Controversial Notes About an Embattled Composer

shosta

Solomon Volkov (Ed.): Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. ISBN 978-0-571-22792 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Such a thrilling book! Brimfull with interesting details and funny anecdotes. Written in a riveting style. My insight into the motives and emotions, my understanding of the brilliant mind of one of my favourite composers grew in leaps. A fascinating life, full of contradictions, marked by sorrow and joy, desperation and optimism, narrated by Dmitry Shostakovich himself. If only I could be sure that these memoirs are authentic.

Since the book was published by Solomon Volkov in 1979, the discussion has been raging. Is the story, as Volkov renders it, true? Volkov claimed it all happened very quickly, since the composer wanted to give his version of the story as he sensed hus own death. He and Shostakovich would have met between 1972 and 1973 for several lengthy interview sessions, and Volkov claimed to have scrupulously noted the composers memories, explanations etc. The manuscript apparently was smuggled into the West, and was to be published after the composer’s death. Volkov has been challenged by musicologists to share the original notes, which he refused to do.

So did Volkov make it all up? He and Shostakovich were well acquainted, and several witnesses confirmed that the two met several times to write Shostakovich’s memoirs. The common project’s goal was to portray composer caught between party loyality and creativity. To shed some light on the ideological constraints that Shostakovich sometimes accepted and sometimes overcame, at great personal risks, at least as long as Stalin lived.

Volkov shows the composer as a clandestine opponent to the Soviet system, his music being full of hidden allusions about Stalin’s tyranny. He casts Shostakovich as an implaccable accuser of Soviet (un)cultural policies, an eyewitness of the destruction of Russia’s artistic heritage in the name of “Socialist Realism”, the official cultural ideology. A riskless endeavour once Shostakovich was dead – he died in 1975 – and Volkov safely lived in the United States.

But is this Shostakovich narrating his life or Volkov narrating Shostakovich’s life? The New York musicologist Laurel Fay identified eight passages in the book which she asserts had been copied by Volkov from articles or speeches previously published by Shostakovich. This casts a shadow over the authenticity of the whole book. Volkov’s refusal to share the original notes, apparently reviewed by the composer, makes it hard to tell where Shostakovich ends and Volkov begins.

In 1990, the biographer Ian MacDonald published “The New Shostakovich” explaining the composer’s life and work within the context of Soviet history. The picture painted by Volkov gains some credibility, but it doesn’t mean Shostakovich said what Volkov wrote. MacDonald pointed out that the composer’s son Maxim, who had repudiated Volkov’s account while he still lived in the Soviet Union, had endorsed “Testimony” after his emigration.

Testimony, pitching the personal memory of an embattled individual against the official memory of an all-powerful state, is contentious to the last full stop”, MacDonald writes. He recommends to approach it with caution. The Soviet Union officially denounced Volkov’s book as a fabrication, MacDonald sees it as a provoking piece of counter-propaganda. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and remains fuzzy. That was the state of play then, and it will remain so for the near future, I guess. It doesn’t matter actually. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure, and, as they say in Italy: Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Since Shostakovich’s memoirs are such a controversial issue, let’s see, here is a controversial piece, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77:

Shostakovich crosses the desert of solitude

On Over-Seized Egos and the Rule of Fear in Politics

Alan Bullock: Hitler and Stalin – Parallel lives. ISBN 978-0-679-7294-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book is a brick. It is some 900 pages long, but it is an exceptional book about world history and power politics, meticulously researched and well written. It covers the history of the first half of the 20th century seen through the eyes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Dugashwili, later known as Stalin. The book, published before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is a huge scientific achievement and a book of utmost relevance today. It touches a number of psychological points highly interesting to anyone interested in how political leaders see and shape today’s world.

Propaganda is key

The way Adolf Hitler, a low profile soldier and artist, conquered political power and managed to put Germany under the spell of a racist ideology leading to World War II and the long list of atrocities committed by German soldiers and the SS is significant as Hitler used means very similar to those used by Donald Trump to gain access to the White House. A key element is and was the spreading of fear deriving from wild conspiracy theories among the political constituency – the Jewish worldwide alliance against Germany in the case of Hitler, Europe and China cheating on the US and the threat posed by the establishment in Washington (the “swamp” that still waits to be drained) in the case of Trump.

Both Hitler and Trump achieved this through a constant propagandistic drumbeat. Hitler excelled as an orator and dispatched Nazi speakers with a road-show to all corners of Germany saturating the public debate with his populist slogans and his foul speech while Trump uses friendly media outlets and social networks to spread lies, slander rivals and spin the public debate to suit his personal ambitions.

Vying for the disenchanted masses

Building a political career on the resentments of the constituency is another parallel. Germany’s already weak economy was heavily hit by the Great Depression and political stability was shaky after 1918. Thus Germans were hard to convince of the benefit of their first truly democratic experience and readily listened to anyone suggesting a firm leadership and quick fixes, however unrealistic they seemed to an unbiased observer. Today globalization has produced a great number of people losing out in all industrialized countries and specifically in the US. Many of those became easily convinced that Trump could make America great again and thus restore their former personal position in society.

Stalin came to power in a very different way than Hitler. He gained a foothold in politics by becoming a professional revolutionary in Georgia, his native region, and by joining the Communist cause. Once he had become part of the inner circle of Lenin, he made sure to become Lenin’s successor instead of Lev Trotzky as the leader of the Communist Party by eliminating all rivals through bureaucratic manoeuvring or by inventing conspiracies and having his rivals arrested. From the 1920s on until his death in 1953 Stalin ruled by fear. He succumbed to many economic, political and military mistakes that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, but very few people were allowed to contradict him. They could all too easily lose their position, their privileges or their life.

Alan Bullock’s description of Stalin’s grip over the Soviet Union reminds me in many respects of the ways the president Vladimir Putin rules Russia today. Of course, there are no Gulags anymore and the FSB does not deport hundreds of thousands to Siberia. The means have become more subtle, more polished to maintain the illusion of the rule of law. But the basic logic remains unchanged: Shut up or else!

Denying reality and “fake news”

Both Stalin and Hitler show how far leaders can become removed from reality, : Hitler never visited the front, he locked himself up in his bunker during the last months of World War II, unwilling and unable to acknowledge that the war was lost and that he had sacrificed Germany for a fantasy i.e. conquering “Lebensraum” (living space) for racially pure German colonists and to satisfy his own ego. Up to the last days he maintained that he was the saviour of Germany, finding an astonishing variety of scapegoats: the  General Staff of the armed forces, the officer corps and the leadership of the SS, all of them having betrayed him at some point, and of course Great Britain who had failed to understand the benefit of a coalition with the Nazi regime.

Stalin isolated himself no less from reality by surrounding himself with legions of yes-sayers. Any reports not fitting with his opinion would be deemed a fabrication. The psychological mechanisms at work in the case of these two leaders remind me very much about reports on how the White House handles current affairs and the time Trump devotes to identify and denounce “fake news”.

Leaders are vulnerable

Finally Bullock’s study shows that the paramount driving force for both leaders was fear. Hitler had to prove himself everyday that Providence had chosen him to save Germany, that Germany adored him for his spiritual leadership and that Germany could rule Europe through the sheer power of will (Thank you Schopenauer for giving this man such grand ideas!). He had founded a religion and cast himself in the role of God. Omniscient, omnipotent. Fear to be proven wrong kept Hitler going until his last days in Berlin. The war could not be lost, because it would have called into question his abilities and the fate that Providence had reserved for him, Germany and the rest of the world for that matter.

Stalin fared no better: His early career as a revolutionary, forced to operate in clandestine ways, made him prone to a paranoia that took exceptional dimensions under the strain of conducting a war first against Russia’s peasants and then against Germany. Stalin would not have trusted his own shadow. And he had plenty of reasons to fear to be assassinated: He had made himself legions of enemies during the purges of the Communist Party and the armed forces, and his dramatic miscalculations in the early stages of the German offensive had led many to believe he was unfit for office.

When appreciating today’s world leaders this book offers a key to understand their true motivations and the decision-making processes that define their policies irrespective of the time. At the centre is the concept of fear – the fear to lose the power they have gained, the very same fear they use to come to and stay in power. They use fear and they know it works. And they fear it could be successfully used against them. This fear makes them corruptible for it makes them vulnerable. If we want to get rid of them, this is the weak spot we have to strike at. But before that we need to overcome our own fear.

This post would not be complete without a reference to music and I suggest Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 “Leningrad”. Shostakovich lived in constant fear of Stalin’s animosity, and the siege of Leningrad was an early example of the contest of will-power between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany:

A symphony born out of rubbles