Some responses to recent posts

Posted 8th March 2000

Belatedly, here are some responses to a few recent posts...

Nora Avins Klein raises a query concerning my statement that "the West was fully aware of the scale of the forced labour system in the USSR in the immediate post-war years... what kept this quiet, or tarnished as right-wing propaganda, was left-liberal intellectual denial in the service of the treasured ideal of international revolutionary socialism". I should, perhaps, have said "to a large extent, what kept this quiet..." That Western governments knew all about the Gulag during and straight after the war is beyond dispute:

The size and nature of the labor-camp system only became known in the West through defectors, some of them former inmates. After the Poles in Russia were released in 1941 and 1942, thousands of accounts were available for checking, and dozens of first-hand descriptions were readily available in print. By 1948, a very full analysis of the system listing hundreds of camps, together with reproductions of camp documents, was published by David J. Dallin and Boris I. Nicolaevsky. The United Kingdom delegation to the United Nations was able to circulate the Corrective Labor Codex of the RSFSR; free trade-union bodies produced their own analyses. The evidence was as complete and consistent as it could conceivably be. It was widely rejected... During the 1940s and 1950s there were many attempts to silence or discredit the evidence of men who had been in the camps, or otherwise given information about the Purge. [Conquest, The Great Terror, 2nd edn., p. 472.]

Plus ça change... But why didn't the free world speak up? Thomas Widlar has quoted Chomsky on the cynical pragmatism of Western leaders -- and, up to a point, I agree with him. Principle plays little part in international politics. Bad behaviour calls for condemnation regardless of its political origin and the crimes of capitalism are no different in that general respect from the crimes of communism. But we happen to be talking about Shostakovich and the society in which he lived, with its systematic recourse to savagely cruel forced labour (to which his uncle and brother-in-law, to name but two, fell victim), not to mention its mass-production use of the death-penalty against anyone it regarded as expendable.

If Mr Widlar genuinely does not see the relevance of this to our understanding of Shostakovich, one can only ask whether he has read, for instance, the books by Rostislav Dubinsky, Elizabeth Wilson, and Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov; or the related testimonies to have emerged from Russia since the fall of the USSR; or the statements made by Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Ashkenazy, and others who left the USSR before its fall? If he has read this material (the latest example being Mark Aranovsky's essay "The Dissident"), and yet still fails to see its relevance, may we know why? If he does see the relevance but wishes to dispute it (or even, in Taruskin's word, "quash" it), it would be honest of him to say so frankly and give his reasons. As for his suggestion that to address these matters in relation to Shostakovich amounts to "paying back for personal slights" or "gloating over Russia's demise" or "to justify the Cold War, mourn its cessation, or start a new one", I join Per Skans in asking Mr Widlar to decode his "agenda" for us. If he can identify such "coded language, doublespeak" in my writing on Shostakovich, let him do so.

To return to Nora Klein's query, Noam Chomsky is right about Western cynical pragmatism at governmental level during and just after the war, but his is a partial picture. The Allies were exhausted by their struggle with the Axis powers and had no wish to be drawn into a new fight with the USSR over its internal policies, especially now that nuclear weapons were part of the equation. Communism was robust in France. Britain had a Labour government through which left-liberal "blind eye" sympathy for the USSR found expression. And the "gratitude for Stalingrad" syndrome was, rightly, strong at that time, as it continues to be today. There were also the demands of realpolitik -- of having, in some way, to deal with Stalin, just as present democratic governments have to deal with Communist China. Behind governmental policy, on the other hand, lay the realm of intellectual cogitation -- and, as Conquest, Caute, and Lévy make clear, that domain was inordinately influenced by left-liberal idealists like Sartre, who thought it better to conceal the Gulag from the Western "workers" than dash their hopes of "liberation". Am I right in detecting something similar in Mr Widlar's posts? If I'm not, I shall, of course, withdraw the suggestion...

In his useful post on the Second Quartet, George Holley asks "When were DDS and other members of the Soviet intelligencia aware of the scale of the Holocaust?", pointing out that the first Soviet encounter with Nazi death camps came in summer 1944. May I draw George's attention to Aleksandrov's memo to the Central Committee of 17 August 1942, as described on pp. 691-3 of Shostakovich Reconsidered? Anti-Semitism may have been more apparent to Shostakovich in the USSR than Germany before writing the Second Quartet and Second Trio. (Also, re the Recitative in II of the Second Quartet as "the Lament of Israel", see Rostislav Dubinsky, Stormy Applause, p. 118.) Fred Johnson correctly points out the quote from the Fourth Symphony's finale. It's at 8:07 in Kondrashin's recording, or rehearsal number 181 (p. 160) in the Sikorski edition (no measure numbers). I mention this in The New Shostakovich.

Stepan Kana raises three points of detail with respect to my review of Laurel Fay's book, adding two general objections. His first general objection is that I argue that "facts are worthless without their background". He interprets this as implying that "there are [no] facts, only interpretations". One gathers that such a contention is anathema to Mr Kana -- yet he goes on to insist that "everyone is entitled to interpret [things] in his own way", a statement which gives primacy to interpretation, thereby sinking his own argument.

Unfortunately, Mr Kana's interpretation of my point of view is incorrect. I nowhere claim that facts are "worthless", with or without their background. Facts are facts. Some facts are more significant than others. For example, the temperature outside my house is presently 10 degrees centigrade; this fact is not worthless but neither is it very significant. By contrast, when Churchill asked Stalin how many died during collectivisation, Stalin held up both hands with fingers spread, indicating ten. Did he mean ten people died during collectivisation? No -- or at least not according to historians, who interpret Stalin to have meant "ten million". Everything is relative, but I would suggest that Stalin's gesture, in the light of the vast array of statistics accumulated by historians whereby they reach this interpretation, is a fact of some significance.

Contrary to Stepan Kana, I claim neither that facts are worthless in themselves nor that "there are [no] facts, only interpretations" (a view taken by some deconstructionists). What I actually say is that "when dealing with places as large and eventful as the former USSR... accurate summaries of character and actions become critical". To spell it out: I am pleading for exegesis in the interests of justice. For example, it is a fact that, while a young man, the great musician Vladimir Ashkenazy was recruited as an informer by the KGB. Without some exegesis, this fact might very well be considered prejudicial by those unfamiliar with the Soviet system. By contrast, in a court of law such a fact would be presented in context by the defence -- i.e., it would be pointed out that in Soviet society such "recruitments" could be forced on anyone at any time; that to refuse to comply would be to invite official retribution; that decent people often chose to comply with concealed reluctance in the hope of never giving any seriously compromising information to the secret police; and that this was exactly what Ashkenazy did until able to escape the clutches of the Soviet system. (As Lyubov Shaporina observed in her diary in respect of one of the KGB's earlier avatars, the NKVD, "you must not name names, though there are some you can -- and those because you know perfectly well how close they are to the NKVD...")

Ashkenazy is a model of decency; a great man. Yet if we did not know better, he might be made to seem otherwise to us. Mere fact, in his case, urgently demands interpretation. The parallel with Shostakovich surely doesn't need underlining.

Where significant facts are concerned, particularly in a context like life in the Soviet Union, there is a crucial choice: interpretation may be offered by way of exegesis (mitigation or, at any rate, explanation); or interpretation may be withheld, with the inevitable result of inadequately informed, and hence prejudicial, judgements. My main case against Fay is that she very often withholds such exegesis, squirrels it away in her footnotes, or blurs the issues by adducing Soviet propaganda sources as more reliable than the testimonies of those who knew and worked with Shostakovich. Mr Kana fails to address this or any other of my objections to Fay's presentation; this, it seems, is his "entitlement" as an interpreter. I never know where any of us obtain these supposed entitlements; I certainly have no such certificate pinned to my wall. On the other hand, I understand that, by strict legal definition, I am "entitled" to a fair trial if summoned to court -- and, apart from law itself, the basis of all legal procedure, as Dmitry Feofanov will confirm, is (1) fact and (2) interpretation of fact. The Soviet justice system differed in this regard. Few living under that system ever obtained a trial, let alone a fair one. If Shostakovich could have hoped for no justice in his own society, neither did he receive much in the court of Western opinion until Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov set out their quasi-legal case in respect of Testimony in Shostakovich Reconsidered. My brief is similar to theirs, though more general and various.

Turning to Stepan Kana's claim that I insist that the only correct interpretations concerning Shostakovich are mine, I would draw his attention, for example, to note 65 on page 667 of Shostakovich Reconsidered. I ask only for a fair and open trial of the evidence without concealment, falsehood, or other purely personal prejudice. Others in the present arena will, I hope, confirm that if a fact is incorrectly adduced by me, I immediately correct it, and that if someone else's interpretation seems better than mine I say so promptly, always giving credit where credit is due (as I have with regard to Fay, Taruskin, Fanning, Tamara Bernstein, Louis Blois, and others). I began my Fay review with the words "So far as I am aware (a phrase we would all do well to contemplate for a second or two, whatever our point of view and whatever the extent of our knowledge)..." I believe we're all here to learn and that DSCH-L is one of the forums for doing this. If anyone wishes to correct me on any issue, I'm happy to acknowledge this and incorporate it in alterations to anything I've written on-line or in The New Shostakovich (which is due for revision). The truth is all that matters here -- not irrational private agendas.

Returning to Stepan Kana's objections to my review of Laurel Fay's book, he takes me to task for criticising Fay's method in her Notes of not translating her transliterated source titles in situ. He's right in the sense that she does this in her Bibliography; however, since so much of the material which she apparently considers extraneous is situated in her Notes rather than in her main text (where her readers might weigh ostensibly conflicting evidence without referring to the back of the book), I would suggest that the difficulty is compounded for Western readers by having to further refer to the Bibliography in order to identify the sources cited (except for their initial mentions under chapter headings in the Notes) solely under transliterated titles and without author identification. (The difficulty is compounded by the peculiarities of the Index. For example, Hans Stuckenschmidt is mentioned only in the Notes. Try finding out where.) The issue of transliteration in the main body of Fay's Notes is, in the end, a matter of opinion. I suggest in my review that her protocol in this regard reflects her apparent view that only an élite (presumably a few of her colleagues) are truly interested in Shostakovich -- a view seemingly confirmed by her promise to reply to Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov only in Russian and in a Russian magazine. More significantly, Fay's otherwise scrupulous Notes display several mystifying blanks concerning which Mr Kana's opinion would be of interest. For example, she twice mentions "sardonic political commentary" in the composer's letters. No quotes, no citations. Why?

The first of Mr Kana's specific textual objections concerns my comments on Fay's presentation of Shostakovich's alleged quotation from Ostrovsky in Pravda and, later, his recorded reference to the same quotation before the "closed" premiere of the Fourteenth symphony. The difference I point out is an issue of interpretation -- one advanced by Manashir Yakubov in the extract I quote. The issue is that of the question of morality in the Soviet context, as raised by Shostakovich's pointed exclusion of Ostrovsky's propagandist phrase "All my life has been devoted to the struggle for the liberation of mankind". Fay fails to identify the subversive antithesis in Shostakovich's address: his stress on living by traditional "bourgeois" values (honesty, nobility, decency) rather than for the "liberation" of mankind (a concept bitterly ironic to citizens of the Soviet police state). Unlike Fay, Yakubov is alive to this subversive antithesis. Because Fay neglects to address this issue -- whether deliberately or not -- she fails to adopt a properly cautious attitude to the Ostrovsky quotation ascribed to Shostakovich in Pravda; as a result, she misses a likely explanation for why Shostakovich raised the subject of "that remarkable Soviet writer Ostrovsky" as a prelude to discussing Mussorgsky, Verdi, and Britten at the "closed" premiere. How the Steel Was Tempered is an almost fascistic depiction of its hero Pavel Korchagin's forging of his own inner steel -- his voluntary hardening of himself against all tender human emotions or any hint of individuality in the service of the Communist collective. A view of Shostakovich which encompasses the possibility that he would refer approvingly to such a nightmare vision would, at the very least, require justification in the light of our present documentary knowledge. The ball is in Fay's court.

Fay's failure to probe the issue of the Ostrovsky quotation would be minor in isolation. It isn't isolated. Time and again, she refers to statements ascribed to Shostakovich in Soviet publications (including forty citations to Pravda and Izvestiya) as if these statements were actually his. A large part of my review is devoted to showing why this assumption is undependable. Fay's biographical methodology consists of taking Soviet sources at face-value and rejecting as much as she can of the contrary testimony of the composer's friends. I'm curious: does Stepan Kana approve of this methodology?

Mr Kana's second textual objection refers to a paragraph in my review which concludes as follows: "Litvinova goes on to recount the Picasso anecdote (Wilson, pp. 271-2), leading to Shostakovich's outburst 'No, communism is impossible'. Fay neither quotes nor cites any of this." Kana points out that Fay quotes the phrase "No, communism is impossible". He is quite correct and I shall alter this paragraph in my review. However, the sentence "Fay neither quotes nor cites any of this" is more significant, since it refers to material from Litvinova which we might have expected Fay to have quoted in connection with "one of the most puzzling episodes" (p. 216) in Shostakovich's biography: his allegedly "unanticipated" application for membership in the Communist Party in 1960.

Viz: "Knowing his views, I [Litvinova] could not bear to hear that he intended to join the Party... We had been told how pressure had been exerted on him from certain quarters, but we did not know if this was so for sure, and we hardly dared to ask him outright." This is from Litvinova's diary for 27th October 1956, nearly four years earlier -- the same entry that contains the phrase "communism is impossible", as well as much more of relevance to Fay's discussion of this "puzzling episode" (including the conversation about "that bastard Picasso" and the outburst "you can understand that I'm living in a prison, and that I'm frightened for my children, and myself"). Picasso is absent from Fay's Index. Likewise unmentioned are Shostakovich's first experience of pressure to join the Party in 1956 and his outburst about being "in a prison". Since such matters shed light on his decision to "apply" for CP membership in 1960, it was Fay's omission of them which I meant to draw attention to in that paragraph. I wonder: do these omissions trouble Mr Kana?

One of the most useful facilities of the WorldWide Web is that documents stored on Web-servers may not only be kept available for reference for long periods, but updated within seconds whenever this is required. Stepan Kana, who accuses me of intending to dictate opinion in Shostakovich studies, has presumably not come across the Introduction to my site (Music Under Soviet Rule), which commences as follows:

This ongoing collection of documents is offered to travellers on the WorldWide Web who happen to be drawn to the classical music made in the former Soviet empire, or by composers and musicians who were active within its borders between 1917 and 1991. The opinions expressed here, whether by the author/collator or those he quotes, are set out for consideration by all, whatever their beliefs or prejudices. Their simple availability is the primary reason for this site. Some of these pieces have appeared in journals either inaccessible to general readers or now out of print. Here they are on-line for access at any time anywhere in the world.

The documents stored at Music Under Soviet Rule, including my review of Laurel Fay's book, are resources, placed there on a longterm basis so that anyone interested may consult them, free of charge. My review of Fay's book -- which is 54,000 words long -- is lengthy and detailed because it is intended as a resource available for consultation for many years. It isn't mood music for those who wish to get a feel for Fay's book with a view to buying or not buying it. It is a close examination of what she says, how she says it, what she includes, what she leaves out, what this tells us about her view of Shostakovich, and what her view is worth. Sold at average British magazine rates, this article would earn me around £13,000. Instead, it was written as a free permanent resource -- written, in other words, in my spare time. It took a month to write. The three textual objections raised by Stepan Kana relate to passages late in the review, by which time I was very tired (not least of Fay's book). It is hardly surprising that one or two minor errors crept in; not surprising to me, at any rate -- but then I've written well over a million unpaid words about Shostakovich, most of which are available at no charge at Music Under Soviet Rule.

Mr Kana's third textual objection refers to the very end of my review of Fay's book. By this time, I was cross-eyed from leafing to and fro between her main text, her Notes, and her Index. Consequently, as he points out, I did not notice that she refers, on pages 337-8, to the letter which Shostakovich wrote to Glikman on 18th November 1961 in which he announces that he has just finished his Ninth Quartet but, in "a fit of healthy self-criticism", has immediately burned it in his stove (the first time he had done that, he observes, since 1926). Mr Kana quotes at length from Fay's account of the "prehistory" of the Ninth Quartet given on page 243 of her text -- pointlessly, since the passage in question, like so much of supposedly controversial material, is actually given in her Notes. There, Fay suggests that the letter to Glikman of 18th November 1961 "has been misdated and really dates from 1962" on the basis that "it seems distinctly improbable that Shostakovich could have written, and destroyed, two Ninth Quartets before completing a satisfactory one".

What is ironic in this case is that, if the first version of the Ninth Quartet was written at the time indicated by the letter, it would have followed the Twelfth Symphony, a work which appears to have gone through three versions during the two years between its composer's announced intent of writing it in 1959 and its actual completion in 1961. Is the notion of three versions of the Ninth Quartet any more "improbable" than three versions of the Twelfth Symphony (or, indeed, the notion that the obsessively punctilious Shostakovich mistook the date by a whole year when he wrote to Glikman in 1961)? Mr Kana will presumably have read the account, in Part 5 of my review, of the way Fay skims over the delayed chronology of the Twelfth Symphony. If (as I point out at the end of Part 6 of the review) the first version of the Ninth Quartet dates from November 1961, it must have been the first thing Shostakovich composed after finishing the Twelfth Symphony: "The obvious inference is that he was so sickened by having written an apparently conformist work that he immediately dashed off a quartet so scathingly satirical (perhaps of Lenin) that he had to throw it straight into the fire."

Stepan Kana is right in pointing out my erroneous statement in this case, but disingenuous in pretending that it is of any consequence, particularly in view of its connection with another part of my review in which fundamental questions are asked about Fay's political assumptions about Shostakovich. Because of the nature of the WorldWide Web, I have already made the two necessary minor adjustments to my review (just as I can and will make any similar minor adjustments if anyone else can find justifiable causes). However, if Stepan Kana seriously thinks these trivial errors reflect in any fundamental way on my credibility, I would say that he is no judge of what is significant in this field of study. He is certainly no judge of my contributions. About a week ago in DSCH-L, I painstakingly explained (for the nth time) that I do not write from "an ideologic position" (sic) in this debate, but from a moral-aesthetic one. Mr Kana either missed this or failed to understand it. But let us put his comprehension to the test. I've asked him three questions so far. Here's a fourth: what does he think of Fay's failure to mention the testimony of Abraam Gozenpud (Wilson, p. 238) in connection with her discussion of From Jewish Folk Poetry?

Coming, finally, to Richard Taruskin's "bubble" outburst in Sunday's NYT, I suspect that those who can spot what I've called "irrational private agendas" will understand what's going on here, whilst those prepared to put up with almost any nonsense from him in deference to his non-Shostakovich scholarship will turn the usual blind eye. (I'm glad to see that Judy Kuhn, at least, is becoming uneasy. However, I would suggest that the "din" she hears in my writing comes from between her own ears: the "interference" caused by her uncertainty concerning the sinister realities of Soviet life and their relationship with the experience and works of Shostakovich and others in his creative milieu. I should add that I'm regretfully unaware of her "balanced, probing work on Shostakovich". May we perhaps see some of this?)

Taruskin still pushes his elementary distortions of Soviet intellectual history. I see he has got around to reading the books by Sarah Davies and Sheila Fitzgerald I've mentioned in previous articles. I gather that he imagines that he has thereby acquired sufficient knowledge on this subject to dismiss intelligentsia resistance to Stalin during the 1920s and 1930s as "private grumbling and joking". Perhaps he will presently catch up with Lyubov Shaporina's diary, with the poems of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, with Lidiya Chukovskaya's Sofiya Petrovna and Going Under, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam. Come to that, perhaps he'll also deign to do some basic research: the various historical works referred to in my critique of his spurious account of the Soviet reception of the Fifth Symphony (Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 656-67). This critique , to which Taruskin has never responded, answers his jejune misconceptions about the question of dissidence (pp. 656-7). If he has read this, why serve up the same stuff in The New York Times five years after I first criticised it in DSCH J?

I hardly need draw attention to the link between Taruskin's allusions to "thought control" and his frankly expressed wish to "quash" any conception of Shostakovich which does not accord with his own views. As for his reference to dominating "cults" of opinion, it must be pointed out that he heads one of the two main study centres for Russian music in the USA (Berkeley), that his associate Malcolm H. Brown formerly headed the other (Indiana), that David Fanning is eminent at the equivalent centre in Britain (Manchester), that Taruskin and Fay have open-door access to the columns of The New York Times, that Taruskin has written the revised Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Shostakovich, and that Fanning has written the revised article on Shostakovich for the next edition of the New Grove. If there is a dominating cult of thought control at work here, I'd suggest that its Wizard of Oz is Richard Taruskin. The pity that this wizard understands so little about Soviet history is surpassed only by the shame of his continuing pretence to the contrary.

--Ian MacDonald

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