The Case for Dissidence

Youth (1917-26)

One of the mainstays of the old Soviet myth of Shostakovich was that he was brought up in a radical socialist atmosphere and was therefore disposed from his boyhood to be sympathetic to Communism. However, when Elizabeth Wilson interviewed the composer's younger sister Zoya (1908-1990) in Moscow in 1989, a different picture emerged. According to Zoya, Shostakovich's father, Dmitri Boleslavovich, like other liberal intelligenty, welcomed the February 1917 revolution as a liberation from Tsarism (Wilson, p. 6). On the other hand, he and his wife Sofiya held views which, far from ideologically radical, were humanely generalised. "The atmosphere in our house," insisted Zoya, "was very free and liberal" -- i.e., there were no fixed opinions derived from the ideology of Marxism or the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). According to Zoya, Sofiya gave shelter to "all kinds of people... [Black Hundreds] and Communists included". In Zoya's phrase, this equivalence of right-wing anti-Semites and Communists implies that the family regarded them as of comparable ideological extremity, even though the Communists included Shostakovich's uncle Maxim Kostrykin. The extraordinary breadth of Sofiya Shostakovich's tolerance, otherwise difficult to account for, may have been based on her religious outlook (see below). In general, Zoya recalled her parents' apartment as quietly apolitical: "I do not remember talk of politics." Significantly, this was at a time -- between the February and October revolutions -- when most of the intelligenty debated incessantly about politics. (Balancing her evidence, Zoya confirmed the Soviet official tradition that her brother witnessed Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station on 3rd April 1917, recording that Dmitri was "in raptures" about it and adding in rueful mitigation: "Well, he was only a young boy of ten...")

By themselves, Zoya Shostakovich's recollections of Shostakovich's apolitical upbringing would be insufficient to scotch the old Soviet myth -- yet she is far from alone in these impressions. Writing in 1989, Shostakovich's school friend Boris Lossky sought to counter the Soviet view of the composer's youth as presented by Sofiya Khentova in her two-volume study (1975, 1980) of this period in his life. Lossky confirmed Zoya's claim concerning the Shostakovich family's virtual apoliticism, recording that Dmitri's parents "belonged to the liberal traditions of the intelligentsia", adding that "the family was of a fairly conservative nature" (Wilson, p. 30). Lossky described the Shidlovskaya pupils as "chiefly drawn from the ranks of the 'out-lived' liberal intelligentsia who were unsympathetic to the 'official' [Soviet] bureaucracy of the day". One of these pupils, though, was none other than Trotsky's son Lev with whom, Lossky insisted, Dmitri "particularly" failed to get on. "During the spring of 1918, during Trotsky's rise to power," wrote Lossky, "Mitya never so much as hinted at any kind of sympathy with the 'existing regime', and I can vouch that this was the case until 1922 [when Shostakovich entered the Petrograd Conservatory as a full student]."

To illustrate the continuity of the Shostakovich family's beliefs, Lossky recalled Shostakovich performing his Funeral March in Memory of Victims of the Revolution at the Stoyunina Gymnasium in January 1918 during a commemoration for intelligenty killed by Communist troops whilst protesting against Lenin's dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (in which elected body the Bolsheviks held barely a quarter of the seats, being outnumbered by two-to-one by their main rivals the Socialist Revolutionaries). Since Communism is militantly atheistic, it is significant that Sofiya Shostakovich gave her husband a full Orthodox funeral which she took very seriously (Wilson, pp. 30-1). Even more significant is that the wife of the family's doctor dared to refer, in her funeral oration, to "the thinning ranks of the intelligentsia". By 1922, Lenin's contempt for intelligenty whose views differed from his had sent thousands of them to death or imprisonment on the Solovetsky Islands; indeed 1922 was the year in which he saw that his remaining Socialist Revolutionary rivals were done away with. These facts again suggest that the Shostakovich family circle was far from Communist orthodoxy. (Lossky thought the story that Dmitri saw Lenin was "inconceivable", calling it "sheer invention by the guardians of [the composer's] 'ideological purity'".)

Quoted in Viktor Seroff's biography of 1943, Shostakovich's aunt Nadezhda Galli-Shohat confirms the impressions of Zoya and Boris Lossky: "Mitya did not belong to any party, nor did Sonya [Sofiya, his mother] -- and Sonya had lost her job partly on account of it." (Seroff, p. 121) She adds: "It was clear that Mitya's position in the conservatory during the winter [of 1923-24] was only tolerated." So conspicuous were Shostakovich's lack of Communist credentials at this point that a group of "political" students tried, during spring 1924, to oust him and have his stipend suspended. In September 1924, his home piano, on loan from Muzpred, was repossessed (Wilson, p. 31). (Fay characteristically supplies no further information on these "internal political intrigues", describing them as "an enigmatic episode in Shostakovich's biography" [p. 24].) Curiously enough, the only references to Lenin in Shostakovich's letters to Tatyana Glivenko coincide with this period of political harassment at the Conservatory. Three of these four references are less than orthodox, including twice giving his address as Saint Leninburg. "If I become as great a man as Lenin," he wrote dryly to Tanya, "when I die will the city be renamed Shostakovichgrad?" (The inhabitants of Leningrad were, in general, resentful of the renaming of "Peter", as they referred to their city.)

The young Shostakovich's true estimation of Lenin's "greatness" is suggested by a dangerous joke he indulged in around this time (possibly under the free-thinking influence of Ivan Sollertinsky). According to Nikolai Malko (A Certain Art, p. 190), the composer was given to baffling admirers by telling them "I love the music of Ilyich". Since "Ilyich" was the Soviet popular name for Lenin, the composer's victims would naturally express puzzlement, whereupon he would explain, as though in surprise, "I am talking about the music of Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky". Solomon Volkov comments: "From the ideological point of view, such jokes were not harmless. The Lenin mystique was being broadly inculcated; even superficial deviations from the official cult were perceived as heresy. So it was only among close, trusted friends that Shostakovich would sometimes sing, after having a few drinks, the song of the Baltic sailors: 'Burn bright, candle in Ilyich's ruddy backside.'" [St Petersburg: a cultural history, p. 339.] In a similar spirit, Shostakovich's friend Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky remarks (Wilson, p. 26) on the composer's "early independence of thought and behaviour". Since independent thought and Communist orthodoxy were mutually incompatible, this is dependable Aesopian code for "he wasn't a Communist". Bogdanov-Berezovsky also confirms the young Shostakovich as "totally absorbed" in music, an opinion echoed by the composer himself in a letter to Boleslav Yavorsky of 1925: "There are no other joys in life apart from music. For me, all of life is music." (Wilson, p. 30)

The contentions of Zoya Shostakovich, Boris Lossky, and Nadezhda Galli-Shohat that the young composer was completely uninterested in politics, let alone in Communism, are supported by Nikolai Malko's claim that, in 1923, Shostakovich failed to answer a single question in the political section of his piano exam (A Certain Art, p. 186). The composer's lack of political enthusiasm persisted through the middle 1920s. In her recent biography, Laurel Fay confirms that the "October" subtitle of Shostakovich's First Piano Sonata (1926) did not come from him and that he repudiated it. She also reveals that, in December 1926, he told the musicologist Boleslav Yavorsky that he feared he would fail his Conservatory exam in Marxist methodology and consequently be declared "politically unreliable". Shostakovich's initial term for Marxist methodology, ostentatiously crossed through in his letter to Yavorsky, was "Scripture". In a subsequent letter, he describes his ideological examination in comic terms, recounting how he and a friend collapsed in hysterical laughter when the examiner in Marxist methodology asked a fellow student to outline the socio-economic differences between Chopin and Liszt.

Is there any reason to doubt or discount these six witnesses? The testimony of Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky may, perhaps, be dismissible as somewhat oblique. Conceivably, it might be objected, vis-à-vis the testimony of Nadezhda Galli-Shohat, that we should not seriously consider the claims of someone who left Russia in 1923 when Shostakovich was only 16; on the other hand, she did know Dmitri until then and stayed in touch with him and his mother as long as this remained possible thereafter. Of Boris Lossky, who left the USSR in 1922, it could be argued that, since he had read Testimony by the time he wrote his memoir (Wilson, p. 19), he was merely lending surreptitious support to the "Testimony view" of Shostakovich. His claim to have been engaged in the business of countering the false picture painted by Sofiya Khentova would, on this view, be no more than a smokescreen for a crypto-Volkovist agenda. If such an argument strikes the reader as far-fetched or contorted, it must be pointed at at once that the assumption it is based on is fundamental to anti-revisionism.

For example, Royal S. Brown, reviewing Larry Weinstein's documentary The War Symphonies, accused Weinstein's dozen witnesses (dignified Russian ladies and gentlemen of advanced years but fully functioning minds) of "going through great contortions to make their view of history fit the Volkov thesis" -- much as if these dozen Slavic elders had all had access to Testimony and, whether individually or collectively, resolved to change their memories to fit those supposedly ascribed to Shostakovich by Volkov. The same thinking inhabits Paul Mitchinson's curious new proposal (Lingua franca, May/June 2000) that, after defecting to the West in 1981, Maxim Shostakovich was "reluctant to disavow" Testimony "because of his hatred for the greater distortions imposed on his father's memory by official Soviet biographers such as Sophia Khentova". This idea, of unknown origin, coincidentally accords with Laurel Fay's view of Khentova, opening the neat possibility for her of killing two birds (Volkov and Khentova) with one stone. Unfortunately for this thesis, Maxim has endorsed Testimony on a regular basis ever since quitting the USSR (see Chronology) and has only mentioned Khentova once during all this time.

The fact of the matter is that Boris Lossky's sole reference to Testimony is dismissive. (He flatly rejects the Finland Station story.) This, though, is unlikely to prevent hardline anti-revisionists from discounting him as a possible crypto-Volkovist. The same, no doubt, can be said of Shostakovich's sister Zoya. But what of the sixth witness: Shostakovich himself in his letters to Glivenko and Yavorsky? He cannot be a crypto-Volkovist (or at least not in the 1920s) -- and, what is more, Nikolai Malko confirms Shostakovich's incompetence in political exams at the Conservatory, supporting what the composer wrote to Yavorsky in 1926. Have these witnesses conspired to misrepresent Shostakovich as he was in 1918-26? One would have to be willing to distort probability quite perversely to reach such a conclusion.

Are there any witnesses to the contrary? Disregarding officially sanctioned biographical statements attributed to the composer himself, there is no such reliable witness. The 1976 testimony of Lev Arnshtam, adduced by Elizabeth Wilson apparently to bridge a gap in her chronological account, portrays the young Shostakovich as enthusiastic for Communism, claiming that his "rhythmic sense" was "forged by the rhythm and pace of the Revolution" (Wilson, p. 23). This statement, which invokes a standard cliché of Soviet officialese based on Proletkult theories about "rhythms" and "tempos" of production, is musically meaningless and unlikely to have emanated from Arnshtam except in a spirit of Aesopian parody. As for the idea that the ardent young composer "did not notice deprivation" because his "conscious awakening in life coincided with the Revolution", this is extensively contradicted in Shostakovich's own words in his letters to Glivenko, where his illnesses, depressions, and suicidal impulses bulk large while allusions to the Revolution are virtually non-existent. Sadly, Lev Arnshtam died in 1980, so Wilson had no opportunity to ask him whether he would have consented to this article appearing in her book.

In summary, there is no plausible cause to reject or even query the testimony of the six witnesses referred to above. Pace Laurel Fay, there is no evidence that any of them are "self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking, and exaggeration" or "rife with gossip and rumor". There is no readily obvious reason to treat these witnesses with "utmost caution, filtering out false or improbable allegations and screening for bias and hidden agendas". Indeed, they have the virtue of corroborating each other without any evidence of collusion. To cut a long story short, the old Soviet myth of Shostakovich's youthful revolutionary sympathies can now confidently be rejected as, to borrow Boris Lossky's phrase, "sheer invention by the guardians of [the composer's] 'ideological purity'". On the contrary, the young Shostakovich was, intellectually, almost entirely absorbed in his love of music and literature. Politics, let alone Communist ideology, held no interest for him whatsoever and, as a result, he knew next to nothing about these subjects.

Laurel Fay mentions that Trotsky's son attended the Shidlovskaya school, but omits Lossky's recollection that Shostakovich "particularly" failed to get on with him. She directly quotes none of the material excerpted above. (Zoya's testimony goes unmentioned except for her story of her father crying "Children, Freedom!" upon the fall of Tsarist rule in February 1917.) Notwithstanding her reluctance to quote verbatim from witness testimony, Fay acknowledges the apoliticism of Shostakovich's immediate family background, dismisses the tale that he saw Lenin arrive at the Finland Station, and concludes that "the young Shostakovich's grasp of the import, and his conscious embrace, of the revolutionary milestones of 1917 were almost certainly exaggerated by both his Soviet biographers and, when expedient, by himself". It should be said that her suggestion that Shostakovich later exaggerated aspects of his life out of "expedience" is, in the absence of contextual exegesis, prejudicial. For example, in the era of the Cultural Revolution it became a matter of survival to establish, falsely if necessary, one's political credentials. Further, in view of the strking consistency of the available evidence, Fay's verdict that the young Shostakovich's political awareness was "almost certainly exaggerated" is a classic example of over-cautious (pseudo-centric) academicism.

Ironically, Fay offers another piece of evidence that Shostakovich, as a child of liberal tolerance, was not only averse to politics but also to Communism in its practical guise: "Petrograd's intelligentsia was especially horrified by the brutal murder by pro-Bolshevik sailors of two incarcerated leaders of the recently outlawed Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party, Andrey Shingaryov and Fyodor Kokoshkin, in their prison hospital. In a letter written to his Aunt Nazdezhda early in April 1918, [Shostakovich] lists a funeral march 'in memory of Shingaryov and Kokoshkin' among his recent works." (Fay, p. 12) The Kadets were the first party to be outlawed by Lenin following their demonstration in defence of the Constituent Assembly on 28th November 1917. Shingarev [sic], an eminent economist who had been Minister of Finance in the Provisional Government, and Kokoshkin, a law professor who had served as State Controller in the same body, were among those arrested, being transferred on 6th January 1918 from the Peter and Paul Fortress to the nearby Marinskaya Hospital where they were lynched the following night. This outrage appalled their fellow intelligenty, who realised that the Bolsheviks would go to any lengths to consolidate their coup. Gorky condemned the murders of Shingarev and Kokoshkin in Novaya zhizn on 9th January, the 13th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (which he compared to the massacre of those protesting the liquidation of the Constituent Assembly).

The eleven-year-old Shostakovich's musical statements vis-à-vis the protest against the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the murders of Shingarev and Kokoshkin two days later indicate, at the very least, that his family held a critical view of the progress of the Bolshevik regime. In the absence of further evidence, it is impossible to say how far Shostakovich himself understood the issues involved -- only that his musical reaction in this case was as deeply felt as his later musical reaction to his father's death (the Suite for two pianos, Opus 6). Certainly the composer's distanced stance towards politics and Communism can, in this case, be described as actively critical (i.e., dissenting). Whether that stance persisted, becoming the basis of a considered "secret dissidence" during 1918-26, remains, for now a matter of probability. The recollections of Boris Lossky and Zoya Shostakovich, together with the testimonies of Nadezhda Galli-Shohat, Nikolai Malko, Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, and the composer himself in his letters to Tatyana Glivenko, suggest that the young Shostakovich deliberately continued to steer clear of Communism and Lenin-worship until at least 1926. His "amusement" at reviews of his First Symphony in the "Red press" (letter to Glivenko, 21st May 1926) and his anticipation that "it will probably be very unpleasant to be present at the [Symphony's] rape by the [collectivist] Persimfans orchestra" (letter to Glivenko, 20th April 1927) confirm this distanced stance without suggesting anything definite enough to be construed as active dissent. Indeed, until recently, the very idea that Shostakovich might secretly have held anti-Communist views as early as his late teens would have struck most Western commentators as outlandish.

Such incredulity was partly a consequence of the uncritical (non-contextual) tendency to accept Shostakovich's "political" music of 1927-36 -- the Second and Third symphonies, the ballets, the film and incidental theatre scores -- as genuinely, rather than merely ostensibly, pro-Communist. This willingness to believe in the composer's political sincerity, in turn, partly derived from the common Western view of the Soviet 1920s as a time of economic surfeit and politico-cultural pluralism in which the system's apparent success persuaded artists like Shostakovich to throw in their lot with the regime and its "October" propaganda. We now have a markedly different concept of the Soviet 1920s [see The young man (1927-36)] and, as a result, of the politico-cultural context in which Shostakovich took his first steps as a composer. What should be understood, however, is that the evidence of Shostakovich's youthful apoliticism, together with his stance of actively critical reproach towards Lenin's Bolshevism in 1918, turns our assumptions upside-down. It now becomes necessary to construct an evidential case that, after 1926, Shostakovich shifted towards a more politically engaged position -- even became a believing Soviet Communist -- rather than to contend to the contrary: that he was, during 1927-36, hiding disaffection under a mask of conformism.

Since the present writer has argued for twelve years that Shostakovich was never sincere in his ostensibly Communist music, even as early as the Second Symphony (1927), he will leave it up to anti-revisionists to make the now necessary case to the contrary. What he would like to point out to anyone who proposes to construct this case is that (1) it cannot rest on Soviet official documents alone and (2) it must take account of the established fact of the composer's youthful apoliticism (veering to actively critical anti-Communism in 1918) and explain why, how, and when Shostakovich came to change his views. No account of Shostakovich's music in 1927-36 which founds itself on the assumption that he began as a believer in Communism is any longer sustainable.

Case continues...

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