Shostakovich's persecutor finally speaks out

The purges of the 1920s and 30s had destroyed the writers: Mandelstam, Babel, Yesenin, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, Gumilyov and many others were dead, executed or by their own hand. Then, in 1948, Stalin turned to the composers. The Great Leader and Teacher had heard an opera that displeased him. His anger spread to all avant-garde music, to all music that didn't fit his own taste for old-fashioned, accessible melodies, easily understood by the people, upbeat and celebrating the superiority of all things Soviet. Stalin ordered his commissars to impose socialist realism in music, and to weed out those who had other ideas. The Central Committee drew up a decree condemning composers of music that was "inimical to the people" and "formalist".

They handed the task of wiping out formalism to the head of the soviet composers union, Tikhon Khrennikov. At the first congress of the union of composers from April 19-25 1948, Khrennikov listed those who were in the firing line: the "elitist, anti-socialist" Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Miaskovsky and others ... "In the music of Comrade Shostakovich we find all sorts of things alien to realistic Soviet art, such as tenseness, neuroticism, escapism and repulsive pathology. In the work of Comrade Prokofiev ... natural emotion and melody has been replaced by grunting and scraping."

Khrennikov reported that people "all over the USSR" had "voted unanimously" to condemn the so-called formalists and let it be known that those named in the decree were now officially regarded as little better than traitors: "Enough of these pseudo-philosophic symphonies! Armed with clear party directives, we will stop all manifestations of formalism and decadence."

For Shostakovich, undoubtedly the main target and whose satirical operas and ballets are being performed by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre at the London Coliseum this month, it was a terrifying moment. The guilty men were forced into a public recantation of their errors and a humiliating exhibition of self-criticism and abasement. Prokofiev suffered a stroke and never recovered; he died five years later, on the same day as Stalin in 1953.

All those attacked by Khrennikov in 1948 knew their careers were stymied, and until Stalin's death they lived in constant expectation of arrest, imprisonment or even execution. Astoundingly, Khrennikov remained in his post as chief arbiter and inquisitor of Russian musical life until 1991. He is now aged 93 and agreed to talk to me in Moscow last month.

When I suggest he led the regime's repression of musical life, he becomes angry and yells at me that I am recounting lies and slander; he says the reason the Soviet Union needed to encourage positive socialist realism in music was because "you" (the west) had erected an iron curtain to threaten the USSR; the campaign against Jewish composers was regrettable, he says, "but don't forget there were many Jews in musical life and they launched unfair attacks on my compositions".

Khrennikov tells me he was simply told - forced - to read out the speech attacking Shostakovich and Prokofiev in 1948: "What else could I have done? If I'd refused, it could have been curtains ... death. They made me do it; and anyway, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were sympathetic to my plight - they knew I had no choice: I did everything I could to help them financially while they were banned and repressed ... and they were grateful to me".

But even now he is proud of the power he wielded under Stalin: "My word was law", he says. "People knew I was appointed personally by Stalin and they were afraid that ... I would go and tell Stalin about them. I was Stalin's Commissar. When I said No! (he shouts), it meant No." Khrennikov tells me with relish of his own meetings with Stalin: he was a connoisseur of art and music; he understood it much better than anyone, so much so that he would hold Politburo meetings in a private box at the Bolshoi: when the most accomplished singers came on stage, Stalin would hold up his hand and order a pause from the mighty affairs of state to hear the voice of genius.

An edited extract from a very important article in today's Guardian by Martin Sixsmith which also includes a meeting with Shostakovich's widow Irina - absolutely essential reading.

Image credit - Katerina Dalayman in Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, photograph by Tristram Kenton via Guardian, Shostakovich illustration by Nathan Jensen. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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