The New York Times grubs in the gutter

Posted 10th March 2000

Since I'm aware that there's little chance of this letter appearing in The New York Times, I'm posting it here...

One of the certain signs of a writer who lacks background in Soviet studies is that he or she is casual in blaming people who lived under the Soviet system for being supine grovelers and self-excusing cowards. The longer and deeper one looks into this subject, the less such easy condemnation appeals; indeed, it soon becomes repellent and is displaced by compassionate insight and awed empathy for the predicaments of those caught up in that nightmare. As a consequence, most of the best Western historians of the USSR are characterised by a fundamental humility. Among those denizens of the USSR whose names have come down to us, only out-and-out monsters -- of whom there were as many as there are in any society -- draw severe condemnation from experienced writers on Soviet affairs; lesser disciples of evil -- those who, for petty vengeance and personal advantage, willingly aided these monsters -- are treated with fastidious irony. To those used to this ethos, the clownish capers cut by certain people on the margins of understanding in this subject never fail to evoke a feeling of sick distaste. Thus it is with the antics of writers like Richard Taruskin and Bernard Holland, whose shallow pretensions to insight on this subject now litter the arts pages of the increasingly shameless New York Times.

Mr Holland, concerning whose credentials on the subject of Shostakovich I have no information, speaks of the composer as a "conformist" who "toadied and cringed before his Soviet bosses" (NYT, 9 March 2000). The sad crassness of Holland's knockabout language recalls his mentor Taruskin's crudely adolescent allusion to William Steig's cartoon in The New Yorker of a cowboy-suited boy taking Hitler prisoner ("Casting A Great Composer As A Fictional Hero", NYT, 5 March 2000). Shostakovich, it seems, was an innate milksop because, "frail and bespectacled", he lacked the requisite rugged jaw-line. This is arts criticism as burlesque -- cultural commentary on the level of Tom and Jerry. It is embarrassing that grown men should write like this and shameful that editorial standards in America have sunk so low that such a pernicious descent to the tone of the tabloid should be countenanced in a national broadsheet.

Shostakovich no doubt cringed whilst being publicly insulted by individuals whose intellectual attainment was a fraction of his own and whose moral scruples were even more debased than those of Taruskin and Holland. Answering back was never an option in these circumstances; on the contrary, he had to toe the line or follow the horrible fate of colleagues like Tukhachevsky and Meyerhold, knowing that his relations would suffer in the same appalling way that theirs did. Indeed, by 1937, four of Shostakovich's close family had been arrested. Such a situation, observes his daughter Galina (interviewed by Larry Weinstein in his film The War Symphonies), "makes a profound impression. [My father] was very austere, very reticent about this subject." Do we jeer contemptuously at Shostakovich for "cringing" under such circumstances? Only if, like Bernard Holland, we neither know nor care what we are talking about, seeking only to score a trashy point.

As for "toadying" to his Soviet "bosses", I can think of no recorded instance of this sort of behaviour by Shostakovich. He never fawned on his superiors, curried favour with them, or wheedled for personal advantage from the apparat, whose representatives, as we are informed by several of his close friends, he loathed and avoided wherever possible. The only pleas he made to officialdom seem to have been those (many) he made on others' behalf. When the Soviet establishment sought to draw him into their propaganda effort by forcing him join the Communist Party (a process which, to judge by Flora Litvinova's comments of 27th October 1956, he fought off for at least four years), he was so morally shattered that he came close to suicide, composing his Eighth Quartet as his musical last will and testimony. Bernard Holland's claim that Shostakovich was a "toady" is a repulsive libel.

Holland reports Shostakovich "signing petitions on request (some of them damaging to his colleagues)". It is true that, as an old and very ill man, he was among Soviet celebrities rounded up to sign letters against Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn -- yet we cannot know what pressures were put on him to do so (whether, for example, his family or his access to proper medical treatment were threatened). Rostropovich tells us that Shostakovich was "forced, really forced" to sign the letter against Sakharov and that he "agonised" about it: "I don't blame him. He was very ill with cancer." Apart from these regrettable cases, which other "colleagues" does Mr Holland imagine Shostakovich "damaged"? There were none. On the contrary, his record otherwise is of endless assistance afforded to those who begged him for help, including the unimaginably brave act of hiding a Jewish musicologist in his flat during the anti-Semitic ravages of the late 1940s.

Excoriating Shostakovich for "writing patriotic pieces, rebuking what he was asked to rebuke, dispensing the government line as directed", Holland adds: "He may not have liked some of it, but there is little evidence that he showed much hesitation when his own skin was in question." One can only ask who, "when their own skin was in question", did otherwise? Some brave dissidents during the Sixties -- younger, tougher men -- fit Holland's callous requirements. They suffered accordingly, harassed by the KGB and often confined in mental hospitals where they were pumped full of hallucinatory drugs. Does Holland seriously expect a man afflicted with multiple illnesses (almost certainly brought on by around thirty years of continuous stress in the face of pressure and persecution) to have risked such treatment in his sixties, to have watched while his children's careers were ruined and his own name dragged through the mud for the fourth time in his life? I count the Cultural Revolution as the first case of Shostakovich's public persecution -- yet I doubt Holland has even heard of this, so transparent is his unfamiliarity with the documentary record. "I am not," he writes, "the first to point out that composing relatively superficial pieces was for Shostakovich not a chore at all. He was good at flag-waving and populist dumbing-down; he seemed to enjoy the process." On the contrary, as anyone who has read Elizabeth Wilson's book knows, Shostakovich hated having to write his occasional pieces and populist film scores. Similarly, Mr Holland seems entirely unaware that Shostakovich himself drew attention to the "hidden clues" in his Eleventh Symphony (confirmed by his third wife Irina in DSCH Journal 12, p. 72). "Tortured speculation" is redundant.

Claiming that Shostakovich behaved like a cowardly animal, Holland derides him for failing to "martyr" himself -- as if martyrdom was the only alternative to crawling conformism in the Soviet Union. Even given the fact that Bernard Holland sits under "a softly murmuring fan" somewhere in comfortable bourgeois North America, such wild historical ignorance is astounding. As for Shostakovich's own allegedly comfortable life style ("far above that of nobler Soviet citizens around him"), is Holland aware of how often the frugal Shostakovich found himself effectively on the bread-line, forced to write rubbish merely to feed his dependents? Does he realise that the composer returned his Stalin-donated dacha to the state after the dictator was gone -- and asked no money for it? Is he aware that Shostakovich refused his right to nomenklatura preferentiality at Zhukovka? Mr Holland's insinuation that Shostakovich lacked nobility because he had a roof over his head, which at times he could scarcely pay for, is vile.

I'll refrain from insulting Bernard Holland in the manner in which he has so gratuitously insulted Shostakovich -- other than to say that people like him prospered very nicely under Soviet rule despite barely aspiring to the mediocrity which he falsely ascribes to Shostakovich. Mr Holland, who has the nerve to suggest that his own life has been no more nor less tragic than the composer's, shows little competence in this subject, let alone enough to justify his cocksure judgements. His comments are disgusting and The New York Times stands self-condemned by the conscienceless act of publishing them.

--Ian MacDonald

Back to DSCH-L posts. Next post. Go to Shostakovichiana.