Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator by Solomon Volkov - review by Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer

Music to Uncle Joe’s Ears

Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator


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IN THE LAST year two serious and well-researched books have covered, from different angles, the effect that Josef Stalin’s dictatorship had on the arts in the Soviet Union. One, which took culture as a secondary subject, was Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s superb political biography of the dictator; the other, which looked at Stalin only as a figure in the Soviet Union’s cultural history, was the first volume of David Caute’s detailed examination of the arts under Communism, The Dancer Defects. Now, Solomon Volkov has attempted to crystallise a ‘relationship’ between one of the Soviet Union’s foremost composers, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Stalin, the better for us to understand the interaction between culture and politics in a time of terror. Sadly, Volkov’s book fails, and for for one very obvious reason. Despite the subtitle, there was, really, no relationship at all. The two men hardly ever met, and their most significant interaction appears to have come during a telephone call. Stalin certainly held great influence over the life of Shostakovich, a nervous man who was clever enough to realise that he could at that time exercise his formidable talents only in ways that Stalin sanctioned. Shostakovich, however, was barely a footnote in the life of Stalin. For sure, Stalin had a keen appreciation of the arts, especially music. He listened if not with an educated ear then undeniably with an attentive one. He had a rather terrifying and wrong-headed view of how the arts could be harnessed to the maintenance of the Revolution (and, ( of course, his own personal tyranny). He almost certainly did write a denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk in Pravda in 1936, and either wrote or inspired other attacks on the composer then and later on. But the dictator always had more important things to do than chase harmless musicians. .Given Shostakovich’s insignificance to Stalin, this book is bound to differ from what one might expect it to be on reading its title. A rather prolix introduction describes the relationships between tsars and artists, notably that of Nicholas I and Pushkin. This turns out to be singularly lac- in relevance to the relationship (or non-relationship) between Stalin and Shostakovich, but let that pass. We t h e n have some Revolutionary history and some background to the time, from the 1930s to the 1950s, when the composer was prominent enough to be noticed by Stalin. There are vignettes of the composer’s early life and the struggle of his family. There are vignettes too – plenty of them – of the lives of other Russian artists, from Prokofiev to Pasternak. Eventually, Volkov (who knew Shostakovich) gets on to the details of the composer’s musical career, with a rather superficial analysis of some of the main works. But the ‘relationship’ on which the book is supposed to be founded is, inevitably, rather nebulous.

Certainly, when Shostakovich was denounced for his ‘formalism’ in the Pravda articles in 1936 (that is, for his failure to typify the nature and struggles of the Russian people in his works), he, paradoxically, got the upper hand over Stalin. Critical opinion, as Stalin soon realised, was rather favourable towards the corpus of the thirty-year-old composer’s work as it then stood. It was especially favourable to the work that had triggered the outburst, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Therefore, in time, Stalin had to back down and modify his publicly held opinion of Shostakovich’s works, in order not to lose face. This was just as well, because during the Second World War Shostakovich – as a Russian well known in the West and especially in America – was used for propaganda purposes to evoke the Soviet struggle in the Great Patriotic War. He was to write, in his 7th symphony (the ‘Leningrad’), a piece of music that almost became the theme tune of Russian resistance to Nazism. Audiences would, during the final movement, rise spontaneously to their feet in awe and corporate emotion. Like so many of his compatriots, though, Shostakovich was useful in this time of struggle, but apparently more dispensable (in his case for ideological reasons that Volkov never entirely makes clear) after it was over.

In 1948 Shostakovich was publicly humiliated and denounced again. as part of the general assault on the intelligentsia. His music was no longer played. So when, a year later, Stalin ordered him to go to America as part of a ‘peace’ delegation, and he refused because he felt his music was not acceptable to his own country, Uncle Joe had to back down again. The dictator demanded that the composer’s music be restored to the repertoire, and in return demanded that Shostakovich go to America. Further humiliations awaited him there, after a hero’s welcome. A cousin of Pasternak’s, a minor composer living in America, asked Shostakovich whether he agreed with Pravda’s latest denunciations of various other Russian artists. Shostakovich had no choice but to say he did. The play had been intended to show the world just how little freedom of thought actually existed in Russia; but instead it served only to make many in the West feel that the composer was simply a toady of the regime, or had been successfully brainwashed by it.

Volkov tries to argue that in the twenty-two years between Stalin’s death in 1953 and the composer’s in 1975 his art was still constrained by his relationship with the dead dictator, but that is nonsense. Certainly, Shostakovich was reluctant, to go back to opera after the pasting Pravda had given Lady Macbeth of Mtensk in 1936; and the institutional poor judgement and paranoia of Stalin had clearly bred something similar in Shostakovich, as in most other artists in the Soviet Union. There is no real evidence that Stalin had any influence on the works written after his death by Shostakovich, and the fact that Volkov affects to find any is on a par for insight with all the other suppositions on which this book is founded.

There were other, less direct forces at work during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes that still held the creative temperaments in check. Volkov appears to know something about music (not that he manages to express his knowledge very well), but he apparently knows little about politics. This might seem a harsh criticism of a man who lived in the Soviet Union for many years, but one is bound to say that even those there, &her down the food chain, really knew or understood little of what was going on.

There seems to be much more about cultural life in Russia in this book than there is about Shostakovich. But, since the thesis of the whole book is highly tendentious, that, too, is hardly surprising. Sadly, even the wider cultural picture offered is so superficial and selective that it fails to add very much of value to what, in the end, is a rather third-rate book. Those who know about either Shostakovich or Stalin will learn very little from it, and will be hard put to share the author’s conclusions about the ‘relationship’. And those who know little and want to know more would be very ill-advised to start here.


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