Surviving Stalin's Terror and Censorship

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Consider a Russian born in 1900 with a natural 70-year lifespan. What are his chances of survival? He would have to endure the First World War, the Revolution, Civil War and famine, Stalinist terror in the 1930s, the invasion of Hitler, the remainder of Stalin’s life, the Khrushchev years, and the first part of the Brezhnev stagnation.

The remarkable Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), personal target of Joseph Stalin and Party censors, managed to survive all these periods while maintaining his artistic integrity.

Shostakovich encountered harsh challenges throughout his career, but his greatest test was during the time of Stalin. The personalized terror campaign that Stalin’s government waged against Shostakovich is emblematic of the extent to which the Soviet state desired control over its citizens’ cultural and aesthetic lives. During Stalin’s rule, Shostakovich suffered two major denunciations, in 1936 and 1948, and numerous smaller attacks were interspersed throughout his career. His music was frequently deemed “formalist,” “counterrevolutionary,” “anti-Soviet,” or “pro-Western”; these epithets came in varying degrees of intensity, and their issuers more than once threatened Shostakovich’s life.

The artistic constraints imposed on the composer forced him to think deeply about how to express himself truthfully within an external guise of Party orthodoxy. A public figure’s survival in the Stalin era required an astute political eye, adaptability, and a measure of plain luck. Shostakovich was fortunate to have all three of these. What made him particularly successful, in a cultural and historical sense, was that he deployed these gifts within an unforgiving environment while remaining faithful to his creative impulses.

Opportunities to adapt, with disastrous consequences for failure, emerged during Shostakovich’s rise as a composer in the mid-1930s. His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District attained enormous popularity in 1934 and 1935, and in these years Shostakovich became a celebrated name in urban households. Stalin attended a performance in early 1936; the next day, an angry anonymous article appeared prominently in Pravda, called “Muddle Instead of Music,” which viciously attacked the opera as “vulgar” and “primitive.”

Opera houses were ordered to cancel performances and Shostakovich’s other work fell from official favor. Accusations of “corruption” and “pro-Western formalism” erupted in the state-run press, while intellectuals distanced themselves from the composer, as his name had become toxic. Shostakovich fearfully read Pravda, carefully tracking nuances in the Party’s stance toward him. It is in this period that Shostakovich first experienced the brunt of Stalin’s terror. He started sleeping in the hallway of his apartment complex in expectation of arrest, not wishing to wake his wife when the moment occurred. He became an obsessive smoker and developed an array of nervous tics.

The denunciation of Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District forced Shostakovich, with his life on the line, to rework his style into a more acceptable idiom. In the midst of his denunciation, he withdrew the Fourth Symphony from rehearsal before it could be premiered. For the next few years, he concentrated on writing film scores to make up for lost income and to keep a low profile. He also set to music poems by Alexander Pushkin, a “safe” author.

After some time, he released the Fifth Symphony of 1937, which was in a simplified design tolerable to party bosses, popular with audiences, and personally satisfying. Shostakovich was rehabilitated, at least partially, in the eye of the state, and again enjoyed public approval. His choices reveal a sharp mind that could function under acute stress. Adaptability and political shrewdness proved invaluable to Shostakovich, who survived where others did not (e.g. Shostakovich’s talented but careless acquaintance Osip Mandelstam, who died in a gulag in 1938).

The onset of the Second World War radically altered the political calculus in the Soviet Union. Presumably realizing his error in executing dozens of qualified officers during the late 1930s, Stalin chose to retain what had suddenly become another vital asset — artistic talent. Stalin appears to have recognized that while in peacetime it was possible to use Marxist themes as the basis of his regime’s legitimacy, in wartime a much more emotionally riveting and psychologically powerful force would be necessary. The Party redeployed imagery of Russia’s rich history, religious tradition and cultural life, encouraging emotional connections to “Russianness” as opposed to the impersonal messages of socialist realism. The profound “Russianness” of Shostakovich’s music was in line with this national priority.

The Seventh Symphony in C Major (1942, “Leningrad”) is ostensibly a musical testament to the suffering of the Russian people during the war, but features a significant double meaning. The circumstances of the invasion permitted Shostakovich to skillfully express his true feelings toward the Party and its leader while simultaneously inspiring Soviet citizens, and indeed other Allied citizens, to defy Hitler’s armies.

The Seventh Symphony received worldwide praise as a work of resistance against Nazi totalitarianism; it is this, but it is dually an indictment of Stalin’s brutality. Shostakovich wrote, damningly, that the symphony was about the Leningrad that “Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.” Thus, Shostakovich was able to condemn two different, albeit comparably terrible, tragedies in one artistic statement, and in so doing received exaltation as a hero.

While the Second World War is the most famous example of Shostakovich’s alertness of shifts in the Party’s stance, he would use other changes to his advantage as well. After Stalin’s death the composer capitalized on the Khrushchev thaw to be more open in his criticism of the government. Like the Seventh Symphony before it, the Thirteenth Symphony in B flat Minor (1962, “Babi Yar”) — which commemorates the slaughter of thousands of Jews by Nazi forces — disparages the flaws of the Soviet state, particularly its failure to put a memorial on the site of the murder and misinformation regarding war crimes.

The symphony’s central text is Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” which is, by Soviet standards, scathing in its condemnation of the regime. Khrushchev’s apparatchiks gave both the poet and the composer a hard time, launching yet another smear campaign and pressuring musicians to avoid the symphony. However, Shostakovich correctly sensed that the danger was not comparable to that he had experienced in 1936: accordingly, he refused to withdraw the work from performance. Like the Seventh, the Thirteenth was praised by a public which appreciated the composer’s honesty.  

Nevertheless, no amount of careful posturing could entirely protect a Soviet citizen from lethal persecution. Shostakovich enjoyed some luck, the third factor in question. Had Stalin desired it, Shostakovich and his family could have disappeared into the night, his famous name written off as a case of “retirement,” and his image would have been airbrushed out of photographs. Shostakovich’s attention to detail and quick wits defended him somewhat — he would have been a high-profile murder — but he was also lucky that Stalin chose not to kill him.     

Shostakovich’s triumph was his ability to find an original idiom; infuse it with personal belief, emotion, and commentary; and disguise it effectively while under severe strain. He danced among dangerous flames without prostituting himself to the Party. Deft political maneuvering — and, indeed, simple luck — constitute an extraordinary Soviet success story.

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