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Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictato r [Kindle Edition]

Solomon Volkov
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

Kindle Price: $12.79
Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

“Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that.” So said the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose first compositions in the 1920s identified him as an avant-garde wunderkind. But that same singularity became a liability a decade later under the totalitarian rule of Stalin, with his unpredictable grounds for the persecution of artists. Solomon Volkov—who cowrote Shostakovich’s controversial 1979 memoir, Testimony—describes how this lethal uncertainty affected the composer’s life and work.

Volkov, an authority on Soviet Russian culture, shows us the “holy fool” in Shostakovich: the truth speaker who dared to challenge the supreme powers. We see how Shostakovich struggled to remain faithful to himself in his music and how Stalin fueled that struggle: one minute banning his work, the next encouraging it. We see how some of Shostakovich’s contemporaries—Mandelstam, Bulgakov, and Pasternak among them—fell victim to Stalin’s manipulations and how Shostakovich barely avoided the same fate. And we see the psychological price he paid for what some perceived as self-serving aloofness and others saw as rightfully defended individuality.

This is a revelatory account of the relationship between one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and one of its most infamous tyrants.


From the Hardcover edition.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Shostakovich's tortured relationship to the Soviet authorities was a main subject of Testimony, a book published after the composer's death by Volkov, who claimed that it contained Shostakovich's own remembrances. Controversy about the authenticity of Testimony swirled for years, until the publication in 1999 of Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life, accepted by many scholars as decisively countering Testimony's claims to accuracy. The appearance of a new study by Volkov on Shostakovich (1906-1973), then, is sure to raise critical hackles. Volkov argues that Shostakovich survived the denunciation of his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and more minor controversies thereafter, in part by relying on a Russian tradition of playing the "holy fool" when under political pressure. When Stalin asked that Shostakovich henceforth submit operas and ballets for approval, the composer solved the problem by refraining from writing these musical forms. Volkov finds that luck played a role as well in Shostakovich surviving while so many other artists were killed or banned, but the "holy fool" argument as a whole only partially convinces: at times, Shostakovich's reticence regarding the regime seemed to turn into compliance, as when he signed a letter late in his life that denounced human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, an act Volkov says Shostakovich regretted. The book assumes a lot of knowledge of Soviet history for a general readership; nonspecialists interested in the composer and his work will still be better served by Fay.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

After hearing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, an envious Boris Pasternak wrote, "He went and said everything, and no one did anything to him for it." The extent of the composer's complicity or dissidence under Stalin has been much debated. Volkov, a prominent adherent of the latter view, marvels at this timid man's ability to express suffering in music that was nonetheless outwardly optimistic, and suggests that Shostakovich found an important model in Pushkin, who survived the cruelties of Tsar Nicholas I by juggling three classically Russian roles—"pretender," " chronicler," and "holy fool." Volkov's story depends too often on hunches and assumptions, but he is illuminating when he places the composer in the context of other artists (Pasternak, Bulgakov, and Mandelstam) who attempted dialogue with Stalin and were alternately supported and persecuted by him.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Product Details

  • File Size: 627 KB
  • Print Length: 313 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (December 18, 2007)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000XUBDOE
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #741,734 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars to the heart of things April 5, 2005
Format:Hardcover
This book is as much a penetrating portrait of Stalin's Russia as it is a fierce look at surviving as an artist in Stalin's hands. Apart from the rich legacy of his music, Shostakovich is a fine example precisely because he survived. Those of us who find Volkov's 'Testimony' a harrowing, revealing book will dive into these pages with gusto and fly through to the end. Those who suspect 'Testimony' to be a fraud might not bother with this book, and that's too bad because it provides a genuine fleshing out of Stalin and his closest henchmen (Zhdanov, especially, is afforded thorough treatment), some beautiful pages on Shostakovich's inner life, and not a few engaging views of a number of other important artists who lived and worked in a crucible of terror day after day. Volkov courteously dispenses with the ridiculous "holy fool" controversy in his prologue. The author is strongest when he composes life from inside the experience of survival in Soviet Russia. It's one thing to admire Shostakovich's genius, quite another to reach the underpinnings of a man who was more a gentleman fixed on physical (and therefore emotional and artistic) survival than he was a musical prophet. At that point, we're experiencing something well beyond biography. That is Volkov's unique gift. The focus is indeed Shostakovich, but the lessons reach farther. There are some fine photographs included - pen and inks of Akhmatova and Pasternak by Annenkov, the spiky, not often seen 1933 portrait of Shostakovich by Akimov, and an unforgettable photograph of a very young Shostakovich looking directly and defiantly at the camera, in which he seems to foretell all the pain and glory to come. If you're looking for a searing rehearsal of the meaning of freedom, I suggest this book.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The long awaited supplement to "Testimony" April 27, 2005
Format:Hardcover
When Dmitri Shostakovich's memoirs appeared in print under the title "Testimony" its compiler, Solomon Volkov, was widely excoriated and the authenticity of the text challenged. As a composer, being intimately familiar with how composers think and express themselves, the book rang true to me through and through. Some of the attempts to debunk it seemed to me then calculated to challenge every statement. Some things, however, can not be faked - and, as Shostakovich himself often said, "music illuminates a man through and through," a composer's way of expressing himself is instantly recognizable to another composer. There are simply far too many clues buried in the text - too many buzz words and conceptual descriptions of the type typical of the composer's perception of things.

Having said that, then, Volkov's new text provides much of the historical filler that the earlier text could not purely by virtue of its purpose and content. By illustrating, even if somewhat broadly, the cultural and political issues during Stalin's reign, much of what Volkov reported as having been said by Shostakovich is further substantiated. It is fascinating reading - but not, as others have pointed out, for those without at least a fundamental understanding of Russian history.

Those who choose, even at this late date, to challenge Volkov's original text will have more to carp about here. The truth about Shostakovich's music has long since escaped the myth makers and political hacks and into the open arena of ideas. The man's music speaks louder than any words, however, even his own. But for me, the two together can only have come from one person - Dmitri Shostakovich. Relying on old Soviet mythology and documentation to disprove a work that challenges that mythology is hardly reliable. And Volkov's most recent work is an easy, fascinating and ultimately confirming discourse on the background issues which, in the end, resulted in the music long since validated on its own terms.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Artistic sufferance under a totalitarian regime July 10, 2004
Format:Hardcover
The scope of the book goes far beyond the relation between Shostakovich and Stalin; it's a dramatic view into artistic life while living in an authoritarian regime. There is an immense list of great artists who where deported, killed or psychologically terrorized in Stalins regime. Shostakovich is only one of them, and seemingly one of the lucky ones, since he outlived the dictator. But his sufferance under Stalins terror was as trying for him as it was for any other artist. I don't entirely agree with the comment that Stalin is depicted as an idiot, but he is portraited as having a very one-sided, utilitarian view on arts.The given inside in one of the most horrible regimes that ever existed, must be mind blowing for every one in the democratic world.
The book tells Shostakovich life only fragmentarilly, including discussing his major pieces. It gives real insight into his music, makes it more accessible. Even if only to enable you to understand this music better, this book is worthwile.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary Is Right June 30, 2007
Format:Hardcover
Utterly fascinating tale of an extraordinary moment in history. I can't think of another place in modern times when a political leader took such an interest in the arts, albeit, for political reasons. How fascinating it is that a dictator - it isn't conceivable in a democracy - would become obsessed with the things said and done by cultural figures such as Shostakovich, Mayakovsky, and Pasternak. Stalin was a brute, but the picture drawn here of him and his relationship with the great Russian composer makes for the sort of suspense one associates with murder-mysteries. The entire Soviet aesthetic is on display here, an odd and finally ruthlessly destructive dance between art and politics. Stalin comes over as a ghoulish monster, while Shostokovich is depicted as wholly sympathetic. Artistically it is as rich a milieu as Elizabethan England or Periclean Athens. The Kremlin comes over as a house of horrors on the order of Idi Amin's slaughter house. The book is beautifully written, well-researched, and told from an artist's point of view, not an academic political scientist's. No other regime in the 20th century is as horrifying; no artists were ever as creative and brave.
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