Posted inCultures

Shostakovich vs Stalin: Artistic Expression vs Political Oppression, pt1

Illustration by Ben Beechener

MOSCOW: Sunday Evening, January 26th 1936 

For months, the Soviet capital had been in the grips of a bitterly cold winter. Long, seemingly endless nights, and lapping winds harsh even by Muscovite standards, had consigned the most robust pedestrian to the warmth of their home.  

The streets were silent, except the occasional gale and patter of footsteps as an unlucky passer-by darted around a turnstile before plunging down into the warmth of the new Moscow metro.  

Cold. Brutal, frigid cold presided in Moscow that winter, neatly enveloping the city in a handsome blanket of snow, a deathly sheet of unbreakable ice hiding beneath.  

An onlooker would understandably have concluded that the animals must surely be deep in cosy hibernation, the birds down south somewhere balmy, and people? What type of idiot, what singularly strange individual would be outside here and now?   

Well, if the aforementioned Muscovite, alone in this ghostly quiet city, brushing the snow off his shoulders and his hat, would have sat comfortably on the Sokolnicheskaya Line for a minute or so, he just may have been able to answer that question.  

And if he alighted at Okhotny Ryad, still gloriously shiny, surfaced, and made his way to the adjoining Teatralnaya Square, the scene awaiting him would be altogether out of keeping with this wintry tableau.  

People, almost a thousand of them, in one great line, emerging from the mouth of the Bolshoi Theatre curled out of sight behind the building.  

A policeman, young and entirely bemused having been summoned to survey these perfectly orderly operagoers during such a season, gave the occasional command ‘easy now’, ‘stand to the right’ as though to justify his being there to himself at least.  

In and away from the lapping cold, nestled in a cosy backroom at the very heart of the Bolshoi, sat Dmitri Shostakovich – the man whom the bustling crowds had arrived to see – nervously clasping a cup of tea and poring over the score of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

The failing light of the backroom may not immediately have done justice to the pallidity of its occupant, but it was fair to say that Dmitri Shostakovich had never been so nervous, nor so pale, in his life.  

His operas had been staged hundreds of times, so no worry there. Critics were generally encouraging, if not court, and so on that account he ought not have looked so anaemic either.  

His feeling of anxiety, his sense of doom even, was in fact all down to one individual, and not just any individual, but Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin: General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union…someone you could not afford to disappoint.  

Shostakovich had been alerted to Stalin’s movements only a week before, precipitating his panicked rush back from Arkhangelsk earlier than intended, causing the most intense preparation he had ever done in his entire life. 

Sipping his tea, he reflected that nothing, absolutely nothing, could be allowed to wrong…   

At that moment, perhaps stopping Shostakovich from running away, a young man, a stagehand of just eighteen, poked his head round the corner.  

‘Five minutes, Dmitri Dmitriyevich.’ He paused, seeming nervous.  

‘Oh, and…it seems…’ fumbling with his words, ‘Comrade Stalin’s got company…a lot of company’… 

An hour later, and the final chord of the second act sounded. The curtain swiftly fell. Bathed once again in the gentle glow of the theatre lights, the attendant Muscovites turned and began to gossip and speculate. 

What on earth would follow in acts three and four? Would they ever find the body stashed in the wine cellar? Would Katerina, the opera’s cruel protagonist, be exposed for what she was? Surely she would… but who could be sure?  

Dmitri Dmitriyevich, taking full advantage of this opportunity, hurried to relieve himself, settling down in the cool backroom adjacent to the stage, well out of view from the sweltering heat of the stage lights.  

Fanning himself and sipping away at a cold glass of water, he remarked at how odd it was to be so hot, almost trembling with a fiery, nervous excitement, when but hours ago he’d sealed himself in this very same room as a refugee fleeing the Moscow cold.  

But surely there was no reason for such concern. All had gone well and, God willing, all would be well too. After all, Stalin’s presence had caused no undue disorder; everything seemed reassuringly… normal.  

But as so often happens in life, and unfortunately often for Shostakovich, a moment of calm almost invariably presages a storm. And so, timed to occur in such a way that few would believe had it not been true, the door directly behind Shostakovich flung open with a bang.  

‘Dmitri Dmitriyevich!’ It was the stagehand. He was an image of unmoderated terror, cheeks drained of all colour, standing in the doorway, panting, having clearly sprinted to him.  

‘Dmitri Dmitriyevich! They’ve left! All of them… walked out as soon as the curtain went down… gave the doorman some kopeks… I don’t know what… but Dmitri Dmitriyevich, what are we going to do, I-’ 

Trying his best to make sense of the stagehand’s fervent effort to communicate, Shostakovich allowed himself to be led back onto the stage, now cowled in shadow behind the vast curls of the velvet stage-curtain, and poked an eye through a parting, stage-right.  

Peering out, following the stagehand’s trembling white arm, Shostakovich suddenly felt as he never had before in his life; all the blood in his body seemed at once to recede, leaving him terribly cold and clammy.  

The Royal box was empty.  


No Stalin, no Malenkov…not even Mikoyan… All empty.  

They had left no excusatory message. No congratulatory gift to the orchestra or composer. No invitation to the Kremlin… no bouquet.… 

No, something was wrong, very, very wrong.  

It was thus, entirely unwittingly and unintentionally, that Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich had fallen prey, to the capricious dislike of one Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.  

MOSCOW: Saturday, 02:30, July 19th 1937  

‘Dmitri Dmitriyevich, he’s dead! Tukhachevsky of all people. Tukhachevsky! No don’t laugh! What are you shaking your head for man?  

‘Do you have any idea what this means for us? If the old man could bump off Tukhachevsky what the hell makes you think we-’.  

Isaak Glikman had lost weight. The comical effect once produced by the movement of his jowls – brought almost to the point of vibration when under strain – had vanished, leaving in its stead a sad, grey almost sunken exterior.  

He wasn’t sleeping, he probably wasn’t eating either. Despite the pounding heat of the Leningrad summer, the man sat facing Shostakovich from across the table seemed unaware that he’d yet to remove his jacket, ignorant of pearls of sweat which dripped down his temples.  

The tea which Shostakovich had poured him over an hour ago remained untouched, as had the sparing lunch he had intended them to share.  

Glikman hunched over in his chair, seemingly only now aware of the sweltering temperature. He rose, stepping over to the window to take in some air.  

Ruminating on the state of his houseguest, Shostakovich supposed that while Glikman may have been a sweaty, jittering wreck, his panic was not ill-placed.   

Why? Put simply, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Shostakovich’s friend and fierce defender, had just been executed for treason.  

Deaths of this kind weren’t out of the ordinary in Russia, not anymore. It had become almost fashionable to discover, to one’s questionable amazement, that so-and-so, or you-know-who were ‘what was it again?’ Shostakovich thought. ‘Ah yes, “traitors to the motherland” or better yet “bourgeois subversive elements”, the better to roll off the tongue.’  

What had Glikman and increasingly Shostakovich at the point of panic, was that Tukhachevsky was no ordinary man, and thus it seemed incredibly unlikely that anyone other than… ‘the old man’ could possibly have ordered his ‘bumping off’.  

The evidence was there, Glikman was right. Your ordinary ‘enemy of the people’ tended to disappear, his family might be harassed, questioned (tortured depending on how you saw it), perhaps deprived of rights, and that tended to be it.  

But as dear Glikman had pointed out, this hadn’t happened with Tukhachevsky. Almost overnight, his wife, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, piano teacher, friend, and a whole slew of confidants had disappeared. Just like that. Gone. Probably dead, but you wouldn’t dare to ask.  

On the point of saying something, Shostakovich found himself beaten to it by Glikman:  

‘But seriously, Dmitri, all at once, they’re all just gone. Friends too! We were his friends, Dmitri, we were close friends. Fine, granted, you’ve got your government post, your connections. Fine. But in any case, you’re a marked man! You think all this is random? Some sort of accident?’.  

Taking up his teacup, he downed it as one drinks vodka. Again, unfortunately, Glikman was right. If connections to Tukhachevsky weren’t bad enough, Shostakovich had his own worries.  

After January 26th, when Stalin had stormed out of the Bolshoi, Shostakovich had been under an almost constant hail of criticism which, in the USSR, normally presaged something much worse.  

It had all started in Pravda. A review, published just days after the infamous concert, had attacked his opera as: ‘a deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds… [that] quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps.’  

And that was just the start.  

A tirade, a literary avalanche of disapproval and disdain emerged seemingly out of the blue, as if coordinated to tarnish his reputation. His friends, if they had not already done so, were told to denounce him in print or else stand accused for the crime of, as eloquently put by Pravda, having ‘failed to detect the shortcomings’ of Shostakovich’s music.  

Protected as he was (or so he sorely hoped) by his job with the State Culture Committee, he was nonetheless served with an almost interminable succession of lectures and criticism by his senior, ‘that bastard Kerzhentsev’, which Shostakovich suspected Stalin himself must have handed down.  

His music was too avant-garde, and yet somehow not revolutionary enough. It was too self-indulgent, too personal, and yet somehow impersonal, ‘anti-people’ and mechanical… The list went on.  

It had, as it happened, been Glikman who first floated what Shostakovich now thought was the most credible cause of his denunciation: the reason they both now found cause to fear for their lives. 

Despite the criticisms levelled against Shostakovich’s music, the form, dissonance and so forth, Glikman’s hypothesis was that ‘the old man’, as people had taken to calling him, had been offended by the content of Lady Macbeth.  

‘He knew what you were going for, you dunce’ he’d said. ‘You think he’s some kind of idiot? The way you kill a tyrant, get away with it, and everyone goes away feeling all merry? Oh come on, don’t tell me you hadn’t thought of this before?’  

Stalin had been made to wince by, of all people, a bespectacled, bumbling, bashful artist. Those who made ‘the old man’ wince didn’t get away with it lightly, so neither would Shostakovich.  

‘We’ll be lucky to get through this alive, we really will. Old what’s-his-face hasn’t been seen since Monday, and I’ve been teaching his daughter the violin since before she could walk…’