'Shostakovich and Stalin' by Solomon Volkov

Review: Shostakovich and Stalin

Book Review

Shostakovich and Stalin‘ by Solomon Volkov
Alfred A. Knopf, New York /Little, Brown, London , 2004

Reviewed by C. H. Loh

‘Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses.’ Thus open the memoirs of the twentieth century’s last great composer, Dmitry Shostakovich. Millions of people perished under the iron fist of Joseph Stalin. Shostakovich’s work is remarkable in that his music sprouted like a radiant flower out of a field of decaying bodies. And that is no mere metaphor. In the TV documentary Stalin Promised Us a Bridge an inhabitant of deep-frozen Siberia, where many of the locals are survivors of the Gulag or their descendants, reveals how the banks of the idyllic river running near their village once broke and the earth belched out not sand and stone but a deluge of dead bodies, turning it into a river of corpses.

The idyllic banks of Shostakovich’s reputation as a faithful Communist also burst in 1979 with the appearance of his memoirs, Testimony, as dictated to the young music-journalist Solomon Volkov, who had fled to the West and fulfilled his promise to Shostakovich to publish it there after the composer’s death.

Testimony did not speak about lofty musical ideas and inspiration but about the horrors of life under a totalitarian state – a bleak tale of survival steeped in an Orwellian darkness. For a public figure that in the West was, and still is today by some, considered a model citizen of the Communist Party, Testimony was an ideological nuclear bomb that turned the shy, introspective composer into the most controversial figure in the history of classical music.

Solomon Volkov still suffers from the epic war that broke out over the authenticity of Testimony, but after decades of silence he has finally emerged with a new book on the man who brought him worldwide repute but also turned him into a pariah among western academics for allegedly faking the memoirs. Whether through peer pressure or duress, Testimony has become a four-letter word among a powerful coterie of American writers.

With Shostakovich and Stalin Volkov returns to the arena of Shostakovich studies with a vengeance. Touching on a topic that few in the English-speaking world had dared to broach – with the notable exception of the late Ian MacDonald, himself an outcast for being an ‘outsider’ to the elite world of musicology (MacDonald was steeped in the tradition of the Beatles rather than of Bach, a ‘Beatles-wannabe’, as one American journalist scornfully put it) – Volkov’s new book boldly re-opens an important facet of Shostakovich’s life, indeed, the entire cultural life of the Soviet Union under the Great Terror. It considers the relation of the artist to the state and in particular, to the bloodiest of all statesmen – Stalin. The subject is one which has become a minefield since the condemnation of Testimony flared up.

But as MacDonald once put it, no reasonable study of the composer’s life can be complete without an understanding of this aspect. In this sense Volkov’s new work takes off from where MacDonald’s pioneering work leaves off. MacDonald was the first westerner to discuss Shostakovich’s music in the context of the political and social upheavals of his time. His chronology of compositions set against the terrifying din of show trials and deportations throws into strong relief the role played by the composer’s immense body of works in the dark history of his homeland.

Through first-hand knowledge of both Shostakovich and Soviet history, both political and cultural, and with the aide of newly opened KGB archives, Volkov pieces together the way Stalin manipulated the cultural elite of Russia, playing them like the marionette so vividly portrayed by Shostakovich in the third movement of his Tenth Symphony. Although much of the material will by now be familiar, Shostakovich and Stalin provides one of the richest accounts yet, fleshing out key moments in the cultural history of the times with new perspectives.

The first chapter lays a solid cornerstone to the framework of the book. Strange as it may have appeared to some readers (among them Tim Page of The Washington Post, who talked of ‘padding’ and ‘digressions’), Volkov opens his tale not with Shostakovich but with the account of Pushkin’s historic meeting with Tsar Nicholas I. It is very soon clear why. Apart from being a refreshing way of approaching the subject, the opening chapter establishes key motifs which, like the exposition of a symphony, serve as the building blocks of his opus.

This symphonic device also elucidates two key points: that Stalin possibly modelled his approach to the arts after Tsar Nicholas, and that Shostakovich himself drew on the tradition set by Pushkin. Understanding this, the ‘yurodivy’ aspect of the composer acquires a crystalline clarity, and the composer’s so-called ‘enigma’ can readily be fathomed.

What is groundbreaking about Shostakovich and Stalin is Volkov’s attempt to get into Stalin’s twisted mind, and to see how he plays his chess game with the cultural icons like Shostakovich, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Eisenstein and the like. The results can be surprising – as in the idea that Stalin may have miscalculated in the ferocity of the trio of articles beginning with ‘Muddle Instead Of Music’ and that there was more dissent amongst the intelligentsia over this affair than we outsiders realised.

Thus Volkov traverses the life of the composer, retelling his biography in his unique way, and filling in many missing parts to create a colourful and often moving account of the life of an artist under one of the harshest working conditions any composer had to face.

Along the way Volkov examines aspects of the composer’s work that have largely been overlooked. For instance, most commentators concentrate on the ‘ Babi Yar ’ movement of the Thirteenth Symphony, overlooking the later ones. Volkov, by contrast, examines ‘Fears’, showing how Shostakovich continued to be traumatised by the Stalin years well into his late creative period. He similarly sheds light on the Fourteenth Symphony, where the composer battles with the shadow of death, by discussing the inner movements ‘In Sante Prison’ and ‘The Cossack’s Reply’ to demonstrate that the work was more defiant than resigned.

Volkov approaches his subject with a commanding eye for interesting detail and a flair for story-telling that is often moving. Shostakovich and Stalin is not only a piece of academic research: it is also a moving tale of the resilience of human spirit in the face of extinction. Many of his pages bring a tear to the eye, among them the poignant account of the last years of Stalin’s life as told through the tragedies of Mikhoels and Prokofiev, or the heart-wrenching last pages of the composer’s own life, where the tables are turned and he is no longer persecuted by the state but by his own peers; here there is wonderful irony in how it is not the Party who demands life-affirming music from him but the dissidents.

With his simple narrative style Volkov brings us closer than ever to the world of a composer who has been both enigmatic or controversial. In Volkov’s view he was neither. He was a supremely gifted human being with a heart of gold, someone who did what he could to survive and to tell the tale for future generations in his music.

I was moved to tears as I completed the section on the premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony, as Volkov offered this excerpt from Yudina’s letter to the composer:

I can say thank you from the Late Pasternak, Zabolotsky, innumerable other friends, from the tortured-to-death Meyerhold, Mikhoels, Karvasin, Mandelstam, from the nameless hundreds of thousands of ‘Ivan Denisoviches’, they cannot be counted, the ones Pasternak called ‘tortured alive’ – you know all that, they all live in you, we are all burning in the pages of the Score, you have given it as a gift to us, your contemporaries – for generations to come.