The Question of Dissidence (3)

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

Rejecting the dissident conception: simple denial

Two types of rejection are commonly entailed in the anti-revisionist approach: general and specific, the latter concerning the interpretation of individual compositions (so far as possible) without reference to context. In practice, most anti-revisionism consists of wholly ignoring evidence and simply pouring scorn on both Testimony and the dissident conception. For example, the opera critic Bernard Holland: "In all those quartets and symphonies, weren't those secret messages [Shostakovich] was sending? Do we read between the conformist lines and find rebellion? They weren't. We don't." (The New York Times, 9th March 2000.) Plain ab initio denial at its purest, Holland's fundamentalist anti-revisionism is echoed by CBC broadcaster Tamara Bernstein, descending to heated language in an effort to convince her readers of the monstrousness of the views she affects to summarise. Reviewing Ho and Feofanov's Shostakovich Reconsidered in National Post on 2nd November 1998, Bernstein described the book as "a scurrilous volume" portraying Shostakovich as "a rabid dissenter" and employing "the tried and true [sic] techniques of Stalinism to silence those who dare to see things differently". Or, again, in National Post (15th March 2000), Bernstein reports: "[Fay's] long-awaited Shostakovich: A Life has triggered drearily predictable howls of protest from a cult of fanatics who insist that Shostakovich was a lifelong dissident." Fay herself has likewise used blanket denial, claiming that "these people [her revisionist critics] aren't interested in Shostakovich at all" (The Guardian, 7th January 2000).

The psychological aspect of such wholesale denial -- the sense in which the commentators express visceral resentment of revisionism (or of the increasing confirmation of revisionist conjectures) -- is evident in the irrationalism of much routine anti-revisionist journalism. For example, David Gutman, writing in Gramophone (March 2000), refers to "revisionist orthodoxy" concerning the Eighth Quartet: that the work is "an anti-Communist tract-cum-suicide note". It is a recurring theme of anti-revisionist polemic that revisionism treats Shostakovich's music as "an anti-Communist tract" -- a political misconception based on unfamiliarity with the moral nature of the culture of dissidence in the USSR. As for the "suicide" motif of the Eighth Quartet, this -- together with its origin in Shostakovich's enforced enrollment into the Communist Party in 1960 -- derives from statements made by Shostakovich himself as well as by his son Maxim and his erstwhile colleagues Isaak Glikman, Lev Lebedinsky, and Rostislav Dubinsky (a conclusion fully accepted by Manashir Yakubov, Elizabeth Wilson, and Richard Taruskin). David Gutman's scepticism, which he presumably knows to be obsolete, appears to represent little more than vexed prejudice.

That there is no discernible ideological component to the viscerally reactive anti-revisionism of writers like Holland, Bernstein, and Gutman makes their prejudice less readily intelligible than that of commentators of a left-wing bias who wish to defend their vision of Shostakovich as an orthodox Communist. Christopher Norris, for example, has suggested, in apparent indifference to the historical record, that no one of consequence endorses Testimony, adding that it is immoral to suggest that Shostakovich was not a Communist and that it is merely "fashionable" to maintain such an opinion (BBC Radio 3, Music Matters, 15th February 1998). A similar panoramic assumption that Shostakovich was a Communist features in the writings of the critic Robert Matthew-Walker, whose liner-notes, when venturing occasionally into contextual matters, betray a somewhat tentative grasp of Soviet history (e.g., his claim, occurring in annotations to two Shostakovich discs, that the prosecutor of Stalin's post-war cultural purges was "Marshal Zhdanov", a chimerical conflation of Marshal Zhukov and Andrei Zhdanov). Norris, too, is uncertain on historical questions. Attacking MacDonald's The New Shostakovich as "Cold War interpretive tactics" (melos 4-5, 1993), he ventured that, during NEP, "it might well have seemed that the only alternative was a slide back into some minimally liberalized quasi-Tsarist autocracy". A writer on "cultural politics" should perhaps be aware of the mainstream democratic intelligentsia which, abiding through NEP, became the subject of Stalin's pressing attention in the Cultural Revolution.

Even anti-revisionists comparatively better-informed than Christopher Norris appear concerned above all to slam the lid down on revisionism rather than to contend with it reasonably on the evidential questions. For example, Richard Taruskin, in dismissing the proposal that Shostakovich was a dissident on the sweeping basis that "there were no dissidents in Stalin's Russia", argues that "that characterization [of the composer] has got to be rejected" (Fanning, op. cit., p. 46), adding that "it is important to quash the image of Shostakovich as a dissident" (The New York Times, 5th March 2000) [emphasis added]. All the more ironic that Taruskin accuses revisionists of attempting to impose a "cult of personality" upon Shostakovich comparable with that invoked around Stalin: "Like the one around Stalin, like any such cult, the one around Shostakovich is an instrument of thought control. It fosters orthodoxy, enforces conformism and breeds intolerance of critical thinking." Professor Taruskin's accusations regarding cults of thought-control and enforced conformism sit oddly with the imperative rejecting and quashing which seem to constitute his natural idiom.

Rejecting the dissident conception: specific works

While most anti-revisionists are content to deny, ab initio, the validity of the dissident conception of Shostakovich, one or two are prepared to argue the contrary on specific issues. Since the revisionist case is that the composer was not only a secret dissident for much of his adult life but also expressed this outlook in the majority of his mature music, it is inevitable that anti-revisionists, in countering the dissident conception, seek to divest certain works of their supposed or potential dissident content. Richard Taruskin's claim that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk represents Shostakovich's "defense of the lawless extermination of the kulaks" is the earliest example of such thinking; not that the opera had, before then (1989), been claimed as an example of the composer's musical dissidence -- although clearly the work is not, as Taruskin suggests, conformist. The innate subversiveness of its police scene, with its "stupidly" aggressive four-note motto (alluded to in the opening movement of Moishei Vainberg's Fifth Symphony), is obvious enough without considering the opera's Siberian finale. Nor can Taruskin's theory be reconciled with the fact that Lady Macbeth held lifelong significance for Shostakovich, who not only revised it and supervised a film version of it, but also quoted a key phrase from it in his Eighth Quartet (dedicated to "the victims of Fascism and war").

Reiterating his theory in The New York Times (1994), Taruskin altered a phrase which has since achieved a peripheral notoreity: his claim that Shostakovich was "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son". Prefixing this phrase with the words "till then", he presumably wished to introduce the suggestion that Shostakovich's filial loyalty ceased or changed after the Pravda attacks in 1936. Yet it remains uncertain how Taruskin conceives the outlook which supposedly replaced the composer's erstwhile loyalty. A chance to clarify this arose with his essay on the Fifth Symphony in Fanning's Shostakovich Studies (1995). Unfortunately, this essay is based less on objective examination of the evidence (see Ho and Feofanov, Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 671-77) than on what appears to be an overriding concern to deny that the work contains any dissidence. So convoluted are the results that it is conceivable that no one but Professor Taruskin fully understands what he meant to say in this piece. For example, he appears to subscribe to Sofiya Khentova's view that the Fifth Symphony paints "a universal portrait" in which "the people of the Thirties recognised themselves, grasping not only the music's explicit content, but also its general feeling". In other words, he construes Khentova (or possibly the Symphony itself) as using "classic 'Aesopian' language" to describe "what was undescribable: a symphony that spoke the unspeakable". This conclusion drifts close to revisionism; however, Taruskin is careful to quash any idea of a confluence between his views and those of his revisionist opponents: "If we claim to find defiant ridicule in the Fifth Symphony, we necessarily adjudge its composer, at this point in his career, to have been a 'dissident'. That characterisation... has got to be rejected as a self-gratifying anachronism."

Instead of dissidence, Taruskin finds in the Fifth Symphony only "suppressed grief" (the funerary chant of III) followed by "an escape into the past" which betokens not "defiant ridicule" but "grim passivity" (the allusion to the song "Rebirth" in IV). While he offers sensible exegesis for the "suppressed grief" of the slow movement -- "every member of the symphony's early audiences had lost friends and family members during the black year 1937, loved ones whose deaths they had to endure in numb horror" -- he fails to answer the question this provokes: how did Shostakovich compose a heartfelt funerary chant for those murdered by the Soviet state during the Great Terror, yet harbour no dissenting thoughts and feelings on this account? Taruskin's response in this essay is to assert that Shostakovich could not have harboured such dissident thoughts and feelings because dissidence simply did not exist until Khrushchev revealed Stalin's excesses in 1956: "Dissidence resulted from the loosening of controls, not the other way around." This formulation presumably means that, given permission to exist by Khrushchev's "secret speech", dissident thoughts and feelings thereupon suddenly switched on like a lightbulb in the minds of the Soviet intelligenty, rather as if they had hitherto noticed nothing wrong with the picture presented to them by Stalinism as an image of normal life.

The fact that (much as commonsense would lead us to expect) the documentary record conclusively debunks Taruskin's "1956 Lightbulb" theory of dissidence has not since dissuaded him from sticking to it. He has recently conceded that there was some "private grumbling and joking" of a not-quite-dissident kind in the USSR of the 1930s, but nothing more seriously oppositional -- a peculiar state of affairs considering the "numb horror" which he correctly ascribes to early audiences for Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. "But," he warns (5th March 2000, New York Times), "private grumbling and joking are not 'dissidence' as the term is normally used. Dissidence is public." This refuge in semantic tautology is unsophisticated enough to discredit itself, irrespective of the evidence of secret dissidence in the 1930s familiar to students of Soviet history and literature. (For a taste of this, the reader should consult the summary of Lyubov Shaporina's diary.) What is most remarkable about Taruskin's dependence on his strict post-1956 concept of dissidence is that he makes no allowance for the fact that music, while "public", is not verbally explicit. In composing dissident music, Shostakovich was naturally shielded -- not even risking the non-explicit verbal convention of "Aesopian language" used prior to the unequivocal verbal protest later employed in paradigmatic dissidence.

Dissidence or "bearing witness"?

Taruskin's (deliberately?) misdirecting insistence that, to qualify as such, dissidence must be "public" -- meaning public and verbally explicit -- is all the stranger in that, elsewhere, he admits that music, being non-verbal, can, in a different way, be publicly explicit without necessarily incurring risk. In "Who Was Shostakovich?", published almost simultaneously with the essay on the Fifth Symphony in Fanning's Shostakovich Studies (1995), Taruskin offers an account of the difference he discerns between dissidence and the expression of "suppressed grief" which he identifies in the Symphony's slow movement:

Like the silenced Akhmatova and the martyred Mandelstam, Shostakovich, as the American Slavist Clare Cavanagh so movingly suggests, managed to bear witness "against the state on behalf of its citizenry". This was perhaps the most honorable civic use to which music has ever been put, a use in which the composer and his silenced audience could reclaim their individual subjectivities from an all-powerful authority. Music was the only art that could serve this purpose publicly. Never was its value more gloriously affirmed.

The Russian convention of "bearing witness" has no innate defining boundaries, covering everything from verbal explicitness to the most allusive symbolism. Taruskin's definition of musical "bearing witness" -- "in which the composer and his silenced audience could reclaim their individual subjectivities from an all-powerful authority" -- appears to mean that Shostakovich's Symphony gave back to those in his audience their individual sense of self, seemingly stolen by the "all-powerful authority". Since this suggestion can hardly be literal (even those severely tortured by the NKVD remembered who they were), Taruskin presumably means that Shostakovich's music allowed his audience to feel their grief for those lost in the Terror which the repressive effects of the Terror had served to suppress. Again, this conclusion is so close to the revisionist interpretation as to seem scarcely worth distinguishing. In fact, Taruskin redrafts this passage in Defining Russia Musically as "a use in which the composer and his audience acted in collusion against authority". The distinction between dissidence and "acting in collusion against authority" is hard to fathom. The mere fact that Taruskin tinkers with his definitions in this way -- shifting their boundaries back and forth: now a little closer to dissidence, now a little further away -- suggests conceptual uncertainty; or, less charitably, a wish to seem as secure as he can before scholars in other fields of Soviet studies without conceding anything to those engaged with him in the more limited study of Soviet music and of Shostakovich in particular.

To use Taruskin's phrase (Fanning, op. cit., p. 42), why limit significance? Why insist on a notional line drawn -- and redrawn -- between dissidence and "bearing witness"? Why his inflexible insistence on "grim passivity" but no "defiant ridicule" in the Fifth Symphony? When, in his description, "the brass section, silent throughout the Largo, bursts in upon and destroys its elegiac mood", why does he not draw the obvious conclusion: that this jolting contrast is designed to reflect a correlation in Soviet life (precisely as he concedes the slow movement does)? Why, especially, does Taruskin not acknowledge Gerard McBurney's discovery that the opening phrase of the Symphony's finale is that of the song "Rebirth" quoted later in the movement: a phrase (corresponding with the words "a barbarian artist") which appears to allude to Stalin or his cultural apparat? There is no innate justification for Taruskin's suggested constraints on the expressive scope of the Fifth Symphony (in which "defiant ridicule" is not a rare commodity). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, having set out his scholarly stall to sell the idea that Shostakovich was no dissident (indeed, a former "loyal son" with "a history of collaboration"), Taruskin cannot concede, without devaluing his academic wares, that a work like the Fifth Symphony does not accord with this deprecative account. Hence he shifts his flag to the supposedly distinct convention of "bearing witness" so as to extol a glorious affirmation of civic honour without acknowledging (as all post-1991 Russian commentators are happy to do) that Shostakovich's Fifth -- like Akhmatova's contemporary Requiem, Chukovskaya's contemporary Sofiya Petrovna, and Lyubov Shaporina's contemporary diary -- is a perfectly standard, if artistically great, expression of the Soviet dissident culture.

Rejecting the dissident conception: misrepresentation

Anti-revisionism's attempts to divest specific Shostakovich works of dissident significance almost always falsify or misrepresent the associated facts. For example, Laurel Fay has claimed that From Jewish Folk Poetry -- rather than a necessarily veiled and equivocal protest against official Soviet anti-Semitism in the 1940s (as epitomised by the murder of Solomon Mikhoels in January 1948) -- was, on the contrary, merely a farcically misinformed endeavour to fulfill the contemporary apparat demands for folk-nationalistic music. This assertion contains so many misconceptions and misinterpretations -- and has consequently been so comprehensively discredited (Ho and Feofanov, pp. 686-720) -- that no other anti-revisionist has endorsed it. (The claim is, inexplicably, recycled by Fay in her declaredly objective "resource", Shostakovich: A Life.) Richard Taruskin has used similar misrepresentation to dismiss the conjecture that the Eleventh Symphony was connected with the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 (an event of immense significance to the dissident culture):

Officially dedicated to the memory of the suppressed Russian Revolution of 1905, [the Symphony] was privately interpreted as a protest against the crushing by the Soviets of the recent Hungarian revolt. Whenever asked, Shostakovich denied it; but that made no difference. His audience never asked. For them it was enough to be given the opportunity to sit together in the concert hall and enjoy an otherwise forbidden solidarity in protest. Like self-styled opera queens, who blithely and charmingly reinvent familiar plots to maximize their pleasure in their favorite divas, Soviet audiences were sophisticated ironists. [The New York Times, 5th March 2000.]

Taruskin's claim that Soviet audiences turned Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony into a dissident work by "opportunistic appropriation" caricatures a popular interpretation which certainly existed. (Lebedinsky, Mazel', and Yakubov all report this.) Just as with his studied neglect of Mikhail Chulaki's testimony concerning the reception of the Fifth Symphony (Ho and Feofanov, pp. 675-7), Taruskin somehow manages to overlook the recollection of Flora Litvinova that Shostakovich was eager for news of events in Budapest during 1956 (Wilson, p. 269). He also ignores Zoya Tomachevskaya's testimony (ibid, p. 320) that Igor Belsky, producer of a ballet on the Eleventh Symphony, confided to her that Shostakovich told him ("in passing"): "Don't forget I wrote that symphony in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising." On their own, these facts could be dismissed as inconclusive, and no doubt Taruskin would do so. Awkwardly for him, the composer's third wife Irina has confirmed that Shostakovich had the events of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 "in mind" when he wrote the Eleventh Symphony (DSCH Journal 12, p. 72). As for Taruskin's aside that Shostakovich's audience "never asked", this is hardly the utterance of a responsible scholar. For painfully obvious reasons, no one, whether his audience or close friends, would publicly have asked Shostakovich if his Eleventh Symphony alluded to the Hungarian Uprising -- none of which bears on whether such questions were asked privately. Again, Taruskin's agenda seems to be to "quash" rather than argue.

"Unreliable" evidence -- anti-revisionism attacks witnesses

The most immoderate anti-revisionist initiative against the evidence for the dissident conception relates to the "small 't' testimony" of those who knew or worked with Shostakovich. Since this "witness" evidence consistently supports the dissident conception, often in very vivid and disturbing ways, it has long been a priority for anti-revisionists to deny out of hand that such testimony has any intrinsic validity; or, falling short of this, to contend that, while some of it may be valid, the rest is too flawed by the distortions attending life in the Soviet Union even to be adduced, let alone relied on. Since this protocol is unusual in terms of normal biographical methodology, it is worth examining Laurel Fay's rationale as she explains it in Shostakovich: A Life:

Memoirs and interviews have loomed large among the fresh evidence gathered. Glasnost untied the tongues of millions who had been intimidated, or censored, into silence during the Soviet era. Since Shostakovich symbolized something very important in their lives, and since his presumption to "greatness" seems unassailable, it is not surprising that many have hastened to set down their personal reminiscences of the man. As fascinating and useful as these can be, memoirs furnish a treacherous resource to the historian. Reminiscences can be self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking, and exaggeration. They can be rife with gossip and rumor. The temptation to recast the past to suit the present -- especially now, when the victims and survivors of the Soviet "experiment" are grappling with discomfiting issues of complicity and culpability with a shameful past -- can be hard to resist. In any case, factual accuracy is not generally one of their most salient features. Memoirs need to be treated with extreme care, evaluated critically, and corroborated by reference to established facts... I have not excluded the evidence of memoirs -- Soviet, ex-Soviet and post-Soviet -- but I have treated it with utmost caution, filtering out false or improbable allegations and screening for bias and hidden agendas [emphasis added; op. cit., pp. 2-3].

Fay's concession that Shostakovich "symbolized something very important" in the lives of his compatriots begs the question of whether the Soviet listeners she refers to (e.g., the witnesses in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered) were, in hearing his music as embodying the values and experiences of the dissident culture, projecting their own concerns onto an artist who did not share them. While she risks no synoptic judgement in her biography, she so presents her evidence as to give the impression that Shostakovich's dissidence can by no means be taken for granted; was at best intermittent and conditioned by fearful self-preservation; and that his stance is irreducibly ambiguous (if not ambivalent). She has elsewhere (The Guardian, 7th January 2000) added that "I don't automatically assume that Shostakovich's 'Soviet' music is ironic. I allow that he might have been serious." In "allowing" that Shostakovich might have been "serious" (for which read: sincerely conformist), Fay reveals that her attitude to the "witness" evidence of memoirs and interviews, almost all of which supports the dissident conception, is necessarily prejudicial, i.e., such material tells her what she is disinclined to agree with (for which read: not prepared to believe).

This calls into serious question her admission that, before presenting her evidence in Shostakovich: A Life, she filtered out what she considered to be "improbable allegations" and screened for what she took to be "bias and hidden agendas". How can this methodology be justified in an objective "resource"? Surely the author of such a "resource" -- especially one with an established aversion to revisionism -- is honour-bound to explain what testimony she has rejected and why? Much of the revisionist literature is concerned with such case-by-case examination of the provenance of evidence in the Shostakovich debate -- an examination made in public and with the support of citations. How can academics like Malcolm H. Brown and Richard Taruskin endorse (as they do on the jacket of Fay's biography) a process of evidence-selection which is not only hidden from public view but justified by an appeal to the fact that "reminiscences can be self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking, and exaggeration [and] rife with gossip and rumor"? No doubt "the temptation to recast the past to suit the present can be hard to resist", but where is Fay's evidence for this?

Behind Laurel Fay's inscrutable criteria for sorting reliable from unreliable evidence (the effects of which extend far beyond the question of "witness" testimony) lies the familiar anti-revisionist inclination towards ab initio denial of the dissident conception. For instance, Royal S. Brown (Cineaste, (24, 2-3 [1999]) claims that "the various witnesses" in Larry Weinstein's film The War Symphonies "go through great contortions to make their view of history fit the Volkov thesis". He implies that these witnesses (including Ilya Musin, Alisa Shebalina, Mariya Konniskaya, Abram Gozenpud, Natan Perelman, Veniamin Basner, Flora Litvinova, Isaak Glikman, Karen Khachaturian, Mariya Sabinina, Galina Shostakovich, and Dmitri Tolstoy) have falsified their actual memories in order to support Solomon Volkov's supposedly counterfeit representation of a man they all knew. It is unclear whether Royal S. Brown imagines that these ladies and gentlemen, some in their nineties, conspired in this falsification or merely coincided in it owing to a shared enthrallment with Volkov. At least Royal Brown accepts that what such witnesses have to say counts for something, even if he deems it to be false and rejects it as "propaganda". By contrast, Malcolm H. Brown (Notes, March 1994) categorically dismisses the notion that anything said by "ex-Soviets" on these issues is credible: "It doesn't really matter how many ex-Soviets believe that Testimony is 'essentially accurate'."

Anti-revisionist dismissal of "witness" testimony extends to misrepresentation (e.g., Malcolm H. Brown's long-standing and still recurring claim that Maxim Shostakovich does not endorse Testimony) and to implying that revisionists in their turn misrepresent such testimony (e.g., David Fanning's suggestion that Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov "exaggerated" in interpreting statements by Maxim Shostakovich so as to make him appear to authenticate Testimony [in BBC Music Magazine, September 1998, p. 32]).

Curiously, anti-revisionists are not generally prepared to charge as liars the former Soviet citizens who have testified in favour of the dissident conception. The insinuation is there; the flat accusation is lacking. The sharpest illustration of how far the matter of Testimony and the question of dissidence are separate is provided by Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, neither of whom supports Volkov but both of whom outspokenly advocate the dissident conception of Shostakovich. They were close friends of his for twenty years. Are anti-revisionists (Richard Taruskin, Laurel Fay, Malcolm H. Brown) prepared to say that they are lying? (We may presume that Royal S. Brown, at least, is ready to do so.) In article after article, anti-revisionists represent Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya as rejecting Testimony without conceding that they are strong proponents of "the Testimony view" (i.e., the dissident conception). In similar articles, Maxim Shostakovich's minor reservations about Testimony are repeatedly parlayed into outright dismissal of a book whose message he consistently endorses. Meanwhile anti-revisionism proceeds largely by ignoring "witness" testimony, treating the mass of material presented by Elizabeth Wilson as if it does not exist.

Part 4

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