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Yes, it’s a bit comics-like. Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crude. But I think all those aspects suit the subject – Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975).
There’s no point in trying to determine what artist suffered most during the Soviet period. As harsh as it may sound, that would be like trying to determine which grain of sand on the beach is the biggest or smallest. Just try and figure. If you were going to take on that pointless task you would obviously start with those who were tortured to death, then those who were “just” killed, then those who were “allowed to die,” and then you would go on from there. Shostakovich, thank God, was able to live out his life. He didn’t live it out untouched and he didn’t live it out the way he would have chosen. There’s no way of knowing if he was so worn down by the battles and humiliations that he ran out of gas before he might have under different circumstances, a month short of his 69th birthday. But he did live, and he lived to see his work recognized in his homeland and abroad. That’s no small thing.
As I pointed out in an earlier post on this site, Shostakovich quickly gained fame for his striking, unusual compositions from a very early age. His ground-breaking opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on the dark novella of sex and murder by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932. It was staged in the composer’s hometown of St. Petersburg in January of 1934 at the Maly Leningrad Opera Theater and was received enthusiastically. However, a notorious attack on the composer and his work appeared in Pravda more or less on the second anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” it cast a dark cloud over Shostakovich that lasted for decades. Wikipedia has a nice story about how that article came about. It’s worth repeating here:
“Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was ‘white as a sheet’ when he went to take his bow after the third act.”
A second public “denunciation” came in 1948 when Shostakovich was named in one of the infamous Zhdanov decrees, this one attacking so-called “formalism” in Soviet music. The document called out Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, following a similar document that in 1946 had attacked the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as well as several theater critics. The composers were not officially “rehabilitated” until 1958, although Stalin himself loosened the screws in 1949 shortly before sending Shostakovich to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York.
One cannot be sure whether this was a positive thing for Shostakovich or not. He was, thereby, forced into the position of publicly praising to the world his de facto jailers, the very individuals and system that had tormented him for 15 years. Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the pressure on the composer again, but he never quite escaped the long, hard hand of the Soviet government. He was essentially forced to join the Communist Party in 1960 and from then on he often had to sing its praises in speeches and in his music. It is commonly felt that Shostakovich suffered as much as any artist who survived the excesses of the Soviet period. Of course, his great and sweeping oeuvre stands as a testament to his talent and his inner strength. The art won in the end, thanks to the tenacity of the individual.
All of this is evident in the monument that Georgy Frangulyan erected in Shostakovich’s memory on the steps of the Moscow House of Music on May 28, 2015. It was the first monument commemorating the great artist in Moscow.
Frangulyan created the image of a deeply private individual, one who is obviously used to withstanding suffering. It may have bent him, it may have distorted his facial expression, but this is the figure of one who has weathered whatever came his way. The hard, exaggerated furrows in his brow bear witness to that. The head is down; it cares nothing about what is going on all around. Passersby, Moscow traffic – none of it exists for him. He is in his own world. The legs are crossed tightly, another sign of a man closing himself off to the world. Chances are his right hand is conducting some snippet of music that this he hears in his head. But it is not a public conductor’s gesture, not one that would be employed from a podium before an orchestra and a hall full of people. This is a private gesture, a small, approximate gesture, one that means something only to Shostakovich. It is, perhaps, his way of personally “hearing” his music with his body. From some angles, as in the second photo below, the hand may be “thinking” about playing notes on a piano. Of course, from other angles, it might be the beginning of him raising his arm to fend of blows – of any kind that might be thrown at him. (See the second and third photos above.) I like this aspect of Frangulyan’s sculpture – the arm gesture is very specific, yet open to interpretation. It is one of the things that give the sculpture life.
It is worth thinking for a moment about the significance of a monument like this appearing in Moscow today (just over a year ago). Increasingly, we are subjected to comments, actions and even attacks from Russian cultural authorities that harken back to the age of the Zhdanov decrees and even the denunciations in the press from the 1930s. We are constantly told by politicians, by media figures and by official patriots, that life in Russia has never been better, that the country is great, its history is great, and there are no problems aside from those that have been created by evil outside forces and the nasty people who support them for evil reasons. Don’t get me wrong. We have not returned – yet – to the exact atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, but we are living in a time that has borrowed that era’s intonations and general methods.
To see this harried, hunkered, set-upon image of Shostakovich today is to set eyes upon a contemporary. I don’t know if any of the authorities who surely beamed happily the day of the unveiling have any idea about this or not. But it is a fact. When you stand behind Shostakovich here and gaze out on the endless stream of cars racing past on the Garden Ring Road, you realize that contemporary Moscow is as alien to you as it is to this image of Shostakovich.