Music to a dictator's ear

Stalin insisted that Russian music express the 'human face' of Soviet socialism to the world

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Solomon Volkov, who helped Shostakovich with his controversial memoir, "Testimony" (1979), claims he never planned to write a biography of the famous composer. But he felt compelled to do so after watching the composer's image being distorted "long after Stalin's abuse of him was relegated to the proverbial 'dustbin of history.' "

Now, with access to much previously classified material, as well as to both the composer and his son, Volkov has written a powerful and gripping account of the treacherous times in which Shostakovich and his colleagues in music, film, theater, and literature created works that more often than not enraged Stalin with dire consequences.

In this dual psychological portrait, Stalin, unsurprisingly, emerges as the more fascinating of the two men in their long struggle of power versus art. A diabolically gifted political student who rarely repeated a mistake, Stalin comes across as a tyrant whose greatest fear was appearing ridiculous and who understood the power of public opinion.

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To Stalin, art and culture were instruments of politics. He was the ultimate micromanager when it came to the arts, leaving no detail unregulated, including its critical reception in the media, which he often wrote himself.

The covetous and highly political Stalin awarded his coveted and highly political Stalin Prize to singers, composers, and instrumentalists whom he admired, and he paid great attention to young musicians who could demonstrate the "human face" of Soviet socialist to the world.

Unfortunately for Shostakovich, his 1936 opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" represented to Stalin the antithesis of the new "Soviet morality," which was meant to "banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life." Stalin's "critical" reception was fierce and unrelenting toward the 29-year-old composer: three outraged editorials against him ran in "Pravda" in 2-1/2 weeks.

Volkov believes that Stalin, in this notorious case, was blinded by emotion. "Not only did the plot and music infuriate him, and not only did the opera contradict Stalin's cultural direction for that period, but on top of that, the composer was hailed as a genius, not just in the Soviet Union, but in the West," where the "morbidly proud" Stalin couldn't control and manipulate popular opinion.

The backlash of the creative intelligentsia was a serious blow against Stalin's cultural authority, and Volkov points out that "in order to compromise and yet not lose face, Stalin needed the help of ... Shostakovich himself. And he got it."

The composer was not one to be easily bullied; his credo was: "If they chop off both my hands, I'll still write music with the pen between my teeth."

With his "sarcastic worldview," he harbored no romantic illusions about the ruler. No one, Volkov feels, mastered the secret of "artistic survival in a cruel age" better than Shostakovich.

Stalin was deeply influenced by Nicholas's declaration of Pushkin as the "wisest man in Russia," and by the great poet's gratitude for the czar's mercy toward him. Stalin always felt that if Pushkin had lived in Stalin's Russia, Stalin would "not have let him die."

Volkov believes this attitude colored the dictator's attitude toward those he considered masters of their art, such as the writer Maxim Gorky and the theater directors Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko of the Moscow Art Theater. "He wanted to become their patron, a strict but just adviser, or a friend even - the kind he would have been to Pushkin had he been Stalin's contemporary."

Volkov, who never glosses over Shostakovich's shortcomings, does his best to explain what many consider to be the composer's greatest mistake: joining the Communist Party in 1960. And he writes brilliantly about Shostakovich's music and personality, too. "Behind Shostakovich's tight facade," he notes, "there was incredible creative will and stubbornness."

Volkov has written an invaluable, extraordinarily fascinating book, a must-read for anyone interested in 20th-century Soviet culture, with all its intrigue, fear, loyalties, betrayals, and, finally, incomparable genius.

Susan Miron is a freelance writer and harpist in Newton, Mass.

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