Summarised by Ian MacDonald

The musicologist Irina Nikolska conducted several interviews with former Russian colleagues, students, and admirers of Shostakovich, published in Summer 1993 in a festschrift devoted to the composer in the Swedish magazine melos. Apart from questions on aspects of Shostakovich's life and work, all of the interviewees were asked for their views on Testimony. Like Daniel Zhitomirsky, the late Lev Lebedinsky (1904-1992) was very enthusiastic:
"I regard this book as one of the most important publications devoted to the composer, and its authenticity doesn't raise any questions or doubts in me. I am ready to put my signature under every word of it. This is the truth about Shostakovich."
Pressed further, Lebedinsky said that the book corresponded with his conversations with the composer and hinted to Nikolska that he had helped in its creation.

Vera Volkova (b. 1947), a professor at the Nizhny Novgorod conservatoire, was more measured:

"My perception of Shostakovich's music is quite consonant with the image created in the composer's memoirs by Solomon Volkov. I don't doubt the authenticity of the confessions set down in the book, though I offer no proofs except my own psychological feeling and Shostakovich's music itself.

"However, it's beyond doubt that the picture of the composer reproduced in Volkov's book is one-sided. There are a lot of convincing testimonies about a quite different Shostakovich: soft, lenient, and benevolent. To my mind, though, there is no insoluble contradiction in this. Both portraits are authentic, though Volkov's is certainly more provocative.

"The sharp and gloomy Shostakovich presented by Volkov didn't reveal himself to everybody. It seems to me quite natural that the composer who was seriously ill and experienced terrible persecutions and disappointments would more readily expose the accumulated offences, irritations, and weariness of his inner life to a journalist who won his trust than to anyone else.

"Isn't all this audible in the very music of Shostakovich? It shows the paradoxical combination of deep love and compassion alongside caustic irony and cruel sarcasm. Probably he was like that, this great and complex artist of our ill-starred era."

The Moscow critic Israel Nestyev (b. 1911) echoed Volkova's view, choosing his words carefully: "This book is known to be a reflection of Shostakovich's views - and, indeed, genuine conversations of this musicologist with the composer are included in the book." (It is unclear whether "this musicologist" means Volkov or Nestyev himself, following the hint of Lebedinsky.) "At the same time," Nestyev continued, "parts of the book would never have been approved by Dmitri Dmitryevich and he would never have agreed to publish them in his lifetime."

The musicologist Marina Sabynina (b. 1917) declared herself personally unenchanted by Solomon Volkov and thought Testimony reflected the "desperate gloominess" of Shostakovich's later years too much. She also thought Volkov had got parts of it from other "pupils" of Shostakovich. She was not, however, disposed to reject the book, whose picture of Shostakovich is congruent with her own.

Only former Shostakovich pupil Boris Tishchenko (b. 1939) implied an outright rejection of Testimony, saying of Volkov: "I think it non-ethical to mention this name in a conversation about Shostakovich." Tishchenko ventured few statements other than to praise his teacher's character and said nothing about Shostakovich's political beliefs. (Nikolska calls Tishchenko's view of the composer an "idealised interpretation".)


Manashir Yakubov (b. 1936), curator of the Shostakovich archive and editor of the Shostakovich Edition, had most to say about Testimony. According to him, the reason the book hasn't been published in full in Russia is that Volkov fears it will be revealed as "not completely authentic". Referring to the exposes of Laurel Fay and Genrikh Orlov, Yakubov claims Volkov interviewed Shostakovich only three times - insufficient for a long book. (Tishchenko talks of one interview. The KGB disinformation campaign against Volkov claimed four.) According to Yakubov, Shostakovich's inscription noting "conversations about Meyerhold, Zoshchenko, and Glazunov" was meant to indicate that nothing was said about anyone or anything else.

Like Sabynina, Yakubov guesses that Volkov had other informants and nominates Lev Arnshtam and Lev Lebedinsky. (He ascribes the "irritable and spiteful" tone of the book to the latter.) Yakubov does not - perhaps because he knows Volkov's additional sources were reliable - reject the main burden of Testimony, and when he gives examples of specific fabrications, he descends to the level of trivia, querying two unimportant contentions about Khrennikov and the story about Berg visiting Leningrad.

Yakubov's final verdict on Testimony is that it is "one-sided" - yet his own view of Shostakovich is multifaceted to the point of self-contradiction. For instance, he claims that the composer was "an internal emigre, like many other members of the intelligentsia - but at the same time he was a patriot harbouring a belief in some ideas of the revolution". An "internal emigre" was the Thirties term for a dissident - and a dissident who kept faith with aspects of the revolution was rare to the point of non-existence. Yakubov seems to be hedging his bets here, unable to rationalise apparent contradictions in Shostakovich's behaviour.

For instance, he asserts, against most other recent Russian witnesses, that the composer wrote "compositions quite crystally pure in ideological respect", and gives as an example the Second Symphony. However, he then says the work cannot be categorised as Socialist Realist: "No wonder it was condemned and not performed for decades." As for Katerina Ismailova, Yakubov denies that the work represents a "broken" Shostakovich: "They wanted to make an obedient person out of him, but they didn't succeed."

Yakubov is without doubt a leading authority on the documentary aspect of Shostakovich's career, but in concluding that the composer was trapped in the contradictions of his situation, he may merely reflect his own uncertainty about his hero's character and intentions.

Sabynina's Shostakovich

From an older generation, Marina Sabynina is quite definite that Shostakovich was a radically disaffected figure. Testifying to his scornful attitude to the 1948 congress and directives concerning Socialist Realism, she recalls him as an amusingly ironic observer: "He was able to disengage himself from the events of Soviet reality, to soar above it."

Whilst waiting with her outside the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire on one occasion, Shostakovich (confidentially) greeted the appearance of each member of the academic council with an "extremely pointed remark and a mimic portrait-parody". (It is worth comparing this with my interpretation of the finale of the Fourth Symphony in The New Shostakovich, pp. 115-6.)

As for his official works, Sabynina is unequivocal in describing these as "compromises which repelled him as an artist and were bitter and humiliating for him". In this connection, she mentions the scores for such "repulsive, hypocritical movies as The Unforgettable Year 1919, The Fall of Berlin, and The Meeting on the Elbe". According to her, Shostakovich had to write these things, even though doing so "violated" him, because he had no other source of income at that time. Of such "falsely patriotic" choral works as The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland and The Song of the Forests, she observes that they have "very little in common with his real style".

Sabynina nominates the Twelfth Symphony, with its "cinema cliches", as one of the composer's bitterest compromises "because the films and cantatas are, thank God, forgotten, but the Twelfth Symphony, alas, is put on the list of his symphonies and included in solemn retrospectives". The Thirteenth, she insists, was a deliberate rebuttal of it. As for the Eleventh, its third movement "could be associated with the mass executions of the Soviet era and Stalin's reprisals, while the first part, with its melodies of pre-revolutionary songs of hard labour and exile, recalls the victims of the Gulag - the millions who perished in concentration camps and prisons".

Referring to her book on Shostakovich's symphonies (1976), Sabynina admits to having had to throw out "whole passages" in order to get it published:

"I would have liked to show truthfully the tragedy of this genius who suffered persecutions from rude, uncouth nonentities who tried to crush and trample him - a man who had to buy the right to be himself with humiliating concessions. But it was impossible to speak it outright, so against my will and by force of necessity I resorted to hints, allusions, and innuendos."
On the conceptual level, she observes that foreigners tend to hear Shostakovich's work as "pure" music divorced from its social context, so missing its "dramatic" character. (To Israel Nestyev, the composer was "a born dramatist".)

Lebedinsky's contentions

Lev Lebedinsky shared Sabynina's view of Shostakovich, describing him as "a fighter". When Nikolska asked him what he meant, he replied:
"There is an opinion going around that Shostakovich was not a sufficiently active participant in the social life of the country - but it's profoundly wrong. His blows against Stalin's regime were powerful ones, though the public didn't guess it."
Citing the Eighth and Tenth symphonies as peaks of the composer's "political struggle", Lebedinsky asserted that "Shostakovich shows in them his real concepts. At the same time he takes all necessary measures to preserve himself against retaliation by keeping within the framework of purely instrumental music."

On the subject of the Eleventh Symphony, Lebedinsky claimed that Shostakovich told him it was "about the present, not the past":

"For me, the Eleventh Symphony displays the image of 'Stalin's prison'. It exposes Stalinism by way of a parable."
The Twelfth he saw as "a denunciation of Leninism": "It contains a characteristic soliloquy where Lenin's speech is presented in the form of a parody."

Lebedinsky saw Shostakovich's music as analogous to Akhmatova's Requiem, dating his mature (anti-Stalinist) development from the Fourth Symphony.

Other views

Israel Nestyev agrees with Sabynina that Shostakovich composed certain works "through compulsion... as concessions to officialdom". Recalling the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, he says:
"Even now I perceive this music as a requiem for the millions of innocent victims of Stalin's regime."
Nestyev acknowledges the uniqueness of this: "Not one other artist - no painter, dramatist, or film-maker - could think of using their art as a means of expressing protest against Stalin's Terror. Only instrumental music was able to express the terrible truth of that time." According to Nestyev, Stalin told the theatre director Nemirovich-Danchenko that Shostakovich was "probably a gifted person - but too Meyerhold-like".

Vera Volkova calls Shostakovich "a musical dissident", describing his music as "an exciting psychological document of our recent history". Her encounter with Shostakovich began at a festival devoted to the composer in Gorky (aka Nizhny Novgorod) in 1964:

"Our young heads were at that time thoroughly indoctrinated by the official propaganda which constantly harped on the 'formalistic deviations' in the composer's work. As for Shostakovich's music, we knew only several cheerful marches, songs, and overtures.

"Suddenly a world of unforeseen, irresistible musical beauty and unprecedented intensity of feeling was flung open for us. People were crying at the festival concerts, for the first time perceiving without prejudice or doubt the tragic revelations of the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh symphonies. Liberated from prohibition, Shostakovich's music became a symbol of the severe truth of our time..."

For Volkova, Shostakovich's central message was that "we are all guilty". In the Seventh Symphony, she sees the seeds of the "invasion theme" in the "'peaceful' and 'cosy' themes of the exposition", pointing to "the 'internal' source of evil - native and familiar because it is in ourselves".

Shostakovich's attitude to Mravinsky

The most popular bone of contention concerning the details of Testimony is Shostakovich's attitude to Mravinsky. Nestyev gives this as an example of the sort of contentious material he believes the composer would have left out of the book: "Probably at a tea table in an intimate circle he said what he disliked about Mravinsky, but he would never have agreed to publish it."

Lebedinsky claims that Shostakovich thought Mravinsky's interpretations "not deep enough". Tishchenko disagrees with this, but Sabynina confirms that relations between the two artists got "colder" in later years. Yakubov maintains that their relationship had long been idealised and exaggerated - that there was no personal sympathy between them and that Shostakovich disliked Mravinsky's perfectionism.

Their break-up occurred (as Kondrashin claimed) over the Thirteenth Symphony. Mravinsky allegedly "forgot" the score while going on holiday and then pleaded that he didn't have time to learn it. "Dmitri Dmitryevich," says Yakubov, "didn't forgive it." Despite this, according to Yakubov, the estrangement later healed to some extent.

Realpolitik in the struggle over Shostakovich's identity

Elements of an ongoing power struggle over Shostakovich's image are apparent in Yakubov's remarks about Lebedinsky and Zhitomirsky.

Much like Yuri Levitin (as reported, with accompanying rebukes, by Lev Mazel in Sovetskaya Muzika, 1991, No. 5), Yakubov attempts to discredit Lebedinsky and Zhitomirsky for their view of Shostakovich as "an internal dissident" by referring to youthful pieces by them in which they considered him an orthodox Soviet artist. The spuriousness of this argument is too flagrant to require comment.

Lebedinsky, in particular, comes in for criticism - probably because of the conflicting claims over the authorship of Rayok. (Yakubov confirms that the first part of the cantata was written in 1948 and not, as Lebedinsky maintained [Tempo No. 173, June 1990], in 1957.)

Much of Yakubov's commentary on Testimony is no more than nitpicking. The reason for this, apparently, is that the circle of younger writers around Irina and the Shostakovich archive see it as important to establish themselves as guardians of the truth about him. (Questions of copyright may also be involved.)

Thus, for this faction, the less equivocal view of the composer as an out-and-out dissident - expressed in Testimony and seconded by his older contemporaries - must be subtly undermined. (Volkov, obviously, is the primary target.) It is unfortunate that this distorting element should have supplanted the similar distortions of Shostakovich's image during the Communist era.

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