Controversy about Soviet Music

Here is the text of an email recently received followed by the reply we have sent.

Dear ‘Comrades’
As I queued for a Prom on Sunday 3 September, at which was to be performed Prokofiev’s thrilling ‘Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution’, I was handed a leaflet boldly entitled ‘Defend the Memory of the Soviet Union’, in which Radio 3 was vilified for its ‘Anti Soviet Campaign’. Apparently, according to the leaflet, ‘hardly a day passes without at least one derogatory reference to the former socialist Soviet Union’ – particular venom being directed at Josef Stalin. I was unaware of the alleged regularity of these ‘derogatory references’ – at least they seemed no more frequent than than those directed at the twentieth century’s other monstrous dictatorship, Hitler’s  Nazi Germany.
Your representative – the purveyor of the leaflets – claimed during my discussion with him that Stalin frequently tops opinion polls to establish Russia’s most popular leader. I’m not sure that there are many intelligent or thinking people who would even bother to cast a vote in such pointless exercises, which might account for Stalin’s alleged supremacy in them. There are, of course, many people who still idolize Hitler, and even deny the countless millions of atrocities for which he was responsible. Doubtless, Stalin’s faithful band of lackeys adopt a similar ‘head in the sand’ attitude regarding the millions of his fellow countrymen and women who were murdered, starved or incarcerated in slave camps at their leader’s behest, not withstanding the testimonies of the many who survived and lived to tell of their experiences. Indeed, behind me in the Prom queue was a Ukrainian man who told your rep that members of his own family were wiped out under Stalin’s regime. Unsurprisingly, your man remained mute on this point, demonstrating the enfeebled debating powers of the blinkered and brainwashed automaton.
The leaflet goes on to comment on the burgeoning development of music under the soviet dictatorship. (Incidentally, line 2 of the second side states ‘ many new orchestra’s were established ….’ There should be no apostrophe ‘s’  in ‘orchestras’, but I shall generously assume this was just a typo). As we read on we encounter the statement, ‘Composers ….. were expected to create works which would appeal to and be accessible to the great mass of the people, the workers and the peasants’. As any even reasonably intelligent person knows, contemporary parlance would translate this simply as ‘dumbing down’, but with the sinister addition of serving a dictator’s manipulative agenda. All in the interests of what the ruling class of privileged and self-appointed arbiters quaintly termed ‘socialist realism’.  The Nazis adopted a similar, though less subtle, policy by publicly burning proscribed books in the 1930s. Many have testified to this attempted gag on musical genius and artistic freedom, including Shostakovich’s own son, Maxim.
And how were Stalin and his flunkies like Zhdanov qualified to comment on the works of Russia’s contemporary composers? Answer – they weren’t.  Shostakovich’s opera ” Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” includes a scene in a police station, not included in Lskov’s original novella on which the opera is based, which is clearly intended as a satire on Stalin’s NKVD. Are you beginning to predict my point? The work had been running for two years in separate productions in Moscow and Leningrad (now restored to its former name St Petersburg, in case you hadn’t noticed) to well attended and appreciative audiences – until Stalin went to see it and autocratically decided it should be banned. Which, immediately, it was.  It has since, of course, been revived many times worldwide, including in its native Russia during the latter stages of the communist system, and is acknowledged as one of the great operatic masterpieces of the Twentieth Century. It is now probably almost as popular as the composer’s undeniably magnificent 5th Symphony, supposedly written in response to official criticism – somewhat tongue in cheek, I imagine. But look a little deeper at the symphony and it is clear that this too has a cunningly disguised dissident agenda, now well documented. ‘A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ indeed!! The comments in your leaflet on these two masterpieces is woefully superficial and erroneous. 
Your assumption that no outstanding musicians have arisen since the dissolution of the USSR is also facile. The towering greatness of Shostakovich and Prokofiev had nothing whatever to do with the dogma and oppression of communism (except insofar as it prompted resistance to the regime in numerous works, such as Shostakovich’s powerfully protesting 13th Symphony – also virtually banned in its early years) and everything to do with their very personal and individual genius. No dictatorship can suppress that supreme and proudly non-collective human quality.
Should you wish to respond to this email I will look forward to reading your reply. But be aware that several daily newspapers might also be interested in our exchange and – who knows – maybe even Radio 3.
Yours very sincerely
David M Kay
PS I hope your leafleteer enjoyed the Prokofiev – assuming, of course, that he bothered to attend the concert.

PPS Have you come across the play ‘Collaborators’  by John Hodge, a masterpiece of anti-Stalin satire. It was my great pleasure and privilege to act in a production of it a while ago.

Dear David,

Desite the high-handed, sarcastic and insuling tone of your email, we have decided to reply to you given that you have taken the trouble to send us your comments on our leaflet ‘Defend the Memory of the Soviet Union’.

I listen to Radio Three virtually every day – at this moment in fact – so I am well aware of the sort of introductions and commentaries they make about the music played.  There is certainly far more derogatory material about Stalin and the Soviet Union than there is about Hitler and the Nazi Party.  Only the other day I heard Mark Elder claim that Stalin had Sergei Kirov murdered, not a view now entertained by serious historians of the Soviet Union. I recorded the Albert Hall concert on September 3rd. and in the interval following the Prokofiev Cantata the announcer said what a marvellous piece of music it is despite the “despicable” words.  Well, Stalin’s introduction to the new Soviet Constitution is not the liveliest of material.  But “despicable”, I think not. This stream of anti-communist propaganda on Radio Three has been going on for many years and they are oblivious to any criticisms and complaints about it.  If you think that you can interest newspapers and Radio Three in this matter then we would be happy to co-operate.  Perhaps given the forthcoming anniversary of the October Revolution this may be possible.

As for musical life in the Soviet Union, some works have been appearing which provide details of its rich complexity, e.g. Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity Under Lenin and Stalin by Pauline Fairclough.  You may care to consult these some of these sources.  Shostakovich was undoubtedly a great composer but as with most composers there is unevenness in the quality of his output.  Years ago when I heard about the banning of Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District I was intrigued and looked forward to hearing a performance of this alleged masterpiece.  When I heard it I was most disappointed.  Musically it is not one of Shostakovich’s better efforts and the critique of its musical quality published in Pravda is accurate.  As for the storyline, based on Nikolai Leskov’s (not “Lskov” as you type) short story, I suspect that what was packing the audiences in was the salacious character of the story and not its musical quality.  Also in so far as the likes of Radio Three hail it as a masterpiece I dare say that this has a lot to do with the fact that Stalin did not like it.

As for the “meaning” of pieces by Shostakovich, a whole “industry” has developed reading the most preposterous messages coded into his scores, mainly insults to Stalin.  Most orchestral music is polysemic, i.e. it is open to wide interpretations by different listeners as to what it is about, if anything.  Thus when it is claimed that Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is supposed to be an expression of Shostakovich’s anguish at being abused by Stalin this is about as daft as conductor Otto Tausk on Tunes for Tyrants (BBC 4) the other night claiming that the piece expresses Shostakovich’s desire to slap Stalin around the face.  Shostakovich had an up and down relationship with the Soviet regime who rewarded him very well for his musical work.  He came from a family of musicians and was very talented but in a sense it can be said that without Stalin there would be no Shostakovich, not the one we know.  The dialectic between him and the Soviet regime generated many of the outstanding works which rightly are revered.

Your remarks convey a contemptuous attitude towards the people of the former Soviet Union and Russia today.  You dismiss them as only being capable of enjoying “dumbed down” works.  In fact the general cultural level of the peoples of the Soviet Union was considerably raised.  Attendances per head of population at theatres, concert halls, etc. exceeded those of Western countries and new literary publications had people queuing around the block to buy them.  The fact that many people in Russia today hold Stalin in high regard you contemptuously dismiss.  The truth is that contemporary Russians know far more than you and I about the past of their country.  Their families and friends have told them about it.  There is a growing recognition that they lost a lot with the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union.

You mention the Ukrainian in the queue at the Albert Hall.  (We did not have time to stop and engage with everyone who wanted to talk because otherwise we would not have given out many leaflets in the time available.)  During the struggle to establish and build up the Soviet Union there were many vicious class struggles in which a lot of people got killed.  This is the way with revolutions.  In the case of the Ukraine there were many reactionary nationalists who in World War Two eagerly joined in with  the German Nazis in exterminating their fellow Ukrainian Jews.  When the Red Army reoccupied the Ukraine it took them several years to hunt down and wipe out these vile reactionaries.  I know nothing about the circumstances in which the relatives of the man in the queue died but I do know that the Ukrainian anti-communist and anti-semites are still at it.  Look at the way they have tried to oppress the Russian speaking people in Eastern Ukraine with the full encouragement of NATO and the EU.

I think that you should ask yourself what are the sources from which you have built up your conceptions of Stalin and the Soviet Union.  Is it through a study of serious historical works or is it, like most people in the West, from what has filtered through to you from popular mass media – novels, films, TV programmes, etc. which give an unremittingly negative view? (See our pamphlet ‘Media Representations of the Socialist Period’ at An example of this sort of thing is the play ‘Collaborators’ which you acted in.  A forthcoming specimen  of this genre is the “comedy” film The Death of Stalin.  Ho, ho!

On 7th. November it is the hundredth anniversary of the Great October Revolution.  Vladimir Putin has been doing all he can to play down the significance of this occasion and stop people celebrating it as many want to do.  It will be interesting to see how many Russians turn out to uphold the memory and this great historical breakthrough.

Yours sincerely,

Harry Powell

on behalf of Revolutionary Praxis