Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life

A review by Ian MacDonald

Part 3: 1932-48

The indispensability of historical context

The blandness of Fay's progress through the era of the Cultural Revolution (see Part 2 of this review) seems partly to stem from a desire to play down Shostakovich's essential artistic incompatibility with the ideology of the Soviet regime -- but, more basically, from her innocent lack of acquaintance with the realities of the broader background. Her naivety comes shockingly into focus with her fifth chapter, where she describes, without irony, the intention of the makers of the film Counterplan "to evoke the revolutionary romanticism of the massive industrialisation drive" of 1928-32, adding that the project "had to advance at an unforgiving pace, not unlike the momentum of its subject matter, the factory workers' strenuous push to meet the Five-Year Plan". One can forgive much in Fay's narrative on the supposition that she clearly has no idea what she's talking about, but this "romantic" impression of Stalin's "superindustrialisation" campaign (about which we now know the gory details at almost unbearably exhaustive length) is beyond the pale of acceptability in 1999.

The First Five-Year Plan cost hundreds of thousands of lives, nearly broke the USSR completely, and ended in a countrywide mood of rebellious resentment for the insane production quotas and abject living conditions inflicted on the Soviet populace in this terrible time. Those thousands who died of cold or hunger in the rush to construct industrial cities in the Urals, or who perished in the mines due to the government's indifference to health and safety, or who expired from sheer exhaustion whilst driving new roads and railways through the taiga, or who were shot on the spot on the White Sea Canal so that their bodies could be used to stuff flood-gaps -- not to mention the millions of starved corpses strewn across the Ukraine as a result of collectivisation -- has Laurel Fay even heard of them?? The "unforgiving pace" which destroyed so many lives -- has she the slightest idea what it involved? Does she imagine that the "strenuous push" of the factory workers was accomplished with cheerful grins and merry songs? Does she not realise that food shortages (in particular the scarcity of bread resulting from Stalin's decision to export grain in order to buy machinery) made life unutterably miserable for Russia's urban proletariat in these gruelling years? Has she no concept of the show-trial hysteria and GPU terror employed by the authorities to keep Soviet citizens slave-labouring through their hectic ten-hour days? Does she know how irredeemably cynical these people had become by 1932? As a "short course" of enlightenment in these matters, Fay is advised to consult the chapter "Hard Times" in Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism, supplementing this by reading Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit. But no one pretending to write authoritatively on Shostakovich can seriously expect to get away with a "short course" in the Soviet background these days. Fay should have read the several full-length studies of the First Five-Year Plan published since 1990 before purporting to allude to the milieu in which Shostakovich then worked.

Shostakovich and the "second NEP"

The falsity of the pretence that we can understand the music Shostakovich wrote (or didn't write) without reference to the wider politico-cultural context is inadvertently exposed with deadening regularity in Fay's chapters covering his career of the 1930s. In Chapter Five, this effect is particularly subtle and cries out for exegesis. During the years 1934-5, Shostakovich's life became easier. He had a hit opera and his RAPM foes had been stifled. Regarded as the leading light of young Soviet music, he was effectively untouchable, even if Leftwing critics continued to snipe at him. He was handsomely paid for his work in film and theatre, and his material life began to be almost luxurious. After a tricky time, his marriage straightened itself out and Nina became pregnant with their first child, Galina. Shostakovich's on-the-record expressions of the period appear bland and the impression is of complacent self-satisfaction. This, though, is purely surface. The reality, between and behind the public statements which Fay assembles in order to build her impression of Shostakovich in the mid-1930s, has no more necessary bearing on the reality between and behind public statements made in other stages of his career. We have to address context in order to evaluate them.

After the famine years of 1932-3, Stalin needed to get control again of failing public support. The launch-pad for this was the Seventeenth Party Congress in January 1934, fanfared by press editorials and street slogans assuring the Soviet people that "Life has become better, life has become happier". In fact, owing to the industrial advances of the First Five-Year Plan, a genuine economic recovery did begin around this time -- built on the bodies of those buried beneath the concrete of Magnitogorsk or in the lock-walls of the White Sea Canal, but nonetheless real in its social impact. Stalin had to create an "interested" class: people in varying degrees of influence who could at last see some material benefit from the Soviet Communist system and who, buying into this in whatever way, would consequently be not only less inclined to complain but likely to proselytize for it. So far as artists went, the union system was part of this masterplan, bequeathing them financial security and shelter from the "proletarian" storm in exchange for obedience when the apparat called to collect its protection money (in the form of occasional pieces, propaganda soundtracks, and so forth). Rationing still applied outside the cities where no intellectuals dwelt, and for a while even the urban proletariat had to go on living harshly. The society of the new urban "interested" class, however, began to flourish in what became known as the era of "the second NEP" (1934-39). This was heralded by the reappearance of all the trappings of the first NEP of the mid-1920s: jazz-band dance music, "bourgeois" silk stockings, exotic foodstuffs in the special stores, musical comedies in the Soviet cinema, and a thriving city restaurant industry. In one of his letters to his girlfriend Tanya Glivenko during the first NEP, Shostakovich was proud to say that he had never set foot in a restaurant, which were then reputed to be solely the haunt of the Party-privileged and a lookalike clientèle of spivs, gangsters and secret policemen. During the "second NEP", Shostakovich discovered a taste for the Restaurant Life. His "Soviet embourgeoisement" is symbolically preserved in The Limpid Stream.

In effect, the story of his life in 1934-5 is that of a man being incrementally bought up by Stalin's system. Shostakovich was being sucked gradually into the nomenklatura -- and he was rather enjoying it. Of course, he was no less intelligent than he'd been whilst at loggerheads with the Soviet system (either directly or by proxy) during the Cultural Revolution. His friends were still the same smart, sceptical crowd. Indeed, we know from recent archival studies by Western sociological historians that every level of Soviet society during this economic honeymoon -- from the most cosseted intelligenty to the lowliest workers -- seethed with cynicism about the USSR's political system (and, in particular, its leaders). What took the edge off this was an amoral, seize-the-day mood induced by relative urban prosperity. Yet, while this affluence lasted (until shortly before the war), the steadily building background hum of political terror, beginning in late 1934 and peaking in mid-1937, gradually took away the mood of comparative relaxation. By late 1935, people of Shostakovich's ilk were becoming profoundly uneasy about the future, especially in Leningrad, which had suffered inordinate quantities of political arrests following the murder of Kirov.

Although Fay, as usual shows little awareness of this background, it is to her credit that she has the commonsense to see that Shostakovich's letter to Sollertinsky about Stalin's attendance at the Bolshoi rehearsal of The Limpid Stream (p. 83) is "wry", which is to say dryly ironic: "Today is the happiest day of my life. I saw and heard Stalin." This sentence, which it would have been fatal not to write in view of the Soviet censors' intense scrutiny of private mail during the build-up of the Great Terror, was simply a reproduction of what "ordinary citizens" were continually reported as saying in the Soviet press upon glimpsing Stalin from afar. Stalin was now being presented as a man-god and his personality cult was becoming stentorian. Shostakovich could not help but be aware of all this. (Not to have been aware of it would have amounted to a dereliction of civic duty.) Indeed, it would be perverse to miss the presence of the megalomania of Stalin's cult in the opening measures and penultimate section of the finale of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. In some ways, Soviet society was going mad at this time, Stalin's praise-singers flying as far into the purple superlative as those who formerly apostrophised Nero and Caligula.

Shostakovich in 1936-7

Fay has little to say in the way of assessment of the Fourth Symphony but does tell us that, when it entered rehearsals, Shostakovich's income had, as a result of the Pravda attacks at the start of 1936, fallen to between a quarter and a fifth of what he had earned during 1934-5. It is, in fact, in the 1936-8 period that Fay justifies herself by providing new information which, while requiring interpretation (which she sometimes risks), is interesting and illuminating. Her narrative thereafter continues to bump around, accepting conflicting information without apparent awareness of the need to reconcile such things (or, if unable to do so, to acknowledge as much), but her book, while never more than functionally written, does become worth the effort around its 100-page mark. Sadly, this brief promise does not last and we soon return to an artless recital of factual assertions whereof nearly every page contains a passage that requires explaining and almost nothing is as simple as the author assumes.

Prominent among Fay's more misleading assumptions is that Shostakovich, while manifestly a musical genius, was in other respects not very bright, often stumbling into situations which he had not anticipated and did not fully understand until later, if ever. This, perhaps, accounts for her willingness to tolerate without query his quoted opinions where these directly contradict each other, often within a small time-span. She must, one can only suppose, imagine that he was muddled and changeable -- as distinct from constantly involved in gauging what he could get away with saying and what he would need to pay to Caesar in order to be allowed to continue living the following day. Shostakovich's contradictory disposition in respect of The Limpid Stream is an especially intriguing example of this perpetual dilemma. His attitude to the project at first seems relaxed and comfortable -- but "seems" is the word. Soon he is admitting to Sollertinsky how awful it is (and, if Fay's note 9 on p. 305 is borne in mind, hoping that it won't turn out to be compared favourably with Lady Macbeth).

As for how smart Shostakovich was, even the half-awake will see that his instant reaction to learning of the first Pravda attack on 28th January 1936 -- phoning Isaak Glikman and instructing him to take out a subscription to a newspaper clipping service -- was brilliant thinking. As one man against a totalitarian state, Shostakovich needed to gather data about his situation fast. How serious was the attack in terms of "syndication" to other Soviet newspapers? Who was saying what about him, high or low? Without this finger in the wind, he would have been prey to paranoia of far greater intensity than was inevitable for someone in his "unpersoned" circumstances. Under normal conditions, Shostakovich read Pravda to stay in touch, to gauge the weather; when the storm came, he read every scrap of relevant information he could lay his hands on. This man was no fool.

And it was some storm. In this respect, Fay does herself proud by pointing out that "it was hardly a coincidence that on 17 January 1936, the same day Stalin attended the performance of Dzerzhinsky's opera, the establishment was announced of an All-Union Committee for Artistic Affairs (subsequently transformed into the USSR Ministry of Culture) to oversee all artistic organizations, including theaters and educational institutions". In other words, the attacks on all the arts which followed in a continuous tumult throughout the year were planned well ahead of time as part of a miniature Cultural Revolution to reinforce Socialist Realism (probably under the influence of high-level Soviet anxiety about what was then unfolding in Germany). But was the attack on Lady Macbeth also planned as part of this new campaign -- the curtain-raiser, as it were? Fay seems to have missed this eye-opening possibility. Certainly the Pravda attack on The Limpid Stream, a week later, appears to have come, not from a non-musical source close to Stalin, but from someone in the Composers' Union -- someone who was aware that the ballet included material imported from The Bolt.

Fay's description of Shostakovich's predicament following the Pravda attacks shows her at her best: the composer's visit to Kerzhentsev, Gorky's conscientious appeal on his behalf to Stalin, Meyerhold's brave defence of a young man then shunned by all of his friends but Sollertinsky and Shebalin. Even better is her collocation of rival theories as to the cause of the withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony. Again, though, a footnote reveals something which certainly ought to have been in the main text: Levon Atovmyan's description of visiting Shostakovich and asking him what he thought Pravda would make of the Symphony. The composer reportedly "bristled":

I don't write for the newspaper Pravda, but for myself. I basically don't think about who will say what about my work, but write about what moves me, what has sprouted in my soul and mind. As for how they evaluate the symphony, that is the business of critics, who get paid for it.

Here, surely, is the real Shostakovich: mask off, speaking the truth to a close friend. Yet where is the selfless "civic" devotion, the Faithful Servant of the state? This is the stance of a creative individualist, the standard type of composer since Beethoven -- not of an ideological factotum whose priority is to comply with a norm dictated by his "employer" (whether that be Stalin or some ideal vision of a "socialist" future).

In recounting the arrests of relatives and other personal losses which Shostakovich suffered during 1936-7, Fay provides trustworthy information. Her purely political narrative, though, continues to betray a lack of acquaintance with the reality behind "the circumstances". Speaking of Stalin's murderous elimination of his surviving Bolshevik rivals in this period, she writes: "The laxness of the security service in exposing the Trotskyite-Zinovyevite conspiracy led to the appointment of Yezhov as head of the NKVD in September 1936." It is clear from this that Fay believes such a "conspiracy" actually existed, whereas one would be hard pressed to find a reputable scholar who does not consider the whole Trotsky-Zinoviev affair to have been got up by Stalin as an excuse to kill off his enemies. The political truth is always more sordid than she seems to realise, a naivety best illustrated by contrast with the real gangster evil then ruling the Kremlin, as described by Edvard Radzinsky in Stalin:

Among those in attendance at the execution of the old Leninist leaders [of the "united Trotskyist-Zinovievite centre"] were the NKVD chiefs Yagoda and Yezhov, and also the commander of Stalin's personal bodyguard, Pauker. Pauker was a theatre lover, and himself an inimitable clown. [Aleksandr] Orlov described Pauker's performance of the Boss's [Stalin's] favourite turn -- an impression of Zinoviev on his way to execution: Pauker's Zinoviev clings helplessly to the GPU men's shoulders, drags his feet, whimpers pitifully, then falls on his knees and howls: "Please, comrade, please, for God's sake call Joseph Vissarionovich." Stalin "laughed uncontrollably". He laughed all the louder because he knew how the daring raconteur himself would end... He would be shot, just like Zinoviev, and just like Zinoviev he would beg his murderers for mercy.

The "laxness in the security service" to which Fay refers was actually Stalin's excuse for framing Yagoda in order to replace him with Yezhov. Like Boris Yeltsin's prime ministers, Stalin's henchmen came and went in quick succession, the difference being that his appointees were not fired but shot (and often, to satisfy the demands of the Boss's sadistic sense of humour, immediately after being happily promoted).

The Fifth Symphony

Fay's account of the circumstances surrounding the Fifth Symphony is honest and clear -- clear enough, at any rate, to confirm that Richard Taruskin's essay-polemic on this subject in Fanning's Shostakovich Studies (with its claim that the Symphony was, in the eyes of the Soviet apparat, a "foreordained triumph") is devious nonsense. Fay naively accepts that Alexei Tolstoy penned the "formation of personality" essay without being officially "enlisted" to do so and takes seriously Shostakovich's various supposed observations on the alleged significance of the Symphony made within the framework Tolstoy's essay erected. Apart from that, her reflections are shrewd: "The symphony showed no signs that he had taken Kerzhentsev's advice to study Russian folklore or followed any of the other obvious recipes for rehabilitation. He neither affixed nor endorsed any subtitle to his Fifth Symphony[...] Shostakovich's reluctance to describe and discuss his music publicly in any terms but the most sweeping platitudes, a trait that would endure for the rest of his life, was born of common sense and a survival instinct." (And not, as Taruskin pretends, because the composer "insisted on keeping latent content latent -- and keeping it labile".) Only one other blemish appertains to Fay's treatment of the Fifth Symphony's reception -- her quotation from Osip Mandelstam (p. 103): "Tedious intimidation... I cannot approve." Without seeing the full text of this verdict (which is not reproduced in Jane Gray Harris's Collected Critical Prose and Letters), it is impossible to determine what Mandelstam meant by this. He knew little about music -- so why quote him?

Fay continues in a vein of faultless efficiency with her description of Shostakovich as an inveterate gambler and "risk-taker", and her detailed account of his informed passion for football ("soccer"). While reading passages like these, for all their rather utilitarian style, one begins drumming one's fingers with frustration that this writer should be burdened with so obtuse a delusion about Shostakovich's political views; relieved of this fundamental distortion in her judgement (along with her resulting irrational animus against anything to do with Testimony), Fay would be a perfectly acceptable authority on Shostakovich. Instead she is as irredeemably controversial as she stoutly believes Testimony to be: a mirror-image of what she despises. Irony, of course, is not Fay's strong suit, as her rather defeated paragraph on Shostakovich as a "civic" personality (p. 111) shows. At least she realises that it is "virtually impossible to distinguish between those activities he engaged in willingly and those he simply found himself incapable of declining". Compared to Taruskin, Fay is almost subtle.

Unfortunately, she is content to recite the usual "Official Shostakovich" comments on the First String Quartet, flouting her own proviso about "sweeping platitudes" made a few pages earlier. Likewise, the composer's unfulfilled promise of a Lenin symphony in September 1938 remains unconnected with the effects of the ongoing Terror at that time. More rubbish-for-official-consumption gets quoted about the Sixth Symphony (e.g., that Shostakovich claimed it to be redolent of "spring, joy, youth, lyricism") and Fay has nothing -- let alone anything penetrating -- to suggest about the work's expressive content. Blandness gradually settles over her narrative as she proceeds towards the outbreak of war. It as if, unable to avoid dealing with the realities of the Terror of 1936 and 1937, she found herself willynilly becoming more insightful as a result; but with no pressing need to attend to the continuing Terror of 1938 and 1939 (and besides having a lot of disparate works to process), she thereupon lapses back into her usual humdrum absence of sympathetic imagination. The only perceptive remark she makes during a dozen pages is that Shostakovich "may have" identified with the Fool in King Lear -- something which, after all, is scarcely news.

The war years

Fay prefaces her section on the Seventh Symphony with a paragraph on the patriotic song "Oath to the People's Commissar" to a text by Vissarion Sayanov. It would be pleasant to report that she balances this by telling us more about the contemporary satirical songs mentioned by Yakubov in his LSO notes as having been co-composed by Shostakovich and Glikman: "Going Along With Kaganovich" and "The Song of the People's Iron Commissar Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov". Sadly, she does not. Fay likewise ignores the problematical conflicting information about the genesis of the Seventh Symphony published by Ho and Feofanov in Shostakovich Reconsidered (pp. 150-158), describing this work in the traditional way as a war symphony (though quoting Litvinova's well-known memoir to the contrary). The narrative proceeds in a neutrally impersonal recital of facts through the war period. A touch of personal judgment comes when Fay calls the ending of the Eighth Symphony "pellucid" -- a word some might think more appropriately replaced by "drained" or "broken". No mention is made of Zhitomirsky's revealing remarks concerning the reception of the Symphony. Fay's verdict ("obviously disappointed") on Shostakovich's letter to Glikman of 8th December 1943 (p. 138) shows her innocently immune to his black irony -- although, inexplicably, she is aware of the same tone in the letter of 31st December 1943 to Glikman reproduced on p. 140. (Her footnote, though, appears to backtrack on this. Neither the date of the letter nor the name of its recipient are given, suggesting that they were excised to make room for a late alteration.)

One of the most provocative episodes in Shostakovich's career from the point of view of interpretation is his abandonment of the first, seemingly heroic, version of his Ninth Symphony for the light and brief work which eventually emerged. This cries out for a musicological analysis of surviving materials, not to mention some persuasive explanation for Shostakovich's change of course. Fay reports only the facts, making no comment on them. This lack of a verdict on what Shostakovich was up to in this extraordinary piece typifies the ultimate emptiness of her book. Here, her dull ambition to provide only "a resource", a compendium of cold facts, reaches its tedious apogee. A new Shostakovich biography on the cusp of the Millennium should, one feels, have something more to offer than mere glorified concert notes.

1948 and From Jewish Folk Poetry

Fay's account of the January 1948 conference is curiously lightweight. Considering that she had access to the unedited transcripts, it is quite extraordinary that she does not quote verbatim from at least some of the invective directed at Shostakovich and his co-defendants by the old Leftists who were about to take over the Composers' Union. (Anyone curious about this should consult Alexander Werth's Musical Uproar in Moscow, 1949.) Similarly, Fay relegates to a footnote Sabinina's testimony that the speech Shostakovich read at the end of the February Congress was handed to him by an official as he was making his way to the platform (cf. Wilson and The War Symphonies). While her rationale for doing this is that she has a legitimate logical objection to this testimony (notwithstanding that it came from Shostakovich's own lips), it is strange that she should be content to report the composer's grotesque act of apparent public submission without offering a word of exegesis in her main text (pp. 161-2). Surely Sabinina's report of Shostakovich's own view of this critical moment in his career deserved to be reproduced in Fay's "circumstantial" narrative? Here it is:

"I got up on the tribune, and started to read out aloud this idiotic, disgusting nonsense concocted by some nobody. Yes, I humiliated myself, I read out what was taken to be 'my own' speech. I read like the most paltry wretch, a parasite, a puppet, a cut-out paper doll on a string!!" This last phrase he shrieked out like a frenzied maniac, and then kept repeating it. I sat there completely dazed. [Sabinina's testimony, Wilson op. cit. 294-5.]

It is scarcely surprising that, as Fay writes, a witness "recalled that after Shostakovich descended from the tribunal, everyone avoided him in the hallways, and he looked dispirited and dismayed". Why, though, does she present this episode so blandly? Such pallid elisions and omissions now begin to mount up. Turning to the "tragic coincidence" of Solomon Mikhoels' murder, Fay ignores the conclusive evidence that Shostakovich realised immediately that Mikhoels had been deliberately killed (Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp.700-708), recording only the composer's phrase "I envy him" remembered by Natalya Vovsi-Mikhoels. No mention is made of Vovsi-Mikhoels' specific rebuttal of Fay's infamous New York Times article about From Jewish Folk Poetry. Fay's reiteration of the thesis of that article proceeds as follows:

When Shostakovich turned to Jewish folk texts for his first major work in the aftermath of the resolution of 10 February 1948 and set them even as the final installment of Koval's diatribe on his music was rolling off the press, he was in all likelihood [sic] approaching the project in a constructive attempt to satisfy the "public" promises he had just made[...] Shostakovich was not a composer who willingly composed "for the drawer". He had a strong need to connect, to communicate with listeners, to hear his music performed. And in the summer of 1948 he was under intense pressure to redeem himself publicly.

The "public promises" Fay refers to are those described in Sabinina's report of the composer's own words: "idiotic, disgusting nonsense". (Is this why Sabinina is so ingloriously relegated to the notes?) As for the sort of composer Shostakovich was, does Fay's anodyne description accord with the man who wrote Rayok? Or with the man who "bristled" when Atovmyan asked him what he thought Pravda would make of the Fourth Symphony? Or with the man who "redeemed himself publicly" in 1937 by ignoring Kerzhentsev's advice to study folk music, instead producing the boldly anti-Socialist Realist Fifth Symphony? Or with the man who scrapped the "heroic" original draft of the Ninth Symphony and replaced it with a satire? (The word "satire", be it noted, appears vanishingly rarely in Fay's narrative.)

When Fay takes as evidence for harmlessness Shostakovich's undeniable hopes of seeing From Jewish Folk Poetry performed as soon as possible, she does so by calmly ignoring my long defence of the probability that Shostakovich was then in state of risk-taking disregard for the consequences (Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 708-720). This is flatly dishonest writing. (That Shostakovich felt sufficiently strongly on "the Jewish question" to express himself about it, whatever the public context, is confirmed by his decision, during winter 1961, to set Yevtushenko's Babi Yar in the face of a storm of implicitly anti-Semitic protest about the poem in the Soviet media; indeed, so impulsive was his desire to set Babi Yar that he broke his habit of composing into full score, pursuing his line through the text as directly as possible with an initial vocal/piano score.) As for Fay's repeated selective quotation from Joachim Braun's article on this song-cycle -- omitting his central assertion that it is a work of dissent (Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 687-8, fn. 114) -- one can only call this mendacious. Here, her foundation claim to have penned a dependable "resource" collapses in a flagrant betrayal of her readers' trust.

Incredibly, she continues without batting an eyelid: "Despite increasingly menacing incidents of anti-Semitism that had occurred in the country since the end of the war" (events of which she obviously had no knowledge before she read my account of them) "by the end of the summer of 1948 Shostakovich, like the majority of his countrymen, could not yet have known about Stalin's monstrous plan for the eventual containment and eradication of Soviet Jewry". By staking the credibility of this statement on the specific issue of "Stalin's monstrous plan for the eventual containment and eradication of Soviet Jewry", Fay tries to sidestep her critics, ignoring the overwhelming evidence of official Soviet anti-Semitism from at least 1942 onwards (not "since the end of the war"!). By comparing Shostakovich to "the majority of his countrymen", she similarly ignores the composer's wide circle of Jewish friends, not to mention his closeness to Moisei Vainberg, Solomon Mikhoels' son-in-law. This, to be blunt, is a willful distortion of the historical record. How can Fay possibly believe that Shostakovich -- a man who, on 13th January 1948(!), observed of Mikhoels' murder that "this had started with the Jews but would end with the entire intelligentsia" -- nonetheless "had no compelling reason to believe there might be any undue risk involved in publicizing [From Jewish Folk Poetry]"? (Again the quote she elects to ignore comes from Joachim Braun, an authority she otherwise cites in her support.)

Fay suggests that Shostakovich (in Zoshchenko's quoted words, an "extremely intelligent" man) blundered on through 1948 without realising that he was treading a dangerous path. Her justification for this is the fact that Vainberg's Sinfonietta was "positively vetted" by the Composers' Union and "vaunted" at the end of 1948 by Tikhon Khrennikov as "shining proof of the benefit to be reaped by[...] turning to folk sources, and following the path of realism". Her naivety here verges on what Ashkenazy has deplored as Western "incompetence" in assessing things Soviet. Stalin always masked his internal policies by arranging public demonstrations which implied the opposite of what was actually happening. Examples? The Pravda editorials -- quoted by Fay in The New York Times (but, significantly, not in her book) -- which, by extolling the friendly and peaceful relationships between the "nationalities", disguised the truth of constant racial purges and deportations; the magnificent funeral Stalin made for Mikhoels, having personally ordered two of his top secret policemen to beat him to death; the ostentatious reception given to Golda Meir at a time when Stalin, notwithstanding his anti-Semitism, was toying with drawing Israel into his post-war foreign policy (again offered as evidence in The New York Times, but not in Fay's book); and so on and on. Arkady Vaksberg writes about this absolutely standard practice of public misdirection in his study Stalin Against the Jews (pp. 137-8). Moreover, in case Fay should have missed Vaksberg's book, I quoted him to this effect in Shostakovich Reconsidered (pp. 693-4, fn. 137).

Every expert on Soviet history knows that this sort of deception happened all the time in the USSR: promote a few prominent dissidents/Jews/Tatars (or whatever) to cover up the general persecution of them proceeding somewhere else out of public view. Following Mikhoels' murder and with the Jews of the big cities cringing in anticipation of a Soviet pogrom, the foreign press corps would naturally have been on the alert. What simpler and more standard way of sowing distracting confusion than by ordering the Composers' Union to give Vainberg's Sinfonietta a clean bill of health and deputing Khrennikov to warmly welcome a Jewish piece by Mikhoels' son-in-law? ("See? There's no anti-Semitism in the USSR!") Were there any other cases of "Jewish" works so "welcomed" in 1948? No. Were there any other "Jewish" works written at all? Only Shostakovich's From Jewish Folk Poetry. Once again, Fay's near-complete innocence of the workings of Soviet politics jeopardises her narrative in the most basic way. Her final stubborn reiteration of her New York Times thesis -- "Shostakovich's near-disastrous timing, the tragic irony of his attempt to redeem his recent promises by favouring the folklore of the 'wrong' ethnic group, must have become appallingly clear to him" -- can only be described as boneheaded. Does Fay seriously offer this as a balanced and objective record of "the circumstances"?

In order to cling to her indefensible conception of the situation surrounding From Jewish Folk Poetry, Fay is forced, in effect, to suppress the mass of evidence set out to the contrary in Shostakovich Reconsidered. By this single act of misjudgment, she has fundamentally compromised her stance in Shostakovich: A Life. A work "of record" thereby becomes a study flawed by such blatant misrepresentation that no respectable scholar will ever be able to recommend it without qualification. Why did Fay do this to herself? Are her blinkers set so firmly on her head that she simply cannot conceive that she might have blundered? Is her refusal to be swayed by anything which does not coincide with her prejudice so unbending that she would rather risk the perceived integrity of the rest of her biography than modify her preconceptions? Whatever the answer, Shostakovich: A Life is holed below the waterline by its author's wild departure from balanced objectivity in respect of From Jewish Folk Poetry.

Review Part 4. Back to Shostakovichiana.