Daniel Zhitomirsky

reminiscences, materials, comments

Part 2: A Double Life

Daugava (1990, No. 4)
English version by Katia Vinogradova and Ian MacDonald

He lived a double life: his first "outer" and official; his second, an inner life not merely "personal" but concerned, too, with the preservation of universal human values. Yet, while the spirituality of the latter naturally opposed the forces conditioning the former, I must admit I would have preferred never to have seen among Shostakovich's works The Song of the Forests, his ballet The Bright Stream (idealising life on a collective farm in the '30s), nor, indeed, his cantata The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland (composed in 1952 against the background of the final wave of Stalin's Terror). Neither do I wish to remember that the author of The Days of the Turbins and The Master and Margarita wrote the play Batum (heroising the young Stalin). [28]

Many people lived this bizarre life - indeed, everyone involved with the arts (except for the sycophants and pawns of authoritarian power). But should we be shocked at this, snobbishly censuring such behaviour, confusing misfortune with guilt, judging the past by the standards of today? It was easier then to fall prey to the sort of illusions that could become bulwarks of faith (even if these were undermined every now and then by the voice of conscience). One felt a kind of social hypnosis, a dread that paralysed the will; indeed, at times this became an almost tangible wall of fear which stopped you from seeing what was right in front of you. Frequently, this "outer" life became governed entirely by the principle of expediency, confining itself to a safe minimum of expressions of loyalty and excluding any involvement with matters of conscience (unless doing so was essential in order to survive). This meaningless ritual conferred on the other, "inner", life both its independence and its insecurity - for it was essential to hold back concerning the more important, personal, things. Such resolutions did not always remain intact: they seemed often there to be broken by an irresistible urge to express one's inner self through Aesopian language [29] (as a result of which it wasn't difficult to find oneself in lethally dangerous situations).

Following the infamous Zhdanov resolutions of 1946-48, delegations of foreign "friends" were regularly invited to Moscow. Those charged with greeting such parties were obliged to reassure them that everything in Soviet life was beautiful and to lend verisimilitude to this mirage by means of "personal impressions". Shostakovich recalls:

I saw many such delegations... Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were summoned to one of them. It was an old trick. They had to demonstrate to the guests that they were alive, in the best of health, and fantastically grateful to the Party and Government. As for the 'friends', they could think of nothing more tactful to ask than 'What is your opinion of the historic decree of the Central Committee and of Comrade Zhdanov's speech?'... Now I ask you: would you think it polite to ask someone how they felt if a scoundrel had just spat in their face? But that's not all. These questions were being put in the presence of that very scoundrel. Anna Akhmatova rose and explained that Comrade Zhdanov's speech and the 'historic decree' of the Central Committee were totally accurate and fair. She did the right thing. It was the only possible response to these witless, insensitive strangers. What else could she have told them? That life in our country was like lodging in a madhouse? That she loathed Zhdanov and Stalin and felt only disgust for them? Yes, Akhmatova could have said all this - and she would never have been seen again. [30]
In music, Shostakovich created his own kind of double life. In his main works, he strove for truth: about the times, about people, about himself; moreover, for those with ears to hear, he spoke out on these subjects not at all discreetly, openly addressing both his compatriots and the world at large. Simultaneously, this same man of conscience displayed exemplary amenability towards any bureaucratic hack-work foisted on him. Contemporary records of this sort of thing should not, however, be hastily locked in the bottom drawer - to do that would be to miss something interesting. For instance, at the Composers' Union meeting in January 1948, Shostakovich made two speeches. In the first he was very brief, speaking little about himself, clearly embarrassed by the blatancy of the charade. In the second (apparently after backstage pressure) he "behaved himself". This is what he said: "I've always listened to criticism and have always tried to do my best in my work. I'm listening to criticism now and I'll carry on listening. Meanwhile I'd like to get hold of the text of Comrade Zhdanov's speech. I'm sure others here feel the same. Closer study of this remarkable document ought to be of great help to us in our work."

In the same vein, here is a sentence from Shostakovich's speech at the First All-Union Congress of Composers in that same year: "As for myself, I must report that working so much in the field of symphonic and chamber-instrumental music has had a very bad effect on me." [31] Spoken by the supreme symphonist of our time, remarks like these cannot fail to have sounded bitterly ironic to most of the delegates (even to the dimmest bureaucrats and their most sedulous toadies). According, however, to the rules of the game, this sort of stuff was classifiable only as praiseworthy self-criticism. Ten years later, I read in one of our national newspapers the following deposition signed by Shostakovich: "As a musician, I'm profoundly grateful to the beloved Communist Party for its very warm concern for Soviet music and its representatives. Wise leadership from the Party has been the basis for the creation of many beautiful musical works." [32] Less than four years after the publication of this edifying aperçu, the same "wise leadership" was turning itself inside out to stop anyone in the country hearing the national genius's Thirteenth Symphony!

I heard and still remember well Shostakovich's notorious "repentance" at the Composers' Congress of February 1948. Apparently his entire creative life had been one long tale of bad luck and unfortunate mistakes. After the damning article in Pravda in 1936, he had, he explained, tried to develop his creativity in "a different direction", and, after much effort, thought he'd managed to purge most of the "sinful" elements from his music. This, though, turned out to be another delusion and once again he "slid into formalism and began to speak a language alien to the people". Consequently, though his Poem of The Motherland had seemed to him to fulfil everything that Socialist Realism required, it turned out to be yet another ignominious "failure". Once more it had become clear to him that the "Party is right". Yet again he would have to "work hard". He was "deeply grateful for the Party's great concern for all artists", etc.

Since we're on the subject of sarcastic parody, here's what he really felt and what he told his friends shortly before his death: "About 'friends and humanitarians', the issue is clear. There can never be friendship with these so-called humanitarians. We are diametrically opposed. I trust none of them. I dispute their right to question me." And, on the subject of his ideological bosses, who supposedly taught him how to write music: "I never took their pontificating seriously and never will. All I retain is the weight of bitter experience that is my grey and miserable life - and the fact that my students share this experience and thus share my outlook brings me no pleasure." [33]

Our business is to rejoice

If ever there was a time to be happy it was surely the spring of 1945. The most appalling war was drawing to an end and Levitan's voice, reading the news-bulletins on the radio, was increasingly bullish. More and more fireworks lit up the skies and the chorus of voices praising the Great Leader grew ever more fanatical. Being obviously co-equal with God, he had single-handedly rescued all races, all nations, and world culture too. That summer, an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima.

Staying at the composer's house in Ivanovo that August, I met him daily in a small summer-house next to his shabby, shed-like dacha. My friends and I set up a crude table: a plank nailed on two poles hammered into the ground. It was upon this makeshift work-surface that Shostakovich wrote his Ninth Symphony. Some lines from my diary: "For a few days there was no one at the 'table'. D.D. and Nina Vassilievna had gone to Moscow. When they returned, I went to meet them at Ivanovo station. On the way back, D.D. told me about a 'uranium bomb' and an unimaginably terrible disaster that it had caused. Nina expertly outlined to me the splitting of the atom. Gloomy, tense, and at the same time excited, D.D. spoke in short, rapid phrases, his animation tangible in his taut voice, preoccupied expression, and pale face. We walked towards their dacha in silence. Lost in contemplation of the horror of Hiroshima, I suddenly found myself babbling compulsively about our hopeless future. Cutting me short, Shostakovich gazed loftily into the sky and said: 'Our business is to rejoice'." I remembered this remark for the rest of my life - and not least because, as I say, he was then writing the Ninth.

In this work he side-stepped the demands of "duty" and, contrary to official expectations, spoke in his own voice. As far back as spring 1944, in conversation with a Moscow music critic, Shostakovich had said: "I'm thinking about my Ninth Symphony. I'd like to use a choir and soloists in it as well as an orchestra - if I can find the right text. But I'm worried I'll be accused of trying to copy Beethoven." [34] According to Genrikh Orlov, "in the winter of 1944-5 it became common knowledge that Shostakovich was working on his Ninth. Some musicians had heard the first pages of the new symphony - a victorious, heroic major theme in brisk tempo. In private conversations, Shostakovich confided that he'd been working enthusiastically. The exposition of the first movement took a couple of days, the development no more than a week. Then, suddenly, he stopped. He didn't say why; in fact, he avoided all mention of it. About a year later, he at last admitted that he'd started 'another' Ninth and hadn't yet brought this new one 'to an end'". [35] In the summer of 1945, the newspapers published TASS reports about a new Shostakovich symphony "dedicated to the triumph of our great victory" - but in August, on a home-made table in the village of Ivanovo, something quite different was being written.

Thirty years later, the composer finally spoke about all this:

I'm sure Stalin never had any doubts that he was a genius and an intellectual giant. Even so, once Hitler was defeated, his egomania ran riot. He was "like the frog who blew up to the size of an ox"... Those close to the Stalin-frog were careful to worship it. In fact, the entire world seemed to be worshipping Stalin and I soon found myself coerced into this sordid supplication, too. The situation was, as they say, clear: we'd won the war and the empire was consequently bigger. Anything beyond that was beside the point.

What was required from Shostakovich was an apotheosis:

The choir and soloists would have to glorify the great Leader... He was expecting to be able to point at it proudly and say: "There it is - our own national Ninth Symphony". Actually, I must confess to having encouraged the dreams of our Leader and Teacher by announcing a plan for just such an apotheosis. I tried to pull the wool over their eyes and this rebounded on me. When the real Ninth was performed, Stalin was enraged. He was mortified that there was no choir, no soloists, no apotheosis - in fact, no incense offered up to the Deity at all. It was just music, which Stalin didn't understand and whose meaning was suspect, to boot. [36]

The key word here is "suspect". In its modest scale, the Ninth was clearly opposed not only to the original idea of an official Victory Symphony, but also to the whole bloated cult of mass-festivities which had inflated out of all proportion since the war. I recollect very clearly how I perceived the work's multiple play of meanings: carefree jollity and carnival bravado turning into tragic burlesque; a strain of lyric innocence rising above a world of falsehood and vulgarity; grief and civil courage merging in a grave soliloquy. This was no grandiose tragedy, but rather the call of unhealing memory: "Let's bow our heads. Let's not forget the victims and the black days of the past."

The rules of the game

The catalogue reads: "D. D. Shostakovich. Notes and bibliography (1965)..." Listed here are dozens of articles and speeches printed in his name. Examples: "Moscow, Hope of Mankind"; (1950); "On the Road of Nationalism and Realism" (1952); "The Will of the People" (1953); "We are Creators" (1955); "To Stir Our Hearts" (1957); "Following the Guidance of the Party" (1962). Everyone knew these things were slung together by journalists and merely signed by Shostakovich. It was routine.

In his conversations with Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich mentions this practice very briefly and without much comment: "I'm often asked why I did this or said that, signed this article or that official statement... People are different and each deserves a different answer... They ask me why I signed that stuff, but nobody bothered to ask André Malraux why he eulogised the excavation of the White Sea Canal which cost hundreds of thousands of lives." [37]

It was naturally impossible to do without Shostakovich's help when preparing biographical material or other topics relating to him. In these circumstances he either participated very formally or kept a low profile - and this I can swear to on the basis of my own literary "collaborations" with him. [38] At no time did he ever offer any thoughts on what I was writing, either before or after publication. For example, in the case of my article "On some Vital Questions", he came round to my place in Ogarev Street and listened very attentively to what I read him. Only once did he comment. I'd written: "A composer's urge to expand the range of thoughts, feelings, and colours in his creative palette rarely evokes an enthusiastic response. Dogmatists are extremely suspicious of any attempt, however mild, to innovate in this way. Any poetic touch, if not perfectly conventional, provokes severe reservations." After that, I'd added: "Every effect of this kind needles them like a nail in a chair." At this point, Dmitri Dmitryevich politely interrupted: "I request you, Daniel Vladimirovich, please delete the phrase about a nail in a chair." And that was all!

I recall how Shostakovich's speech about Beethoven was composed. I arrived at his apartment with a ready-typed text - followed, hot on my heels, by various VIPs from the Committee Related to the Arts. I then read "Shostakovich's speech" loudly and clearly, whereupon the Ministry bosses delivered their profound opinions. They wished it to be known that they knew much more about Beethoven than was included in "Shostakovich's speech" - especially on such essential topics as "Beethoven and the Revolution" and "The Love of Beethoven in the USSR". There followed dozens of "important instructions" and I jotted them all down conscientiously. Meanwhile D.D. sat in a distant, dark corner near the front door, saying nothing. What did he know about Beethoven? Besides, his views were being decided for him by the state. It was evening and next morning he was due to fly to East Germany. There was no point in interfering. I spent the whole night at the typewriter in Dmitri Dmitryevich's study. At dawn, he woke me. For the sake of propriety, he skimmed through my text: "Thank you, thank you very much, excellent!" With a brush-like gesture, he scratched his head. "Sorry - must rush!" And off he went.

I recall all this and cannot but admit that I took part in this falsification. I knew for a fact that Dmitri Dmitryevich's mind was infinitely more incisive and original than any of those prepared texts. The only consolation I have is that I tried to write in a way which I believed would have been his style of writing. I know very well that he tolerated those falsifications neither out of laziness nor carelessness.

In private conversation, Dmitri Dmitryevich spoke extraordinarily vividly and expressively, employing a characteristic and very personal style based on pithy phrases which were almost always aphoristic. His articulation was highly emphatic, each word given its precise place and weight. Just as distinctive were the humour and sarcasm which often glinted through his apparently imperturbable seriousness. Indeed, his creative nature was clear in every aspect: in his sharp hints and loaded allegories; his verbal mimicry of characters and acting out of scenes; even in his deadpan jokes. (He would often repeat his jokes as an encore for friends, enriched with new twists and turns. He hated bland repetition, whether in speech or music.)

On the official platform, he was very different. Here are some of my notes from the '50s: "I've been listening to a speech by Shostakovich - with increasing irritation, albeit some sympathy. What an ugly, alien language he was being asked to mouth! Banal journalistic clichés, middlebrow quotations, endless ponderous verbosity. And the way he read it! Muddling syllables, ignoring punctuation - in fact, generally carrying on as if completely ignorant of the rules of grammar and intonation. It was like listening to a semi-literate schoolboy answering a question about which he knows absolutely nothing. As an official speaker, he is pure self-parody." Now, years later, I better understand the significance of those public performances (though I'm still not sure whether they were premeditated or simply spontaneous reactions to the idiocy of the situation). He read his "prepared" texts like that partly because he hated the whole ordeal and wanted to separate himself from it, and partly because doing so mimed his detachment from the official banality he was surrounded with. And one had to admit that the result was very expressive in its way! (Although, at the same time, it was impossible to be absolutely sure that it was being done on purpose.)

Another thing which I believe helped him separate his inner life from the imposed official life and its associated trivia was his cultivated courtesy. It worked with all kinds of people; but it was a very precise courtesy which never lapsed into obsequiousness or formal politeness. Mostly, it was merely a way of maintaining a distance.

Many people were puzzled by the composer's double life. Itpuzzled them because the real Shostakovich so obviously strove after truth with a tenacity and frankness verging on the self-immolatory. Quick to mend any breach in the wall of falsehood, our ideological overseers doggedly strove to maintain the public image of him as monolithically orthodox and reliably "correct". His enemies, those who envied him, were always trying to lure him into contradicting himself, catch him indulging in "tragic subjectivity", or expose his "suspect" ideological positions on this or that subject. (Some of these same people had, in earlier, so-called "brighter" days, feigned discipleship, trading on his generosity to further their own ambitions.)

It has to be said that neither Shostakovich's musical genius nor his great strength of spirit were enough to save him from the ordinary human fears that filled his days and nights. He feared for the life and fate of his loved ones; he feared violence, humiliation, and torture; he feared poverty and the withdrawal of his rights. As for his expressed desire, nevertheless, to be "like everyone else" - i.e., utterly defenceless, hopelessly enslaved, hanging by a hair over a void - in this I see only his singular spiritual integrity. [39] In fact, I've been thinking about this for some time, which is why I read the following lines from Galina Vishnevskaya's memoirs with particular pleasure: "Not disposed to close his eyes on a vile reality, Shostakovich saw clearly that we were all players in a disgusting farce - and that, once you'd agreed to be a clown, you had to carry it on to the end. In that way, you took responsibility for the abomination in which you lived and which you could never openly oppose." [40]

Having accepted the rules of the game once and for all, he followed them without embarrassment - hence his speeches in the media and at meetings, and his signature on "protest letters" (which, as he admitted, he signed without reading, caring nothing for what people might say). He knew that the time would come when this verbal husk would fall away, leaving only his music to speak for him in a language more vivid than words. His real life resided in his creativity and there was no way anyone could intrude there. Whatever thoughts he needed to express he was able to convey by means of his music, and it's that music which will survive for centuries - that and the tormented, spiritually crippled face of the greatest composer of the 20th century. No matter what lying programmes Soviet musicologists stuck on his symphonies, his audiences knew perfectly well what they were about.

Despite enduring a lifelong abuse of his talent, Shostakovich often remained loyal even to those who let him down. It is hard to imagine how, with his refined and nervous temperament, he resisted the temptation of suicide. What power rescued him from it? Could it be that he feared God? God, after all, does not accept the soul of one who takes his own life. "Three lilies, three lilies on my grave without a cross," sings The Suicide in his Fourteenth Symphony. At the work's rehearsal it was disturbing to watch him listening to this song with such obvious inner torment.

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