Friday, March 22, 2019

Shostakovitch's Memoirs

Dimitri Shostakovich's memoirs, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, are one of the most intimate and insightful depictions of Stalinism ever recorded.  In the interviews Shostakovitch apparently conducted with Solomon Volkov, the brilliant musicologist and cultural historian, the great composer reveals himself to be one of the most caustic satirists the Soviet Union ever produced.  With dark humor, and tremendous antipathy for every aspect of authoritarian rule, Shostakovitch carefully explains how a dictator in a totalitarian setting can degrade himself, his immediate circle, and almost everyone else in his realm.

The composer's verbal style, as Volkov points out in his introduction, owes a lot to that genius of everyday Soviet reality, Mikhail Zoshchenko (and, in my opinion, to the indirect influence of longstanding Jewish comedic traditions).  The composer's subject matter, of course, is primarily music, and Russian music in particular.  To be sure, Shostakovitch spends a great deal of time on his mentors and musical influences.  However, the subtext in almost any of these discussion is the corrupting influence of despotic power.  The state determined which composers were funded, and which were not.  More significantly, Stalin saw himself as the arbiter of good taste in music, just as he saw himself as the ultimate arbiter of theater, literature, military strategy, and every other field of human endeavor.

The politicization of music affected every stage of Shostakovitch's Soviet career in music.  His music became the symbol of Russian resistance to Nazi aggression in World War II.  He was both lauded by the Soviets as a symbol of Soviet artistic excellence, and pilloried for his so-called "formalism" and allegiance to "bourgeois" forms of creativity.

To be sure, there is no historical record of Shostakovitch "speaking truth to power" against Stalin.  Shostakovitch sometimes asserts that he often did more than his contemporaries to avoid the kind of flattery than many of his colleagues embraced.  However. Shostakovitch's critique of dictatorial power is predicated on the fact that heroes did not, and could not, have existed in Stalin's reign.  His belief is that any public display of integrity would have been  met by unshakable and bloody force.

In many ways, Shostakovitch's Testimony can be profitably paired with Brian Boeck's new biography of Mikhail Sholokhov, entitled Stalin's Scribe:  Literature, Ambition, and Survival:  The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov.  For both the famous composer and the Nobel Prize winner seemed to have existed at the intersection between loyalty and disloyalty. And both men criticized aspects of Soviet power even as they became its very incarnation to internal and external audiences.  Sholokhov often spoke out much more vigorously on behalf of Soviet leaders thank Shostakovitch.  On the other hand, he also took greater risks, pointing out collectivization problems or advocating for political allies (who he genuinely believed were helping people).  Combined, the memoirs and the literary biography point out just how important culture was to Stalin and his successors. They also remind that of the moral complexity of continuing to make art in the midst of terror.

One should also note that there is some controversy about the accuracy of these memoirs.  A quick look on the Internet reveals that some have accused the editor, Volkov, of making up material that suited him.  Even if this is so, which is perhaps unlikely, the "Memoirs" would remain a valuable artifact on Stalinism.  For someone--whether Shostakovitch or Volkov hardly matters--produced a beautifully expressed exposition of the relationship between high culture and Soviet power.