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

Overview

“Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that.” So said the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose first compositions in the 1920s identified him as an avant-garde wunderkind. But that same singularity became a liability a decade later under the totalitarian rule of Stalin, with his unpredictable grounds for the persecution of artists. Solomon Volkov—who cowrote Shostakovich’s controversial 1979 memoir, Testimony—describes how this lethal uncertainty ...
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Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator

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Overview

“Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that.” So said the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose first compositions in the 1920s identified him as an avant-garde wunderkind. But that same singularity became a liability a decade later under the totalitarian rule of Stalin, with his unpredictable grounds for the persecution of artists. Solomon Volkov—who cowrote Shostakovich’s controversial 1979 memoir, Testimony—describes how this lethal uncertainty affected the composer’s life and work.

Volkov, an authority on Soviet Russian culture, shows us the “holy fool” in Shostakovich: the truth speaker who dared to challenge the supreme powers. We see how Shostakovich struggled to remain faithful to himself in his music and how Stalin fueled that struggle: one minute banning his work, the next encouraging it. We see how some of Shostakovich’s contemporaries—Mandelstam, Bulgakov, and Pasternak among them—fell victim to Stalin’s manipulations and how Shostakovich barely avoided the same fate. And we see the psychological price he paid for what some perceived as self-serving aloofness and others saw as rightfully defended individuality.

This is a revelatory account of the relationship between one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and one of its most infamous tyrants.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
After hearing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, an envious Boris Pasternak wrote, “He went and said everything, and no one did anything to him for it.” The extent of the composer’s complicity or dissidence under Stalin has been much debated. Volkov, a prominent adherent of the latter view, marvels at this timid man’s ability to express suffering in music that was nonetheless outwardly optimistic, and suggests that Shostakovich found an important model in Pushkin, who survived the cruelties of Tsar Nicholas I by juggling three classically Russian roles—“pretender,” “chronicler,” and “holy fool.” Volkov’s story depends too often on hunches and assumptions, but he is illuminating when he places the composer in the context of other artists (Pasternak, Bulgakov, and Mandelstam) who attempted dialogue with Stalin and were alternately supported and persecuted by him.
Publishers Weekly
Shostakovich's tortured relationship to the Soviet authorities was a main subject of Testimony, a book published after the composer's death by Volkov, who claimed that it contained Shostakovich's own remembrances. Controversy about the authenticity of Testimony swirled for years, until the publication in 1999 of Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life, accepted by many scholars as decisively countering Testimony's claims to accuracy. The appearance of a new study by Volkov on Shostakovich (1906-1973), then, is sure to raise critical hackles. Volkov argues that Shostakovich survived the denunciation of his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and more minor controversies thereafter, in part by relying on a Russian tradition of playing the "holy fool" when under political pressure. When Stalin asked that Shostakovich henceforth submit operas and ballets for approval, the composer solved the problem by refraining from writing these musical forms. Volkov finds that luck played a role as well in Shostakovich surviving while so many other artists were killed or banned, but the "holy fool" argument as a whole only partially convinces: at times, Shostakovich's reticence regarding the regime seemed to turn into compliance, as when he signed a letter late in his life that denounced human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, an act Volkov says Shostakovich regretted. The book assumes a lot of knowledge of Soviet history for a general readership; nonspecialists interested in the composer and his work will still be better served by Fay. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Despite being compromised by his political connections, Dmitri Shostakovich "managed to transform [his First Violin Concerto] into the gold of music," says musicologist Volkov, who co-wrote the composer's Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (1979). In the 1960s, the one-time darling of the Western intelligentsia became a cultural outcast for his support of the Khrushchev regime and castigation of heroic physicist/activist Sakharov. Volkov documents his subject's life from the early 1920s to his death in 1975, carefully considering his relationship with Stalin. All of the great Russian masters (e.g., Prokofiev, Kachaturian, Muradeli, Sergei Eisenstein) were Stalin's puppets in public, argues Volkov, but most of them resisted Stalin in private; this was especially true of Shostakovich. Stalin's shadow reached into Khrushchev's Kremlin, but Khrushchev was never the cultural maven that Stalin was. Without genuine cultural knowledge, Khrushchev was much harder to deal with. He forced Shostakovich to add his name to the letter dealing the final blow to Sakharov when his security privileges were revoked, effectively ending his career. This is a diverting attempt at partial restoration, but Sean McMeekin's The Red Millionaire deals more effectively with much of the same cultural landscape. Recommended for academic and public history and music libraries.-Harry Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A revealing portrait of the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), who managed to keep skin and soul intact during the worst years of the Soviet terror. Art rarely flourishes under oppression; Joseph Stalin knew this, even if some cultural historians seem not to. One surprise in Volkov's (St. Petersburg, 1995) richly detailed study is just how much political license artists such as Shostakovich, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Boris Pasternak enjoyed, as did other members of the intelligentsia. (Others, of course, were not so fortunate, for Stalin thrived on keeping his subjects off balance.) A case in point: in 1936, when Shostakovich came under attack in the pages of Pravda for "formalism," many intellectuals publicly rose to his defense. "We are accustomed to thinking of the second half of the 1930s in the Soviet Union as a time of total fear, complete unanimity, and absolute subordination to the dictates of Party and state," writes Volkov; yet the dissidents "denied the right of the Party and Stalin to dictate cultural opinions to them." Volkov offers a masterful account of the fine art of accommodation: Stalin loosening the reins now and again as long as the artists kept producing, artists such as Shostakovich-especially Shostakovich-playing the yurodivy, or "holy fool," to speak "dangerous but necessary truths to the face of the tsar." (Yet not always to his face; Shostakovich also traded in subtleties, such as insinuating Jewish motifs into his music in order to protest official anti-Semitism.) Stalin was mercurial, of course-an actor who flubbed his lines in the leader's presence went on to win the Stalin Prize, but the relevant cultural officials were purged-and the pace ofoppression actually quickened after WWII, when Soviet intellectuals dared to hope more or less openly that the West, having dispatched one despot, would take Stalin on. An eye-opening look at the intersection of art and political power.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375410826
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/23/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.51 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Solomon Volkov is a musicologist and the author, most recently, of St. Petersburg: A Cultural History.

Antonina W. Bouis is an award-winning translator.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Prologue: Tsars and Poets 3
Ch. I Mirages and Temptations 37
Ch. II The Year 1936: Causes and Consequences 73
Ch. III 1936: Facing the Sphinx 119
Ch. IV The Tsar's Mercy 143
Ch. V War: Triumphs and Tribulations 169
Ch. VI 1948: "Look Over Here, Look Over There, the Enemy Is Everywhere!" 207
Ch. VII Final Convulsions and Death of the Tsar 233
Epilogue: In the Shadow of Stalin 253
Notes 283
Index 299
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2005

    Interesting topic but very poorly written

    The subject matter is very interesting. However, I think the title is a bit misleading -- there is significant discussion of other composers, artists, and not enough insight into Shostakovich's relationship with Stalin. It is very poorly written, in a chatty, in-the-know style not well organized at all. As the book progresses it becomes ever more coarse. I cannot believe that the author was able to get this book published in its current state -- obviously the interest in Shostakovich took precedence...

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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