out his passionate past and "only in his most private moments would he ever dream of painting enormous transparent bells raining music from the skies." But now his past insists itself upon him in increasingly surreal visions and dreams. His well-mannered life begins to fall apart as the Soviet establishment, the stone upon which he sacrificed his artist's soul, begins welcoming -- even insisting -- on open discussion of surrealists such as Marc Chagall.

A painter and journalist both before and during the Perestroika era, the author grew up watching her parents' acquaintances pass around forbidden poems and novels in an underground cultural exchange. She was the first Russian student to enroll in an American four-year college, graduating from Emory University with degrees in sociology and religion. She went on to work as Jimmy Carter's personal translator. Her debut novel is a sad, gorgeous story of sacrifice and regret told with flights of fancy all the more poignant for the rest of the novel's quiet restraint.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin. $24.95. Marian Wood Books. 368 pages.

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