Dancing with the Devil: Shostakovich & Stalin

In 1937, Dmitri Shostakovich premiered his Fifth Symphony to thunderous acclaim. But it had a disconcerting subtitle, ‘A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.’

Response to just criticism… Your rightful reaction should be: What the hell does that mean? Well, here is how it went down.

Big Brother is Watching

Conjure in your mind the savage ruthlessness of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Think of Orwell’s hellish Nineteen Eighty-Four with Big Brother, Thought Police, Double-Think, Newspeak; a dark satire modeled on the nightmare of Stalin’s Russia.

Think also of that wonderful film V for Vendetta. The Gestapo henchmen revel in the abuse of their power and everyone walks around in state of perpetual terror. Neighbors, friends, family members, anyone could be ‘disappeared’ in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again. The government has eyes and ears everywhere, so everyone is petrified of everyone else, because anyone could be a secret informant.

And so, like Winston in 1984, everyone walks around with impassive faces, neither smiling nor frowning, giving nothing away, not a single thought. Shostakovich’s countless portraits reveal this quite clearly.

Happier Days

Basking in the heady glow of the Revolution, Shostakovich emerged from his training at the Leningrad Conservatory. The graduating assignment was his First Symphony, premiered in 1926. He was 19 years old. It was so good, quirky, mature and sophisticated, that it was rapidly given performances all over the world by the most famous conductors and orchestras of the day. Impressive for a kid just out of school!

Shostakovich soon achieved world renown and became an international cultural emblem for the Soviet Union. The brazen audacity of his music reflected the proud social upheaval of post-Revolution Russia. And the Party happily co-opted his talent and fame for their own purposes. That is, until one fateful day in 1936…

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

In 1934, Shostakovich premiered his second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (nothing to do with Shakespeare actually.) It tells the rather bleak tale of an abused wife, suffering an existence of neglect and violence. In her loneliness and yearning for connection, she takes a secret lover. Driven to murder through vicious indifference, Katerina ends up poisoning her lecherous and violent father-in-law and later, killing her cowardly brute of a husband. The plot is discovered after the fact, and the two lovers are given a life sentence in a Siberian labor-camp. The opera ends with a forced prison march during which, deserted by her lover, Katerina plunges to her death in an icy river below. Like I said, pretty bleak!

But the darkness of the story was no hindrance to the opera’s success. Lady Macbeth was a huge hit. Audiences loved it! There was sex, violence, and a dissident tone of nose-thumbing at traditional power structures (the oppressive patriarchy of the story is effortlessly analogous to any government.) It was performed over 200 times between its premiere in 1934 and that day in 1936 when Stalin decided to attend a performance.  

The next thing we know, Shostakovich is being publically denounced and upbraided for the sin of being 'petit-bourgeois'. This accusation cuts like a knife because the wealthy bourgeoisie were the very people overthrown by the proletariat (working class) in the Revolution. This is even worse than being  called a Republican ;)  Shit is about to get real for Dmitri. 

Stay Tuned...

Tune in to the next blog to find out Shostakovich’s fate…

Kirsten Hicks