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Solomon Volkov on Stalin and Shostakovich

Of Joseph Stalin the culture-czar, Solomon Volkov comments:  

“People underestimate the level of control that Stalin maintained. I once tried to count the number of people in the arts that Stalin controlled personally – listened to their music and read their books. It was close to one thousand. This was Stalin’s habit. So Shostakovich knew very well he was under the constant surveillance of the most powerful person in the country. Stalin’s involvement in the world of culture was extraordinary. It was something unprecedented. There is evidence that he read every day 300 to 400 pages of fiction and non-fiction.

“When describing Stalin I use two words. He was an ‘evil genius’. People writing about Stalin sometimes judge him like a dean of the faculty or something like that. They don’t understand that he was extraordinarily gifted – in terms of things like memory and energy. People like that are born maybe once in a century. To be sure, he was a totally evil person. No one in their right mind would argue with that. But, for example, he would never raise his voice, especially when talking to artists. He was always very polite. And he was often more informed than they were. The famous Stalin Prize committee would submit works for his approval. ‘Did you actually read this book?’ he would ask the committee. And they knew that before Stalin you couldn’t lie. ‘No, comrade Stalin, I did not read this book.’ And Stalin might answer: ‘And I unfortunately did.’ He considered himself a kind of father figure. A father would punish his child – and then he might reward him.”

As author of Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, Volkov speaks with special authority. (Never mind the “Shostakovich Wars” – Testimony is a record of Shostakovich as understood by Volkov. Others have a different picture. Human beings have no fixed identity.) The Volkov commentary I here quote derives from our latest “PostClassical” podcast: “Shostakovich and the Cold War.” You can audition the entire three hours of music and conversation here.

Bill McGlaughlin asked Solomon Volkov to describe his first meeting with Dmitri Shostakovich.

“I started to write about music at a very early age. I was fifteen. I moved to Leningrad to study there, and I was still a pupil when I went to the premiere of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. I had already published several pieces in Riga and Leningrad. After listening to the Eighth Quartet I was extremely impressed. I went to the local newspaper and suggested that I write a review. The accepted it. And it happened that my small piece was the first review of this very important Shostakovich piece that appeared in print.

“Shostakovich, to his credit or not, read every review. He was never this type of genius who says ‘I am not interested.’ He never pretended to be. So sometime later I went to a Shostakovich concert in Leningrad and somebody introduced me to him. And he remembered. ‘Oh yes, I read your review.’ He said a few nice words. I of course was elated. And that was the start of our relationship.

“I wouldn’t dare to record him. He was mortally afraid of a microphone. When he was not talking in his official capacity he could be very eloquent. But the moment he was obliged to say something official he was a different person.”

And Shostakovich was a different person, as well, to President John F. Kennedy, Nicolas Nabokov, and other practitioners of the cultural Cold War – the first topic of our podcast. It begins with the voice of JFK, denying that the Soviet Union could possibly produce great art. Commensurately, Shostakovich was long denigrated in the West as a Soviet stooge. Around the time Leonard Bernstein spoke up for Shostakovich in, 1966, the culture winds began to change. Testimony, published in 1979, marked a turning point; Shostakovich was never again dismissed as a purported tool of the Communist Party. I asked Volkov if Shostakovich’s “messages in a bottle” – the dissident subtexts we now discern – were acknowledged in Soviet Russia. He said: “In the West they were not interested, and in the Soviet Union they were afraid.”

A second topic of our podcast is music and World War II – we compare Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1945), Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata (1942), and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 (1944). I’ve previously written a lot about Stravinsky’s musical picture of World War II, a California product inspired by newsreels of goose-stepping soldiers and falling bombs. Prokofiev, too, records the tumult of battle – as does the amazing live performance by Alexander Toradze (from a PostClassical Ensemble concert of 2017) that we audition. Shostakovich’s wartime response in his Second Trio is, by comparison, markedly interior. It does not document the war; it extrapolates a message for humanity.

How did Shostakovich so manage to transcend the personal – to “bear witness”? Angel Gil-Ordonez, on our podcast, pertinently remarks: “Shostakovich is always on the side of those who suffer. This is what touches us.”



00:17 – JFK speaking about the “place of the artist” in “free societies” – and denying the possibility of distinguished Soviet art

10:15 – Nicolas Nabokov, the source of Kennedy’s doctrine, denounces Shostakovich

11:18 – Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Benjamin Pasternack, piano)

26:15 – Leonard Bernstein speaks up for Shostakovich (1966)

27:33 – How Solomon Volkov met Shostakovich; the String Quartet No. 8

29:00—Volkov on Stalin as culture-czar

39:07 – Shostakovich/Barshai: String Symphony (PCE conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez)


00:00 – Waltz from The New Babylon, Shostakovich’s first film score (PCE/Gil-Ordonez)

3:44 – Volkov on Shostakovich and film

9:07 – The New Babylon: finale (PCE/Gil-Ordonez)

18:00 – JFK notwithstanding: propaganda as high art — The New Babylon

20:30 – Volkov on Stalin and film; “he read 300 to 400 pages a day”

24:00 – Musical responses to WW II: Stravinsky vs. Prokofiev vs. Shostakovich

31:45 – Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7: finale (Alexander Toradze, as filmed/recorded by Behrouz Jamali for PCE)

44:00 – Shostakovich “bears witness” to his times


00:00 – Shostakovich Trio No. 2 (Netanel Draiblate/Benjamin Capps/Alexander Shtarkman, as filmed/recorded by Behrouz Jamali for PCE)

30:00 – Volkov on Shostakovich and Jewish music

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