Reply to "redrick"

by Ian MacDonald

Posted 2nd March 1996 (and subsequently)

"Stalin was a jerk. K(h)rus(h)chev said so, so it must be true, right? (grin)"

This inane yawp emanates from someone calling himself "redrick" whose loud and ignorant assertions are currently threatening to turn a.f.s into a chimpanzee's tea-party. Happily I haven't time to enter into the prolonged shouting match he appears to enjoy, so the following response will have to do. (For work reasons, I must forego the distraction of a.f.s. for the next six months - a pleasant relief if "redrick" signals the level it's about to sink to.)

1) "redrick" wrote:

"Shostakovich's 'clashes' with the regime were few and mild compared to just about anyone else's you can name. He was a major soviet figure from the thirties through the sixties, without spending half the time picking potatoes in Siberia. Who else can you say that about?"

If this extraordinary statement is to be taken seriously, it appears to mean that all major Soviet figures from the Thirties to the Sixties - except Shostakovich - spent half their time "picking potatoes" in Siberia. As with almost everything else "redrick" says, this marks him out as someone who has never bothered to come to grips with the Soviet background. No Soviet composer was ever sent to the camps. Stalin kept them "in the world" to churn out film scores and occasional cantatas. Writers, on the other hand, were always dangerous and consequently went to the Gulag by the thousands. (I regret to disillusion "redrick" but no Gulag prisoners were ever set to do anything as innocuous as pick potatoes. Instead zeks suffered cold and exhaustion from 12-hour-days chopping trees and gouging out roads in the Arctic Circle, or broke their backs digging canals, or died slowly from radiation sickness in uranium mines. Perhaps it's time he stopped yelling and read The Gulag Archipelago...)

As for Shostakovich's clashes with the regime being "few and mild compared to just about anyone else's you can name", one wonders just exactly who "redrick" could name, if asked. "Mild"? One despairs at his callous lack of imagination. DDS's son Maxim has described how, on many occasions, his father sat all night outside the family flat with a packed suitcase waiting for the NKVD to come for him. Around the time of the Fifth Symphony, two of Shostakovich's close relatives and a dozen colleagues in the intelligentsia were arrested, some later to be exiled, others tortured and shot. The pressure of fear on the composer must have been unbearable. Indeed if we take the trouble to read the major books on the Terror, we discover that almost the entire populace of the USSR was paralysed with fright. "Redrick" can be forgiven his ignorance, but not his selfish inability to put himself in someone else's place. Hardly surprising that he can't hear the music.

2. "redrick" wrote:

"A few facts in the face of much cold war thunder. Shostakovich was never 'unpersoned'... Shostakovich chose to remain in the Soviet Union..."

If "redrick" had been following this subject, he'd know that the charge that Shostakovich "chose" to remain in the Soviet Union has long been dismissed as of no ideological significance. Almost all of those who fled the revolution did so before or during the Civil War. Obtaining permission to leave the country after 1921 was almost impossible. After 1930, when Stalin sealed the borders, it was totally impossible unless special dispensation was granted (as when the dictator personally granted Zamyatin an exit visa in 1931).In 1930, Shostakovich was a mere 24. This was absolutely his last realistic chance of getting out of the country, even supposing that Stalin felt like letting him go. As it happens, Shostakovich didn't want to leave Russia because, like many Russian intellectuals, he feared deracination. But it was Russia he didn't want to leave, not the Soviet Union.

As for "unpersoning", there are two definitions of this: (i) being dehumanised, demonised, or placed beyond the pale (as, for example, when Bolsheviks referred to the peasants as "dark people", meaning folk different in kind from the enlightened standard-bearers of the socialist future - and, as such, dispensable); (ii) being deprived of the ability to earn a living from one's qualified occupation (as, for example, when philosophers in Czechoslovakia were allowed only to clean latrines). Each of these definitions fits Shostakovich during the aftermaths to the denunciations of 1936 and 1948. During these months, the newspapers were full of invective against Shostakovich and other "mercenary Formalists". (Cf. the Stalin Prize-winning play written by Sergei Mikhalkov in 1949.) The conductor Kurt Sanderling, who arrived in Moscow from Germany in 1936, recalls the atmosphere:

"All I can tell you is that I was shocked by the way they were treating a composer who had previously been held in high regard, by the charges directed against him, and, most important of all, by the manner in which it was being done. As a newcomer, I failed to understand how dangerous it all was, believing that it could affect only his work as a musician. Shostakovich found himself ostracised overnight even though Stalin, in characteristic ambivalence, kept the composer supplied with lucrative commissions for film music to ensure his financial survival. The press was full of the most venomous invective at the time."

During times of sustained public vilification in the USSR, it was understood that the victims were to be "sent to Coventry" and that anyone who associated with them risked arrest. As such, these scapegoats became "fair game". In 1948, youths stood outside Shostakovich's dacha, jeering "Hey, Formalist, come out!" and throwing stones at his windows. Maxim Shostakovich has told how he sat in a tree with a catapault defending his father against them. Vishnevskaya has written of Shostakovich's persecution and penury around this time. Rostropovich recalls that, in 1948, "everyone in the arts and music was so scared. For instance, Shostakovich gave the manuscript of his First Violin Concerto to David Oistrakh and that concerto was not performed for three years because people were too scared. People tried to forget about those composers [Shostakovich and Prokofiev] - they were almost naked and without friends. In our system, only the state could commission work from a composer, so both Shostakovich and Prokofiev were very hard up - they were simply hungry. One morning, at a time when I was living in Prokofiev's house, he told me that he had no money to buy anything for breakfast. It was the worst day of my life."

To be "unpersoned" under Stalinism meant to be deprived of human status and turned into a civic whipping boy. In communist China, they made intellectuals wear dunces' caps in public. That didn't literally happen to Shostakovich; it did happen metaphorically.

3) "redrick" wrote:

"Volkov has been throughly discredited... At the time of the Wilson interviews, the Volkov fraud had not yet been exposed... Obviously these True Believers will continue to swallow the Wilson/Volkov/McDonald idiocy no matter how discredited it becomes... Wilson's book is altogether more responsible than the extreme fantasies of Ian McDonald, who imagines DS as some sort of secret counter-revolutionary reactionary. Nonetheless, one needs to carefully consider the time during which each of Wilson's sources made their comments..."

Solomon Volkov has never been discredited. On the contrary, he is supported by almost every significant figure in Shostakovich's milieu. (See Testimony pro Testimony.) Richard Taruskin is, by comparison, insignificant, as well as widely disliked as a bully in American musicological circles. (Perhaps that's why he appeals to "redrick"? That and the fact that Taruskin confirms his obvious need to believe that Soviet Communism wasn't vile after all.) One presumes "redrick" will remain obdurately pro-Taruskin no matter how many people who once knew Shostakovich come forward to support Volkov. For instance - and quite contrary to "redrick" - the composer's son Maxim has endorsed Testimony and is on good terms with Volkov, whom he regards highly. Admittedly Shostakovich's other child, Galina, has so far said nothing on this subject. Suppose, though, she came out with a statement praising Volkov and calling Testimony a "true reflection" of her father's political opinions? Would "redrick" recant? Probably not. But I'd advise him to keep watching this space.

It's odd how Elizabeth Wilson moves so quickly in the "redrick" universe from being part of "the Wilson/Volkov/MacDonald idiocy" to being "altogether more responsible than the extreme fantasies of Ian MacDonald". Clearly "redrick" hadn't read Shostakovich: A Life Remembered when he made his first inflammatory posts. Now that he has, he clings to EW's misleading disclaimer about "extremes" without recognising that her narrative of Shostakovich's life is far more "extreme" than mine. The fact that he knows little about this subject is clear from his laughable statement that EW gathered her interviews before Testimony was "exposed". For someone who claims to have seen through The New Shostakovich, he is strangely amnesiac. Surely he read my "Prelude" wherein I discussed the "exposure" of Testimony (which occurred in 1980) and quoted Maxim's approval of the book (which he mysteriously seems to have missed)? Or perhaps he's never actually read The New Shostakovich - just as, until a day or two ago, he'd never bothered to look at Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. One begins to wonder if he's even read Testimony.

As for needing to weigh the affidavits of those - like Elizabeth Wilson's witnesses - who have spoken about Shostakovich since the fall of Communism, that is certainly true. But what persuades a rank neophyte like "redrick" that he possesses the qualifications to do this? M. Panes asked him: "When would Russians be more free to speak their minds? During the height of Stalinist terror? Or when they are living in less fear for their safety?" "Redrick" replied: "What are you talking about? Stalin died in 1953. And the height of 'Stalinist terror' was over half a century ago." Apparently "redrick" is entirely unaware of how tightly the intelligentsia was policed even under Khrushchev; of the fact that one could be sacked or marginalised for stepping even slightly out of line (as happened to Shostakovich's supporters Lev Lebedinsky and Daniel Zhitomirsky); of the neo-Stalinist hysteria whipped up against Pasternak in 1958 or Josef Brodsky in 1964 or Daniel and Sinyavsky in 1966; of the use of straitjackets and hideous drugs to quell nonconformists in special "mental hospitals"; of how paranoiacally careful Solzhenitsyn had to be while he was still in the USSR and how a friend guarding a copy of Gulag was killed by the KGB during a raid; etc. Panes is absolutely right; "redrick" is ludicrously wrong. (Btw, "redrick" refers to "the post-1958 Communist Party", which implies that he thinks Khrushchev made his Secret Speech in 1958. Try 1956. Hugh Canfield has pointed out the "Yeltsev" gaff, farcically excused by "redrick" as a "typo". Such factual errors speak for themselves.)

"Redrick" claims I see Shostakovich as "some sort of counter-revolutionary reactionary". This statement is politically infantile. To disagree with Bolshevism was not necessarily to be a reactionary. The Russian political spectrum was far subtler than that. (See my remarks on Richard Taruskin's similar oversimplifications in my review of David Fanning's book.) The truth is that the testimony of Elizabeth Wilson's witnesses to the composer's youth suggests that Shostakovich was always apolitical, which far exceeds my deductions in The New Shostakovich. For the record, my position is that Shostakovich began composing from a dissident standpoint around 1936; that he became politically cynical in the late 1920s (a view shared by Professor Inna Barsova of the Moscow Conservatoire); and that, on the basis of his letters to Tanya Glivenko (which Taruskin and company haven't seen), he is extremely unlikely ever to have maintained a serious political position, other than the Orwellian belief that decency should prevail over ideology in all competing circumstances.

Which brings me to my penultimate point:

4) "redrick" wrote:

"McDonald is a Cold Warrior... McDonald and his rightwing clique... etc"

I voted Labour in 1974 and 1979, Social Democrat in 1984 and 1987, Liberal Democrat in 1992. I'll vote for Tony Blair at the next election. During my days as a journalist, I wrote several anti-fascist pieces as well as articles against totalitarianism in general. I detest what Thatcherism has done to to Britain. Broadly speaking, that's my politics. Take it or leave it.

5) "redrick" wrote:

"Obviously these True Believers will continue to swallow the whole Wilson/Volkov/McDonald idiocy no matter how discredited it becomes. It's what they want to believe... It's never as simple as zealots would have it."

There's only one zealot around here. To borrow his own charming phrase, he is an "irresponsible flame-thrower" without humility, sympathy, or insight. The sad fact is that "redrick" believes what he wants to believe, regardless of what Shostakovich's former friends and colleagues witness to the contrary. I'm sorry for him, but since there's no way to parley with such prejudice, I must leave him to it. May the Bird of Paradise fly up his nose.

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