Dmitri Shostakovich was one of this century's most prolific composers -- contributing some of the best symphonies and quartets of the time. And yet he worked all his life under the most austere of conditions, i.e., under a Soviet government that could pronounce devastating judgment (often with fatal consequences) on the most talented.
In Shostakovich's pithy, lean, incisive, and blunt memoirs, we are reminded of how destructive a totalitarian state can be to the creative arts, with sweeping revisions, condemnations, and black lists that frequently put the nontalents ahead of the talents and geniuses. For Shostakovich, Josef Stalin was the most corrupt, most ignorant evil to have struck the 20th century; Stalin toyed with the composer the way a cat toys with a mouse, except that Shostakovich was never killed (unlike millions of others, including many of the composer's friends and acquaintances), nor did he ever play the role of sycophant to save his own skin.
These memoirs are devoid of illusion.Instead, there is a caustic, bitter undertone, and in later years, Shostakovich admits he had suffered so much that he no longer cared to resist being a "spokesman" for the Soviet state. In the closing pages of the book, the composer observes that "every new day of my life brings me no joy. . . .I have thought that my life was replete with sorrow and that it would be hard to find a more miserable man. But when I started going over the life stories of my friends and acquaintances, I was horrified. . . . I was remembering my friends and all I saw was corpses. . . ."
hough he knew the book would never be read in Russia, Shostakovich addresses his countrymen, especially the younger ones, with the hope that "perhaps their lives would be free of the bitterness that has colored my life gray."
And what an all-encompassing grayness he describes. The years under Stalin where the worst, and there are vitriolic remembrances of such officials as Tikhon Khrennikov, a mediocre composer who headed the Composers' Union of the USSR, who despised Shostakovich and his talented kind and prompted various sweeping attacks and blacklists.
But it is not just those who made Shostakovich's life so difficult that make this book so remarkable. The composer grew artistically during the last great flowering of important Russian creative talent, and he writes with fondness of his friends. Among those he most cherished were his teacher and mentor, Alexander Glazunov (who left the Soviet Union for Paris near the end of his life), pianist Maria Yudina (a glorious eccentric whom Stalin tolerated), and director Vsevolod Meyerhold (who was liquidated).
Shostakovich had no delusions about why he survived when others did not. He was prominent, and Stalin thought he might compose important film music. He survived, he says, because he played the role of the yurodivy,m or divine fool, a figure revered in Russian history, who could tell the truth without harm because his madness was a God-given gift.
Through it all, the composer was writing about truth in his music -- tormented and searing, and, even in the great pages of celebration, with an oppressive unnaturalness, a lack of joy. He states time and again that much of his music was devoted to Stalin: "I must say that it's difficult work depicting the benefactors of humanity in music, evaluating them through music. . . . I did give Stalin his due, the shoe fits, as they say. I can't be reproached for avoiding the ugly phenomenon of our reality."
hroughout the book little details keep popping up that amuse or startle. Shostakovich disliked Toscanini's recordings, of which he was sent many. He abhorred Paul Robeson's blindness to the truth. (When the black actor- singer came to Moscow he asked to see poet Istik Fefer, who was dragged out of jail to "host" a dinner with Robeson and some KGB agents; Robeson returned home saying that Fefer was fine, that things were good in Russia.)
At the root of Shostakovich's moral outrage is what he sees as the betrayal of the Russian spirit by Communist regimes that had no right to suppress it. When one man holds the reins of absolute power, he says, there is no way that that power can be used wisely or well.
Simon Volkov, who gained the composer's trust, wrote the memoirs from notes taken during long private interviews.As each section was finished, Shostakovich read it and signed his approval, and the chapters were then smuggled out of the Soviet Union; Volkov himself eventually left the country.
Denouncements of the book have been quick and savage, from both family and government. But even if "Testimony" should be categorically proved false -- which I doubt -- the book remains a scathing indictment of the conditions that artists struggle with in the Soviet Union, yesterday and today. That alone is profoundly sobering.