Sunday 24 February 2013

The Courage of Soviet artists who refused to be silent

Periodically, I will be releasing on this site material that did not survive the final cut from both volumes of That Line of Darkness. Below is a selection from the Soviet section of Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013.

Dimitri Shostakovich
In the midst of capricious terror and the flagrant disregard for truth, due process and human life, the voice of humanity had not been totally silenced. During these nightmarish times, there were extraordinary individuals who allowed their art to register feelings that could not otherwise be expressed. Dimitry Shostakovich, perhaps the most important Soviet composer of the twentieth century, had his Symphony No. 5 premier performance in Leningrad in November 1937 during the height of the purge of the Party. For almost two years he had lived with the fear that he could be another victim because of a savagely hostile Pravda review of his opera, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk after Stalin attended a performance. The unsigned editorialist of “Muddle Instead of Music” accused him of being an “aesthete” and a “formalist,” and hinted that “it might end badly” for him. Sleeping with a suitcase beside his bed, he clearly encoded into Symphony No. 5 his fear, sadness and grief, feelings that the audience at the premier performance obviously shared as they openly wept during the funereal slow movement indicating that almost everyone present would have suffered the loss of loved ones or friends during one of the waves of recent terror. Notably absence in this symphony was the sarcasm and irony that had featured in much of his earlier compositions, and to rehabilitate himself, he adopted the heroic classicism that is most evident in the electrifying climax which was followed by a noisy thirty-minute ovation. Whether the slow movement induced as one contemporary critic noted a “numbness” and “torpor” that might have sunk the composer had the finale not saved him, or as some later critics[i] contended, his oeuvre was charged with subversive messages revealing the composer to be a bitter dissident with a disdain for the system, misses the significance of this music. 

What he intended to convey in his art is irrelevant because symphonic music lends itself to multiple meanings, a richness which explains why it was so highly valued by the multitude of listeners in the Soviet Union.[ii] The extravagant mea culpa that he expressed in public also cannot be taken seriously because of the extreme duress that he experienced. It is most likely that the shy, polite Shostakovich expressed in his art his deeply felt fears that included the loss of his teaching position at the Leningrad Conservatory, the effects of being publicly insulted and shunned and the grief of losing loved ones to the terror. But as a survival strategy, he incorporated the upbeat triumphal march of the Soviet state that concludes Symphony No. 5 in order to ingratiate himself with the “Party musicologists” who expected him to write melodic songs. Perhaps Shostakovich was correct when he later asserted that Stalin kept him alive because he liked his film music.  


Unlike composers the art of poetry does not easily lend itself to coded messages that can protect the artist. Osip Mandelstam courageously recited to a small group of trusted friends in his own home, one of whom betrayed him, leading to his subsequent arrest in May 1934 for his savagely satirical lampoon that characterizes Stalin as a “murderer and peasant-slayer” with “cockroach whiskers” and “fingers as fat as worms” who surrounds himself with “fawning half-men for him to play with.” Mandelstam, who possessed granite-like integrity in his frail body received a temporary reprieve through the intervention of Bukharin, and was sent with his wife into internal exile. Hoping to save himself, he expressed a willingness to atone for his lese majesty and write poems in praise of Stalin. But as the terror deepened and enveloped millions by May 1938, he was rearrested after the dreaded knock at the door, and dispatched to the camps where he died of malnutrition and a heart attack in transit.

Osip Mandelstam
Although Mandelstam’s voice was stilled, his friend and fellow poet, the gifted and enormously resilient Anna Akhmatova, felt the need to continue the tradition of earlier poets and assume a moral responsibility to be the voice of memory by bearing witness to these ghastly times. Between 1935 and 1940, although she dared not speak it aloud because she was under conspicuous surveillance by the NKVD, who clearly intended to intimidate her, Akhmatova ended her silence by sculpting in words a memorial to the victims of the Stalinist terror, Requiem (not published in Russia during her lifetime) that expressed with searing emotional clarity what others could only feel. It was written on scraps of paper, a fragment read silently by a friend who committed it to memory and burned the paper. Grounded in personal experience, she stood in a prison queue with a food parcel for her son, after he (who was arrested repeatedly), and her lover were arrested within a couple of weeks of each other primarily as hostages to ensure her compliance. Standing in that line with women also desperate for news of their loved ones, Requiem is a testament to their suffering and by extension the anguish of a whole people. As her preface makes clear, she would connect her personal experience with all those other women:

Anna Akhmatova
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear [everyone spoke in whispers there]:
‘Can you describe this?’ And I answered: ‘Yes, I can.’ Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.   

With a piercing honesty that cuts through the miasmic fog of lies and fantasy, Akhmatova captures the intense pain of these women left behind, the fabric of their lives dissolved in grief, loneliness and despair:

            And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
          Swung from its prisons.
          And when, senseless from torment,
          Regiments of convicts marched,
          And the short songs of farewell
          Were sung by locomotive whistles.
          The stars of death stood above us
          And innocent Rus writhed
          Under bloody boots
          And under the tires of the Black Marias.

          They led you away at dawn,
          I followed you, like a mourner,
          In the dark front room the children were crying,
          By the icon shelf the candle was dying.
          On your lips was the  icon’s chill.
          The deathly sweat on your brow …

A scene from Kate Kayley's play After Akhmatova
The prose introduction and fifteen verses of the Requiem comprise a terrible mosaic of daily life in terror-stricken Leningrad of arbitrary malevolence characterized by arrests, pleas for mercy and endless lines by the prison wall awaiting news of the loved one. Leningrad becomes a city of the dead, where the briefest farewell is permitted to the prisoners who will be herded by train into exile and the purgatory of the camps. The ancient land of Rus writhe under the boots of the modern police state as vans, the infamous “black Marias” or “black crows,” camouflaged as ordinary delivery trucks, transport the prisoners away to the trains or dark forests where sometimes they dig their own graves. The secrecy of many executions is shrouded in the sentence “ten years hard labour without the right of correspondence” that cruelly leaves survivors with the false hope that they will one day see their loved ones. Her poem powerfully counterpoises the state’s casual indifference to the victims’ life and death with the deep love of the grieving family members left behind.

Akhmatova believed that the responsibility of the poet was to commemorate for future generations the fear and deprivation of her times regardless of the risks. She took upon herself the burden of not forgetting or allowing history to forget the “hangman’s” terror. Despite being a symbol of resistance during the siege of Leningrad and offering Russian people hope with her poem, “Courage,” she was denounced as “half nun and half harlot” in the late 1940s. Yet her creative impulse never tamped but expressed an authenticity, that countless thousands perhaps millions experienced, that no authority, however oppressive, could erase. Until Gorbachev permitted glasnost and the filling in of the "blank spots," Soviet leadersKhrushchev’s brief interlude during the early 1960s asidehave made it a priority to rewrite history and expunge from public consciousness the flogging, the execution pits and bestiality of the camps, and the emotions they generated. Against these odds, her tableau was no mean accomplishment. When she died in 1966, thousands remembered the woman whose mission in the words of Lev Kopelev was to “preserve Russian speech and keep it ‘pure’ and ‘free.’”[iv] Her voice was a beacon of truth at a time when everywhere else there were lies, silence and amnesia. Whether her poetry will find new readers in the commercial noise of the current "managed democracy" may present a more formidable obstacle than the opprobrium and intimidation she experienced at the behest of a tyrannical police state.


 [i] The most notable proponent of this view is the music journalist, Solomon Volkov, who in 1979 published Testimony that purported to be the memoirs of Shostakovich based on conversations that Volkov had with the composer. The Shostakovich that emerged from these pages was a spiteful dissident whose music was a form of protest against the Stalinist regime. Almost from the beginning, doubts about the book’s authenticity were raised by both Shostakovich’s widow (he died in 1975) and a number of musicologists. The controversy has continued unabated for over a quarter of a century which Volkov in a 2004 monograph attempts to defend  with new evidence the position that he maintained in the 1979 original and his critics have also published a casebook that presents a devastating critique of his claims and scholarly practices. It is possible that Shostakovich did express in his conversations with Volkov resentments against a regime that had placed terrible demands on him, but during Stalin’s time to be a dissident would have been inconceivable for a man and an artist who survived by "speaking Bolshevik," and that idiom would have found itself into elements of his music.
 [ii] Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music: Vol. 4, The Early Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 792-796.
 [iii] Reeder, Anna Akhmatova, 213, 216-217.
 [iv] Cited by Merridale, Night of Stone, 351.

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