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Fri Jul 29 02:17:46 SAST 2016

Perils of art under Stalin

Andrew Donaldson | 20 January, 2016 00:38
Andrew Donaldson. File photo

The 13th instalment in Rickman's engaging Merrily Watkins series.

One for the rationalists

Friends of the Dusk by Phil Rickman (Corvus)

Our heroine, a Welsh vicar with special exorcism duties, joins forces with a troubled detective to investigate the disappearance of an excavated skull and the murder of an archaeologist.

Watkins' pals in the clergy don't think too much of her line of work, which further complicates matters a bit.

The issue

Julian Barnes' forthcoming The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape), a novel about the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, explores the troubled relationship between art and totalitarianism.

Shostakovich was the Soviet Union's most celebrated composer, a musical genius who wrote his first symphony in 1926 when he was 19.

"But," Barnes wrote in the London Sunday Times, "he was also the composer who, in the history of Western music, was for the longest period of time harried and persecuted by the state: all the way from petty interference, via long-term bullying, to crude death threats."

The problem, in short, was Stalin and the Great Terror.

In January 1936 the dictator took in a performance of Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a work that had been critically acclaimed when it premiered two years earlier.

Stalin hated it - and the composer was officially denounced in Pravda and his work slammed as formalist: "coarse, primitive and vulgar".

Other works were also attacked. Shostakovich's ballet The Limpid Stream, for example, was slammed for its incorrect depictions of peasant life on the collective farm.

Critics who had earlier praised such works were now forced to recant and apologise in writing for their carelessness in overlooking the great flaws that Pravda had brought to the attention of their readers.

Many of Shostakovich's family and friends were imprisoned or killed. He, however, managed to escape arrest by lying low and toeing the party line, and was only able to fully "rehabilitate" himself when Stalin died in 1953.

Two other books on the composer are worth seeking out. Ian MacDonald's The New Shostakovich (Pimlico), revised and updated in 2005, is a passionate profile of a man who, though outwardly loyal to the state, was a dissident who abhorred totalitarianism. MacDonald suggests the meaning of the music cannot be fully appreciated without a knowledge of what artists endured under Stalin.

The other is Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (Faber & Faber). It was smuggled out of Soviet Russia, and the composer, fearing reprisals, stipulated that the book should not appear until after his death.

The Soviets were not pleased when it was published in 1979 and claimed large chunks of it was made up by its editor, Solomon Volkov. But then they would say that, wouldn't they?

The bottom line

"Cons work so widely because, in a sense, we want them to. We want to believe the tale." - The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova (Viking)

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