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 of oppression 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.