"Do Not Judge Me Harshly"

Anti-Communism in Shostakovich's
letters to Isaak Glikman

by Ian MacDonald and Dmitry Feofanov

Dear Isaak Davidovich,

I arrived in Odessa on the day of the All-Peoples celebration of the 40th anniversary of Soviet Ukraine. This morning, I went out into the street. You, of course, understand that one cannot stay indoors on such a day. Despite wet and foggy weather, the whole of Odessa was out of doors. Everywhere are portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and also of comrades A. I. Belyaev, L. I. Brezhnev, N. A. Bulganin, K. E. Voroshilov, N. G. Ignatov, A. I. Kirilenko, F. R. Kozlov, O. V. Kuussinen, A. I. Mikoyan, N. A. Mukhitdinov, M. A. Suslov, E. A. Furtseva, N. S. Khrushchev, N. M. Shvernik, A. A. Aristov, P. A. Pospelov, Ya. E. Kalnberzin, A. P. Kirichenko, A. N. Kosygin, K. T. Mazyrov, V. P. Mzhevanadze, M. G. Pervukhin, N. T. Kalchenko.

Everywhere are banners, slogans, posters. All around are happy, beaming Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish faces. Here and there one hears eulogies in honour of the great banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and also in honour of comrades A. I. Belyaev, L. I. Brezhnev, N. A. Bulganin, K. E. Voroshilov, N. G. Ignatov, A. I. Kirichenko, F. R. Kozlov, O. V. Kuussinen, A. I. Mikoyan, N. A. Mukhitdinov, M. A. Suslov, E. A. Furtseva, N. S. Khrushchev, N. M. Shvernik, A. A. Aristov, P. A. Pospelov, Ya. E. Kalnberzin, A. P. Kirilenko, A. N. Kosygin, K. T. Mazyrov, V. P. Mzhevanadze, M. G. Pervukhin, N. T. Kalchenko, D. S. Korotchenko. Everywhere one hears Russian and Ukrainian speech. Sometimes one hears the foreign speech of the representatives of progressive humanity who have come to Odessa to congratulate its residents on the occasion of their glorious holiday. I too wandered around and, unable to restrain my joy, returned to my hotel where I resolved to describe, so far as I can, the All-Peoples celebration in Odessa.

Do not judge me harshly.

All the best,

D. Shostakovich

To many Westerners, deadpan expressions such as those in the aforegoing letter, written by the composer to his friend Isaak Glikman on 29th December 1957 in Odessa, represent sincere avowals of communist enthusiasm. Glikman, who records that Shostakovich rarely spoke an unironic word, would not have agreed -- indeed, he says as much in his notes to Letters To A Friend, from which this extract is taken: "Shostakovich here parodies the journalism of the period." (Meaning the bathetic repetitions, insipid clichés, and lists of faceless functionaries, each presented in their correct order of precedence within the Soviet mediocracy.) Yet Western "anti-revisionist" sceptics remain obdurate. Deaf to -- or simply refusing to hear -- the nuances of irony in both the composer's music and his other utterances, they cling to the fatally misleading delusion of Shostakovich as a Communist. Some of these sceptics are rank-and-file listeners with a leftwing background which they prefer to assume Shostakovich shared. Others, vaguer in their politics, know too little about Soviet history to countenance the idea that Shostakovich could have conducted his public life in almost complete dissimulation and double-talk, despite the fact that precisely this sort of dissimulation and double-talk is known to have been used by countless other public figures in the Soviet arts.

To academic advocates of anti-revisionism, the idea that Shostakovich held an anti-communist outlook is a priori unacceptable -- a false construction based on the composer's memoir Testimony, which they believe to be an ideologically mischievous forgery by its editor Solomon Volkov. At a deeper level, these specialists reject the "Testimony view" of Shostakovich because it contradicts, and implicitly invalidates, everything they've written about his music. Refusing to identify any pervasive irony in Shostakovich's expression, they persuade themselves to read letters like the composer's deadpan account of the political festival in Odessa as if he sincerely meant every studiously repetitive word of it. (Hence, for example, Robert Matthew-Walker's sleevenote to a recent issue on the Revelation label in which he refers to the cantata Poem of the Motherland as "a genuine celebration of the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution" and claims that its composer "remained a convinced communist" in 1954, a mere three years prior to the Odessa letter. In fact, the composer's anti-communism is expressed openly as early as 1942 and there is no evidence, apart from some ambiguous statements in letters to Tanya Glivenko in 1923-4, that he ever held pro-communist views.)

One or two simple propositions need to be borne in mind while considering such extracts. First, Shostakovich was a highly intelligent man, a fact repeatedly confirmed by the many witnesses in the books of Wilson and Ho/Feofanov; he was also, according to these same witnesses, a gifted mimic with a photographic memory (one, for instance, capable of remembering not only the names of many minor Politburo members, but their initials too). Second, the tone of Soviet Communist discourse was lumpen, literal, and repressively prescriptive on the basis of lowest-common-denominator comprehension. This being so, there are only two possible explanations for the simple-minded and crassly repetitous quality of Shostakovich's utterances on communist issues: (1) his intelligence was a figment of his friends' imaginations and he wrote music of intellectual stature purely by accident; (2) his simple-minded and crassly repetitious utterances on communist issues were in the nature of ironic parody.

That such deadpan irony was widely used by the Soviet non-Party intelligentsia is well-established, indeed the basis of the entire style of writers like Mikhail Zoshchenko and Andrei Platonov. The probability is that Shostakovich, a friend and devotee of Zoshchenko, to some extent partook of his deadpan ironic style (although witnesses attest that irony was characteristic of the composer from his boyhood onward). In any event, the inescapable fact is that to believe Shostakovich to have been sincere in saying most of the things he said about the communist system is to infer that he was an unusually dim, naive, and inarticulate man. There is no way out of this conclusion, apart from the application of a little commonsense and perhaps a small effort at familiarising oneself with the lowbrow locutions of Soviet officialese and the tinny clang of Socialist Realist rhetoric.

For example, on 31st December 1943 in Moscow, Shostakovich wrote to Glikman as follows:

The year 1944 is coming in. This will be a year of happiness, of joy, of victory. This year will bring us great joy. The freedom-loving peoples will at last throw off the yoke of Hitlerism, peace will reign throughout the whole world, and we will resume our peaceful life under the sun of the Stalinist Constitution. I am convinced of this, which is why I am experiencing great joy.

"The sun of the Stalinist Constitution", notes Glikman, was "a holy litany constantly chanted in the national newspapers". It is no accident that a similar mechanical repetition features in this passage, as do other bromidic litany-clichés ("the freedom-loving peoples", "our peaceful life"). The phrase "great joy", for example, ultimately derives from Stalin's notorious announcement at the height of the Terror during the mid-Thirties that life was becoming "more joyful", a litany everyone then had to repeat on pain of arrest, and which Shostakovich adapted into the chant "our business is rejoicing" (allegedly the sub-text to the coda of the finale of the Fifth Symphony). Another illustration of Shostakovich's deadpan parody is the following sentence (from a letter dated 23rd July 1944):

Soon I will live in our wonderful city of Leningrad, city-symbol of the power of the Soviet regime and of the brilliant strategy of Stalin.

As Glikman points out, this strings together no less than three contemporary journalistic clichés. (The point being that reiterating these readymade phrases was not a crime per se, so that it was perfectly safe to do so even in a letter likely to be browsed by the Soviet censors. Nor was anything needed in the way of satirical exegesis. To an intelligent reader, the phrases satirised themselves.)

While Shostakovich did not stoop to reproducing the most ubiquitous formula of this era -- "stormy applause rising to an ovation" -- he endured the incessant debates and sessions of "inspiring criticism" he had to sit through by pokerfacedly recycling their lesser litanies in letters and conversations, e.g., this note to Glikman written on 21st March 1955:

Just heard on the radio of the appointment of comrade N. A. Mikhailov as Minister of Culture of the USSR. Was delighted about that. All remember how bravely he fought to bring to life the Historic Decree. Our progressive musical circles, which always placed great hopes on comrade Mikhailov, are particularly delighted.

This passage, consisting almost entirely of a patchwork of communist reportage clichés, alludes to the so-called "Historic Decree" made by Zhdanov at the 1948 Composers' Union congress at which Shostakovich was condemned as a formalist. Shostakovich, who always ironically referred to this event as the "Historic Decree", mentions it again in a letter of 19th June 1965 about a film script on his life written by Glikman and two colleagues:

A. I. Khachaturian shared with me his impressions about the script. He liked it a lot. However, he thinks that the script does not give enough attention to the Historic Decree about the opera The Great Friendship. He would like to see added to the script the following sequence: the Historic Decree is published, and is in force, while the composer at that time composes the Violin Concerto and the Jewish Songs. This corresponds with historical reality.

To anyone conversant with the discreet "Aesopian" language used by the liberal intelligentsia under Soviet rule, this amounts to a confirmation by the composer that his First Violin Concerto and From Jewish Folk Poetry are dissident works. The final phrase in this passage reverses a formula common in communist ideological invective whereby an opponent's factual claim is dismissed by stating that it does not "correspond with historical reality". (The Marxist claim to be uniquely and infallibly acquainted with "reality", a favourite word in the Red lexicon, is linked to the notoriously all-excusing use of the word "objective" in communist dialectic, as in "Since you do not fight our enemy, your interests and those of our enemy are objectively identical".)

Shostakovich refers again to the circumstances of the 1948 congress in a letter of 6th September 1958, describing the newly developed pains in his right hand:

I envy V. Y. Shebalin, who, having lost his right hand, trained himself to use his left instead: he writes fluently with his left hand. Moreover: with his left hand, in response to historic decrees that art should be closer to life, closer to the people, he wrote an opera about our contemporaries, victoriously marching under the leadership of the Party to the radiant heights of our future, towards communism.

Everything from the pointedly reiterated phrase "with his left hand" is a Socialist Realist cliché, the most hackneyed being "the radiant heights" (the title of one of Alexander Zinoviev's satirical studies of the Soviet system and adapted by Winston Churchill in one of his wartime speeches as "the sunlit uplands").

Inspiring criticism

Shostakovich often refers sarcastically to the "valuable" or "inspiring" criticism he -- and anyone else with real, independent talent in the USSR -- periodically had to suffer in public from mediocre rivals and political appointees. When, for example, Yevtushenko was leant on by the authorities to persuade him to make changes to his poem Babi Yar as used in Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, the composer sent the updated version to Glikman on 6th January 1963, adding: "Bracketed lines are those added by the poet in response to inspiring criticism."

Twenty years earlier, on 8th December 1943, he had written from Moscow in a similar vein about his recently premiered, and much attacked, Eighth Symphony:

The Union of Soviet Composers was going to hold a debate on it, but this was delayed due to my illness. This debate will soon take place, and I have no doubt that valuable criticisms will be made which will inspire me to further artistry, and cause me to reevaluate my previous artistry, so that, instead of a step backward, I will take a step forward.

Shostakovich played a similar deadpan game with dead locutions in 1953, following a round of unusally hostile attacks on his Tenth Symphony. Inscrutably mocking the simple-minded analyses advanced by the nonentities ranged against him, he ventured that the first movement was perhaps too long. The second, on the other hand, was possibly too short. "As for the third movement, I think my calculations worked out pretty well, except that it is a bit long. Here and there, though, there are places that are a bit short. It would be very valuable to have the comrades' opinion on this."

Shostakovich had many opportunities to avail himself of such comradely assistance. Writing to Glikman on 31st March 1957, he refers to another such occasion:

Recently I attended the Congress of composers. Listened to orators of various sorts. I particularly liked the speech of comrade Lukin. He reminded the Congress of the inspiring advice of A. A. Zhdanov that music should be melodious and pleasant. "Unfortunately," observed comrade Lukin, "we have failed to comply with this inspiring advice!" There was just as much of value and interest in the other speeches.

Despite the undertow of terror and horror beneath his encounters with the Soviet politico-cultural machine, Shostakovich retained his sense of humour and innate fairness. On 30th April 1960, he writes, with an almost visible grin, to his friend Glikman of a new work by a mutual friend, performed by a wryly respected, if politically incompatible, mutual acquaintance:

I was greatly impressed by the Violin Concerto by M. S. Vainberg which is wonderfully played by the violinist-communist L. B. Kogan. It's a wonderful work. And I mean it. And the violinist-communist plays it great.

The phrase "And I mean it" is laughingly added to stress the sincerity of "a wonderful work", which in Shostakovich's normal deadpan parlance would have meant the exact opposite (just as the phrase "a splendid fellow" was his code for "he's an informer").

Many more examples of the this kind can be found in the pages of the aforementioned books by Elizabeth Wilson and by Ho and Feofanov. A different, more creative sort of double-talk is on display in some excerpts from an article by Shostakovich's Polish biographer Krzysztof Meyer at this site. For a general introduction to this aspect of the Soviet background, consult Mikhail Heller's Cogs in the Soviet Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man (Collins Harvill, 1988).

This article is dedicated to the memory of D. S. Korotchenko.

Addendum, 10/01

Until recently, the only Western translation of the Glikman letters was Luba Jurgenson's French version for Albin Michel, Lettres à un ami: correspondance avec Isaak Glikman (1941-1975), published in 1994. In October 2001, Faber & Faber produced an English translation by Anthony Phillips under the title Story Of A Friendship: The Letters Of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman 1941-1975, with a Commentary by Isaak Glikman. It is worth noting that the annotations by Glikman as translated by Phillips are quite explicit in expressing Shostakovich's attitude towards Stalin. For example (n. 27, p. 228), when Samuil Samosud suggested that the Seventh Symphony needed some verses glorifying Stalin to be sung by soloists and chorus, Shostakovich "strenuously resisted" the idea. "Such a refusal," comments Glikman, "which meant in effect declining to praise the 'Inspired General and Leader' in an overtly war-related work, called for great courage, a quality with which Shostakovich was abundantly endowed." Glikman likewise observes (n. 29, p. 247) that Shostakovich had "a particular aversion" to the passages in the libretto for The Song of the Forests which mentioned Stalin. Vis-à-vis a letter of 6th November 1942 in which Shostakovich ironically regrets that circumstances have forced Glikman and himself to be apart while listening to a radio broadcast by Stalin, Glikman comments (n. 103, p. 233): "Whenever we heard Stalin speak, shared feelings of implacable revulsion instantly passed between us." As for Shostakovich's general antipathy to the Communist hierarchy, it is instructive to read Glikman's notes on the satirical songs which he wrote during the 1930s and which Shostakovich greatly enjoyed (n. 114, pp. 234-5).

Remarking on the letter of 31st December 1943 in which Shostakovich mockingly speaks of living in peace "under the sun of the Stalinist constitution" (see above), Glikman writes (n. 165, p. 239): "Shostakovich's detestation of Hitler's fanatical tyranny coexisted with equal loathing for the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. In the later stages of the war, when unbridled paeans of praise for the 'Great General', to whom the army and the whole nation naturally owed all victories, began blaring out with renewed force everywhere, Shostakovich reflected with apprehension on what was likely to happen once the long-awaited victory actually came about. He feared a resurgence of the random terror that had been the reality of life 'under the sun of Stalin's constitution', the canonical phrase which in reality existed only on the pages of newspapers. Hence the bitter irony of the reference to the 'unalloyed joy' with which he looked forward to a return to pre-war life and times." This commentary may be justifiably applied to interpretation of Shostakovich's ambiguous Ninth Symphony.

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