The Question of Dissidence (1)

To be read in conjunction with
the Chronology of the Debate.

From the "Testimony view" to the "dissident" conception

Though still a cause of controversy, the "Testimony affair", as described in A Manual for Beginners, is now a subsidiary issue within the wider Shostakovich debate. This is because the "Testimony view" of Shostakovich -- in a nutshell: that he was, in Solomon Volkov's words, "a hidden dissident" (see Chronology, 1981 [April]) -- has, during the last twenty years, been extensively confirmed by the "small 't' testimony" of the composer's many Russian and East European colleagues. Early signs of this confirmation were evident within weeks of the Western publication of Testimony in 1979 when the composers Boris Chaikovsky, Rodion Shchedrin, Georgiy Sviridov, and Galina Ustvolskaya bravely refused to sign the KGB's "letter" to Literaturnaya gazeta denouncing Testimony as a "pitiful forgery". Harlow Robinson recalls that, in Moscow in November 1979, when copies of Testimony were circulating in secret, "Soviet musicologists and musicians (including those who knew him well) expressed reservations about Mr Volkov's motives and methods, [but] they agreed almost unanimously that this was the Shostakovich they knew". A few months later, the British critic John Warrack, reviewing Testimony, quoted "a very distinguished Soviet musician, privately" as saying "I wish [the memoirs] were not true; but I am afraid they are", adding: "Other Soviet musicians and acquaintances have confided more or less the same thing." Similar opinions were subsequently aired by Warrack's colleague Gerald Abraham and by Simon Karlinsky, the professor of literature who, with Laurel Fay, had discovered the "recycled" passages in Testimony.

By the time Ian MacDonald wrote The New Shostakovich in 1988-9, over a dozen witnesses were on record as endorsing, if not the literal text of Testimony, then the impression of the composer which the book conveys -- the "Testimony view" of him. These included the composer's son Maxim who, contrary to claims still repeated by anti-revisionist writers, began endorsing the Testimony view of his father within weeks of defecting from the USSR in April 1981 and has done so regularly ever since, taking issue only with minor details concerning Shostakovich's evaluation of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Additional witnesses included: the conductors Rudolf Barshai and Kyrill Kondrashin, Shostakovich's close friends Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, and other leading Russian musicians such as Rostislav Dubinsky and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Freed to speak in the USSR following the collapse of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, further Russian associates of Shostakovich (the musicologists Lev Lebedinsky, Daniil Zhitomirsky, and Lev Mazel') added their voices to this choir within a year of MacDonald's book appearing in 1990. By 1993, the chorus was reinforced by the musicologists Israel Nestyev, Marina Sabinina, and Vera Volkova, the conductors Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Temirkanov, and Semyon Bychkov, the distinguished novelist Andrei Bitov, and Shostakovich's friend Isaak Glikman.

In 1994, the trickle became a flood with the publication of Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, containing testimony from seventy witnesses. Without necessarily endorsing or even mentioning Testimony itself, Wilson's witnesses confirmed the "Testimony view" of the composer so overwhelmingly that Testimony itself ceased to be the ultimate touchstone of the revisionist position. The American music critic Terry Teachout summed up the paradigm-shifting impact of Wilson's book in Commentary (February, 1995):

Testimony or no Testimony, it is no longer possible to regard Shostakovich as a faithful servant of the Communist party. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered leaves no doubt whatsoever that he hated Stalin, hated Communism, hated the apparatchiki and the nomenklatura, and that much of his music was in some meaningful sense intended to convey this hatred.
Among Wilson's witnesses were those prepared to speak without equivocation of Shostakovich's moral-aesthetic opposition to the Soviet regime. The viola player Fyodor Druzhinin: "People who lived in Shostakovich's epoch have no need to dig in the archives or to marvel at the evidence of repressions and executions and murders. It is all there in his music." The violinist Yakov Milkis: "Shostakovich's whole musical output is logical and consistent in its expression. Through it Dmitri Dmitriyevich found a way of registering a protest and of mocking the Soviet regime." The film director Grigori Kozintsev: "Music is not a profession for Shostakovich, it is the necessity to speak out and to convey what lies behind the lives of people, to depict our age and our country... In Shostakovich's music I hear a virulent hatred of cruelty, of the cult of power, of the persecution of truth..."

As a result of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, the "Testimony view" of the composer gave way to a broader-based "dissident" conception of him, a view confirmed in 1997 by Larry Weinstein's documentary The War Symphonies in which a dozen witnesses, several of whom had earlier been interviewed by Elizabeth Wilson, endorsed this general interpretation of Shostakovich's outlook. While revisionists immediately recognised the significance of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, little was said about it by anti-revisionists. Richard Taruskin briefly referred to it as "the one indispensable book about the composer", but he did not review it and has barely mentioned it since. Laurel Fay lists the book in the bibliography of her study Shostakovich: A Life, but refers to it only inferentially as a collection of the sort of "memoir" material she deems intrinsically unreliable. Not surprisingly, some anti-revisionists have yet to absorb the significance of Wilson's book, continuing to take Testimony to be the benchmark of revisionism and thus attacking revisionists as "Volkovists".

The "dissident" conception versus "open" meaning

At a seminar during the Borodin Quartet's recital-season of the Shostakovich quartets at Bantry House in April 2000, Elizabeth Wilson said that she had no doubt that the composer had despised his country's rulers during most of his life. As the author of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, she draws the obvious conclusion from the testimony of witnesses quoted in her book; as an observer of the Soviet music scene since the mid-1960s, she also, no doubt, relies on personal impressions of Shostakovich in his last decade and of the way he was seen by his circle of associates, many of whom had known him since the 1920s.

Wilson's statement echoes Terry Teachout's deduction that Shostakovich hated the Soviet system and confirms the revisionist character of her own historical commentary in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Revisionism, however, proposes that Shostakovich did not merely hate and despise the Soviet regime (a common enough sentiment among the Russian intelligentsia) but morally resisted it in as much of his music as he could, as well as in such non-musical statements, verbal and otherwise, as he felt safe to indulge in. This distinction -- that Shostakovich was not merely passively alienated from Soviet Communism but actively morally critical of it, and that his work is fundamentally shaped by this resistant outlook -- is crucial both to revisionism and anti-revisionism. Without this distinction, there would be no argument over whether Shostakovich can be termed a dissident. Hence, this point of view is forcefully contested by anti-revisionists, most notably and at greatest length by Richard Taruskin.

Before examining the anti-revisionist case against the dissident conception of Shostakovich, it is necessary to answer a general objection to this point of view often voiced by Western listeners -- which is that any form of "extra-musical" interpretation restricts the range of meanings deducible from a given piece of music, confining its expression in such a way as to "trivialise" it. This objection contains several challengeable assumptions (not excluding the concept of extra-musicality itself which, being literally indefinable, alters its meaning according to usage). The essence of the objection to considering Shostakovich's music as expressing a dissident outlook is that "political" (or "ideological") interpretation reduces the potentially infinite meaning which music should allegedly allow. In fact, no music possesses potentially infinite meaning. While there may be some who believe the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to encipher the secrets of the pyramids or to evoke fly-fishing on a wet morning, such "readings" would be rejected by most listeners. On the other hand, even the most abstract music cannot help evoking a recognisable range of moods, if nothing else. This range, though, will have restrictions. Music, far from infinitely meaningful, succeeds because of its interpretive limitations rather than in spite of them. A given piece of music becomes "universal" by meaning more or less the same thing to all of us -- not by meaning entirely different things to everyone who apprehends it. This, though, does not mean that within the naturally limited range of meanings which any music evokes there is not an equally natural scope for different lines of interpretation. The question becomes: which, if any, of these "readings" is more plausible?

For example, one critic hears the slow opening movement of Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony as an evocation of rural landscape with spiritual associations: "the immensity, the vagueness, the infinitude of the Russian land." Another proposes instead that the envisaged "landscape" is urban and the mood one of muted funerary meditation in the wake of Stalin's Terror of 1935-39. To the extent that both of these responses will induce in the listener a mood of awed and sombre contemplation, it might be argued that it does not matter which, if either, is more plausible (or even correct). But if one reading can be shown to be much more likely, what is the justification for clinging to the other?

Very often the endeavour, by means of contextual investigation, to distinguish relative levels of likelihood is resolvable only in terms of probability, even if such probabilities may be high. Sometimes there is specific confirmation of what may have begun as a conjecture (e.g., MacDonald's speculation in The New Shostakovich concerning the relationship between the Eighth Quartet and the composer's induction into the Communist Party in 1960, later confirmed by Lev Lebedinsky [1990], Maxim Shostakovich [1992], and Isaak Glikman [1993]). Other such conjectures may remain merely more or less probable compared with rival interpretations. Yet to demand, as some commentators do, that meaning, musical or otherwise, be kept permanently open on principle, let alone maintained at the ultimately open level of "infinite" interpretability, flouts commonsense. (It is also contradicted by the willingness of anti-revisionists to accept any "extra-musical" meaning as long as it does not accord with revisionism, e.g., Richard Taruskin's "genocide" theory of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Alex Ross's advocacy of the official "making of a man" rationale for the Fifth Symphony.)

Contrary to claims frequently made by some anti-revisionists, revisionism in Shostakovich studies is not a doctrinaire attempt to "limit" interpretation of the composer's music by imposing "closure" on its meaning, but a continuously ongoing effort to draw closer to understanding it by focusing on its creator's context in order to better grasp his probable intentions. If any approach to Shostakovich can be said to be prescriptively restrictive it is that of anti-revisionism in seeking to limit speculations of a contextual nature, to avoid any probabilistic narrowing of interpretive focus, to downgrade the worth of works which can be shown to possess specific meaning, and (most significantly) to "quash" the alleged "fantasy" that the composer's outlook was dissident.

The culture of dissidence

The argument that revisionism seeks to expand understanding by narrowing the range of possible interpretation to something more probable (or realistic) may seem, at first sight, paradoxical. How can less produce more? There are two, complementary, answers to this: the first theoretical, the second practical.

The theoretical answer is that artistic universality derives from human and local specificity - from the lives and societies of artists and the "dramatic" content of the works they create. The most obviously dramatic art involves the investigation of character and situation, real or imagined, in novels, plays, ballets, portrait painting, certain types of poetry, and, of course, opera -- all these idioms being of proven interest to Shostakovich, whose work, even in the fields of symphonic and chamber music, is arguably dramatic in essence. In this sense, Shostakovich's music may be said to be universal because specific, its specificity manifesting either as imaginative drama or as drama elaborated from, or allegorically mirroring, real events and actual people. Without the blood of such dramatic specificity, artistic universality is at best anaemicly generalised or true only in a philosophical sense; at worst, merely didactic. A classic example of didactically fabricated pseudo-universality is Socialist Realism, which avoided psychological examination and character-based conflict ("vulgar realism") in order to portray society ideally ("in its revolutionary development") as if looking at the present from a future Communist Golden Age.

The second, practical, answer fulfills the theoretical one: dissidence in the USSR represented truthfulness, unexpurgated reality and ethical values -- as against the fantasy reality of Socialist Realism and the pervasive falseness of Soviet public discourse with its concerted negation of traditional morality (an explicitly-stated, indeed fundamental, ingredient in the Soviet regime's forwarding of "revolutionary development"). From 1917 to 1991, there was an inner war going on in Soviet society -- a war between freedom of thought and political conformism, between common decency and the total moral expediency of "Party-mindedness" (partiinost'). This war was carried on partly in secret, partly in public, according to circumstances and the requirements of those in power. Huge numbers on the dissident side perished, but the struggle -- what Igor Shafarevich has called (with reference to Shostakovich) "the Russian resistance to Communism" -- was continuous, even during times (e.g., 1946-53) when conditions were severe enough to discourage the most oblique expression of dissent. As such, Soviet intellectual life was a sustained manifestation of tension between polarised outlooks: official culture and dissident culture.

"Shostakovich," wrote Richard Taruskin in 1995 ("Who Was Shostakovich", The Atlantic Monthly) "was the one and only Soviet artist to be claimed equally by the official culture and the dissident culture." In terms of exclusiveness -- the thesis that Shostakovich was the only artist claimed by both cultures -- Taruskin's assertion is false. For example, even the most "official" writers (such as the poet Mayakovsky, posthumously nominated by Stalin as "the best, the most talented") were, more often than not, privately sceptical about the Soviet regime and known to be so within the dissident culture. It is, indeed, rare to find Russian writers under Soviet rule, however officially sanctioned or ostensibly conformist, who did not, at one time or other, voice a critical outlook on "Soviet reality". Because of the inescapably public nature of his calling, Shostakovich was unusually prominent in the struggle between official and dissident culture. He was also, revisionism contends, uniquely active in forwarding dissident values in his work (an enterprise substantially protected by the deniability inherent in non-verbal dissidence). But he was in no sense alone in privately maintaining a dissenting outlook on Soviet life whilst, at the same time, necessarily giving a contrary public impression of conformism. This, as Czeslaw Milosz eloquently explains in his classic study The Captive Mind, was the very essence of "the game" in the countries of the Soviet bloc.

Some readers will be surprised to hear Shostakovich described so unequivocally as a dissident. So as to keep this exposition as clear as possible, evidence for the dissident conception of the composer is examined separately: in The Case for Dissidence and the "small 't' testimony" of the Witness Statements. The present text will confine itself to examining the general issues raised by the question of dissidence and answering relevant anti-revisionist objections.

Does the "dissident" conception trivialise Shostakovich?

Knowing little about the inner workings of life in the Soviet Union, Western listeners naturally tend to interpret the concept of dissidence as a political activity in opposition to a particular ideology in power: Soviet Communism. As we have seen, this political (or "ideological") interpretation of the question of dissidence is fundamentally misconceived. The principles behind almost all dissidence in the Soviet Union after 1922 were either moral or revolved around issues of truth and reality (the latter impelling much non-Party avant-garde art during the 1920s). The principles of dissidence, as it became known under Soviet rule, are timelessly universal; indeed, the core values of dissidence -- moral and intellectual resistance to thought-controlling despotism -- also existed in the culture of the 19th century intelligentsia, along with a form of paradigmatic dissidence whereby revolutionaries spelled out their political programs in public, risking imprisonment (though rarely death). However, there is a considerable difference between the intelligentsia under the Tsars and the intelligentsia under Soviet rule. (See Part 2: Dissident or intelligent?)

The actual term "dissidence" did not become current until after Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin in 1956, whereupon verbally explicit public dissent in the Soviet Union began to be a practical (if enduringly perilous) possibility. However, paradigmatic dissidence -- the public form of dissent known in the 1960s and 1970s -- did not spring from thin air upon Khrushchev's "signal". It had been there in "secret", "silent", or "hidden" form -- a form of wide extent and considerable elaboration -- throughout the previous years of Soviet rule. In identifying dissidence as "the unifying, integral feature of [Shostakovich's] entire artistic output", the musicologist Mark Aranovsky notes that "the history of 'dissidence' among the Soviet intelligentsia finds its roots decades ago, and in fact began long before the time when this term itself appeared". To insist on restricting the extent of dissidence to after 1956 purely on lexicographical grounds is to be damagingly literal-minded.

The idea that it trivialises Shostakovich's music to treat it as an expression of dissidence is, in fact, based on a serious misunderstanding. Dissidence (in spirit, if not in name) unites the otherwise very different projects of the Russian intelligentsia before and after 1917. While many of the 19th century intelligenty (including, of course, Lenin) were frankly totalitarian, others were fired chiefly by a longing for freedom: freedom of thought, expression, and association. What links the two great phases of Russian dissidence is an intensity of experience and thought foreign to the more pragmatic life of the West. During both of these phases, the question of morality came to the fore with an urgency unknown to the more or less democratic societies of Europe and America. The moral critique aimed at 19th century radicals like Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, and Pisarev by such writers as Leskov, Turgenev, and Dostoyevsky (the literary tradition espoused by the young Shostakovich) was, in essence, sustained by post-Revolutionary writers in the dissident culture: Zamyatin, Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Zoshchenko, and the various individualists and Formalists of 1920s Leningrad -- a modern tradition again espoused (and hardly coincidentally) by Shostakovich. This speaks for itself.

The dissident experience

The moral tension of life under authoritarian or totalitarian rule is vastly greater than in a democracy where everyone is free, within legislated limits, to think and do as they wish. Under punitively repressive conditions, almost every word or act becomes charged with moral significance. In a system which seeks to control the very nature of reality, truth and memory become hugely meaningful commodities. Correspondingly, social situations which lack such tensions are inevitably flabbier by comparison -- even "decadent", as the West notoriously appeared to the dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn during his exile.

What makes the Russian/Soviet "dissident experience" of the last two centuries so especially significant and potentially rich in lessons for Westerners is that it existed within arguably the most vibrant aesthetic culture of modern times -- a culture, moreover, similar enough to ours to permit relatively easy access to its conventions of form and expression. (This is not the case, for example, with China, whose culture is as deep and intricate as that of the West, yet largely impenetrable to occidentals.) Because Russian culture is so similar to ours, we are able, if we look and listen, to understand the moral-aesthetic hothouse conditions under which, until recently, it existed -- and to see these heightened and sharpened conditions as providing a living ethical and perceptual lesson to our slacker, less vital, more cynically relativistic ethos. Solzhenitsyn, like many other dissidents, sees Russia's experience of repressive rule, especially under the ultra-severe dispensation inaugurated by Lenin, as a kind of cultural crucifixion -- Russia, as it were, "dying" on the cross of godless rationalism for the sins of its cousin cultures in the West.

Whether or not we take seriously the Russian mythos of destiny, sacrifice, and redemption, it should be clear that to interpret Shostakovich's music as part of the dissident culture in Russia, far from trivialising it, places it in a context of enormously heightened significance compared to that of Western art in the same period. If anything is trivial in this perspective, it is our own democratic culture, whose aesthetic values and moral reflections are limp and even degenerate by comparison. When we listen to a piece of dissident music, we are hearing not a local and temporary political protest but an expression of moral-aesthetic life lived at a pitch of vigour and meaning which we should properly find humbling, inspiring, and revivifying. The supercharged values inherent in art like Shostakovich's are, potentially, of immense importance to Western culture in its present phase of extreme individualism, relativism, and materialism. To refuse to recognise the dissident component of Shostakovich's music is to refuse to recognise a significant measure of its greatness.

It is no coincidence that recent anti-revisionist assaults on the dissident conception of Shostakovich focus on denigrating his personal stature. Western anti-revisionists wish to claim Shostakovich's music as great while denying the greatness of the man who wrote it -- a confused temporary position which may preface an academic reassessment of the music as not that great after all. This seems to be the general sense of the criticism of chief anti-revisionist Richard Taruskin, whose objections to the "dissident" conception we now turn.

Part 2

Back to The Question of Dissidence. Back to The Shostakovich Debate. Back to Shostakovichiana.