Like Solomon Volkov and Galina Vishnevskaya, I see Lady Macbeth as the artistic foundation of Shostakovich's moral individualism - a view which not only does the work no interpretive violence, but explains why he quotes from it at a key moment in his controversial Eighth Quartet. To claim - as does Richard Taruskin ("The Opera and the Dictator: the peculiar martyrdom of Dmitri Shostakovich", The New Republic, March 20th 1989, pp. 34-40) - that the opera was intended as an endorsement of Stalin's genocidal campaign against the kulaks in 1930, not only makes nonsense of the wider context of Shostakovich's life in the early Thirties, but raises the seemingly unanswerable question of why he should quote an alleged apologia for genocide in a quartet dedicated to "the victims of fascism".
For those who have not read Taruskin's article, he argues in it that the opera is "a profoundly inhumane work of art" in which its composer ("the Soviet Union's most loyal musical son") by various means "dehumanizes" his heroine's persecutors and victims so as to "perpetrate (the) colossal moral inversion" of legitimising her murders. Lady Macbeth, asserts Taruskin, is a politically-motivated travesty which presents all of its cast except Katerina as "class enemies" to be despised and destroyed. "Its chilling treatment of the victims," he concludes, "amounts to a justification of genocide."
Which is more likely? That Shostakovich in 1930-1 favoured the wholesale slaughter of Russian and Ukrainian countryfolk - or that, on the contrary, he felt that individuality itself was then under attack from Stalin's callous policies (themselves extensions of the equally callous policies of Lenin during 1917-22)?
Non-Party satirists like Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Olesha, and Zoshchenko were, long before 1930, convinced that Marxist collectivism was a disaster. Shostakovich knew these writers personally, collaborating with one (Zamyatin: on the opera The Nose) and exploring a major project with another (Bulgakov: an opera on his play about Pushkin, Last Days). There is nothing to suggest that the composer - like, say, Mayakovsky - opposed the non-Party "individualists"; on the contrary, the evidence is that he sympathized with them - which is presumably why he read their books, watched their plays, and socialised with them. In addition, his letters to his girlfriend of the Twenties, Tanya Glivenko, reveal that his favourite novel - a choice which endured throughout his life - was Dostoyevsky's The Devils, a satirical attack on revolutionary radicalism so outspoken that the Communist authorities banned it for sixty years.
That a man of such friends and opinions should, during the rabidly collectivistic Cultural Revolution of 1929-32, choose to turn Leskov's apolitical melodrama into a hymn to the expropriation of six million peasants is absurdly unlikely. Even supposing it was true, it would raise further insoluble problems. Why, for example, should Shostakovich have concealed (as he did) the composition of this supposed apologia from the very powers it was presumably designed to please? And why make its alleged conformism so hard to spot that Stalin banned it?