Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian
Thursday, 16 August 2018 18:24

A wave of creativity: music and the Russian Revolution

Published in Music

Sabby Sagall describes the wave of creativity unleashed by the Russian Revolution, altering the course of twentieth century classical music.

The carnage and brutality of World War One had punctured the balloon of late nineteeth-century optimism and established that the industrial and scientific progress of capitalism had not led to a world based on justice and reason but to unimaginable horror. Industrial cities had created unprecedented wealth but also poverty and alienation hitherto unknown.

The Russian revolution offered a beacon of hope. The spectacle of ordinary workers and peasants grasping the reins of society, creating their own revolutionary state through elected councils or soviets, inspired an entire generation in a world grown weary of internecine war. Of course, the western capitalist ruling classes weren't going to take this unprecedented challenge to their wealth and power lying down, and unleashed a bloody civil war with the aim of destroying the fledging workers' state. Musically, the extremes of these social contradictions could no longer be adequately expressed in the traditional form of the classical symphony that had expressed the confidence of the eighteenth century bourgeoisie as they overthrew the old order.

In the early days of the revolution, the Bolsheviks adopted a civilising mission intended to cultivate new socialist attitudes and habits in the masses, but also new cultural forms that would both reflect the new way of life and also have broad appeal. One aspect of this was the attempt to create a 'socialist' musical culture involving the overcoming of the divide between elite and popular culture, both by democratising the 'high' culture of the pre-revolutionary elite, making it more accessible to the masses, and by cultivating new forms of artistic expression.

However, after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, the central task of the revolution was survival in the face of international right-wing forces that moved in to attempt to destroy it. With the regime's survival at stake, cultural matters had a relatively low priority. Where music was concerned, the Bolsheviks' primary task was to establish control over the 'commanding heights', by nationalising the conservatories, publishing houses, and theatres, as well as confiscating valuable musical instruments from private collections and their aristocratic owners trying to flee the country.

The Bolsheviks moved quickly to achieve administrative and economic control over musicians and musical life, but had little time or interest in formulating music policy itself. As part of the effort to mobilise support for the revolution among Russia's toiling masses, and extend the revolution to the cultural sphere, the government funded a host of programmes administered by the Red Army and the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Nakrompros) as well as a vast network of Proletarian Culture (Proletkult) organisations. These programmes offered musicians, writers and artists employment and the opportunity to continue pre-revolutionary activities, albeit under very different conditions.

In music, as in other areas, a main objective of the Commissariat of Enlightenment led by Anatoly Lunacharsky was to cultivate old 'specialists' and enlist their support for the revolutionary project. With some notable exceptions, musicians found in early years that they had considerable latitude in their affairs. They not only facilitated but largely defined the terms under which musical institutions made their transition to Soviet power and the way musical life responded to the revolution.

For most Russians, the years of revolution, civil war and Western intervention to attempt to crush Soviet power were haunted by hunger and terrible material hardship. Survival was the key priority while musicians began to formulate their creative responses to the challenges raised by the revolution. A few pursued radical creative agendas in an effort to link artistic and revolutionary iconoclasm - smashing the previous social and ideological order. Some tried to enlist music directly in the revolutionary struggle and the effort to win the Civil War. But for most, there were strong threads of continuity that linked them to the pre-revolutionary period, and these dominated their creative activities and attitudes towards Soviet power.

The October revolution had given fresh impetus to cultural life, with a great flowering of the arts. But it also created difficulties. The problem was that the chief moving force of the revolution was an oppressed, propertyless, and necessarily uneducated working class. This was contrary to the bourgeois revolution in England or France where the revolutionary class was an educated, cultured class of property owners. The weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie and the general lack of confidence in its capacity to produce social and political change meant that Russian culture, including music, could not express their interests.

True, the Bolshevik leaders were mostly men of the intelligentsia, some possessing a deep cultural understanding of the world. But the cadres consisted mostly of self-educated workers and half-educated people of petty bourgeois background. The party had trained them in politics, organisation and sometimes in Marxist philosophy. But often their approach to cultural affairs showed that a little knowledge could be worse than complete ignorance.

Most intellectuals were hostile to the revolution. Many emigrated. But many also served the new regime as 'specialists'. A few even became enthusiastically converted to the revolution. But most of the intelligentsia were either too conservative in habits or else too intimidated or mediocre to exercise fruitful cultural influence. They reacted badly when placed under the orders of semi-educated or self-educated commissars. On the other hand, many commissars lacked confidence, but tried to cover up their inner uncertainty with bluff and bluster. They believed that Marxism, in which they were not fully educated, provided the master key to all problems of society.

Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders tried to bridge the gulf. But after the devastation of the civil war, the party hierarchy began to free itself from public, workers' control and began to impose its dictates on the scientist, the writer and musician. The slogans of 'proletarian art' and 'proletarian culture' were coined and became popular. The theory arose that just as there had been feudal and capitalist epochs in the history of civilisation, accompanied by their respective cultures, so the proletarian dictatorship would inaugurate its own specific culture permeated by Marxism, internationalism, etc.

This idea appealed to some Bolshevik intellectuals and young workers in whom the revolution had awakened a desire for education but also iconoclastic instincts. Many peasants, too, displayed anarchic hostility towards everything to do with the gentry's way of life, including its 'cultural values'. When the peasant set fire to the landlord's mansion, he often let go up in flames the library and paintings.

Trotsky argued it was harmful to reject the cultural heritage of the bourgeois era: the working class had, on the contrary, to take possession of it and protect it, while viewing it critically. But the working class, as an oppressed, exploited and uneducated class, could not create its own culture: it emerges from bourgeois rule in a condition of cultural pauperism. And insofar as the working class creates a classless, socialist society, so it abolishes itself and sets about creating a truly universal, classless human culture.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European music was transformed by two strands of modernism: the atonal music developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his two leading followers, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and the revolutionary music of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Atonality is music that lacks a tonal centre, that does not depend on the 'diatonic' system of major and minor keys which had been the basis, and had provided the coherence, of European art music since the late 17th century.

SS stavinsky

1. Igor Stravinsky(1882-1971)

Stravinsky's music remains within the tradition of modern tonal or diatonic harmony. But he transformed music through his revolutionary approach to rhythm and his use of dissonant harmonies. In Paris in 1913, the dynamic, rhythmic innovation of his ballet The Rite of Spring was evident. At its first performance, the music provoked derisive laughter which quickly developed into an uproar among the well-heeled French bourgeois audience.

Like Schoenberg, Stravinsky had discovered that increasing chromaticism was loosening the power of diatonic harmony to sustain the movement of music. (Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing diatonic notes and chords of the traditional tonal scale with notes of the chromatic scale, consisting, as it does, of semitones. Chromaticism is in contrast or addition to tonality or diatonicism - the conventional major and minor scales. It became more widely used in the second half of the nineteenth century).

Stravinsky's answer to the problem was different. The Rite of Spring, composed as music to accompany scenes of earthly joy and celestial triumph as understood by the Slavs, showed with almost savage force that rhythm could be a new motivating impetus. The point here is that in European music since the Renaissance, rhythm had been subservient to melody and harmony. In contrast, in The Rite of Spring, especially in the final Sacrificial Dance, it is rhythm that drives the music, with harmony of secondary importance. Stravinsky's earlier career had revealed the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, composer of the symphonic suite Scheherezade. This was notably shown in Stravinsky's ballet suite The Firebird (1909-10), a brilliant and exotic fairy tale.

But his style matures in his second ballet Petrushka where rhythm is becoming the most important structural and expressive element. Petrushka uses a significant number of Russian folk tunes; it also reveals fantastic harmonies associated with the puppets which are based on traditional techniques that produced sharp dissonant combinations (eg, the so-called Petrushka chord).

Again, these dissonances express the intensifying contradictions and dislocation of a society in which advanced capitalist relations prevailed in the urban industrial areas – Petrograd's Putilov engineering factory boasted the most highly developed technology in Europe – alongside semi-feudal relations in the countryside and an absolute monarchy. And, importantly, by the time Firebird and Petrushka were produced, Russia had already experienced the 1905 revolution, the 'dress-rehearsal' for the 1917 revolution.

So, while Stravinsky's music cannot strictly be described as 'music of the Russian revolution' – he himself was hostile to the revolution, left Russia in 1914 and didn't return until 1962 – yet it is music whose dissonances and rhythmic innovations express the dislocation and contradictions of society in the throes of the deepening crisis that were the backdrop to World War One and the revolution itself.

SS Prokofiev and rostropovich

2. Serge Prokoviev (1891-1953)

Prokofiev's life and musical styles fall into three periods: the first being his formative years in Russia, the second (1920-1933) his years in Paris, and the third in which he returned to his homeland. The music of Prokofiev's first period is mostly of the primitive style brought about by the onslaught of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Prokofiev's music of this period utilises driving rhythms and dissonant harmonies, and includes his first three piano concertos and the ballet Ala and Lolly. Also from this period comes the delightful "Classical" Symphony no. 1 in D major, written to convince his critics that he could, when he wanted, compose in the refined style of Mozart.

Prokofiev's second period resulted in such works as the Symphonies Two, Three and Four, two more piano concertos, the satirical opera The Love for Three Oranges (from which comes the famous and jaunty March) and two more ballets. Many of Prokofiev's most famous compositions were written after he had returned to Russia in 1933. These include the children's story for orchestra and narrator, Peter and the Wolf, several film scores, Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular ballets of the twentieth century, and his greatest symphony, the Symphony No. 5.

In keeping with government dictates of the Stalin Regime, this music is more tonal, less dissonant, and conforms to classical styles, making them generally accessible to the public. Even so, Prokofiev was denounced in 1948 by the government as being "too modern" and he composed no more music for the remainder of his life. Prokofiev had composed the gigantic Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, originally intended for performance during the anniversary year but effectively blocked by Platon Kerzhentsev, head of the culture and science department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who demanded less 'incomprehensible music'. The Cantata had to wait until 5th April 1966 for a partial premiere, just over 13 years after the composer's death.

SS shostakovich

3. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Unlike his countrymen Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Shostakovich opted to remain in Russia throughout his life. Stylistically, this meant that the composer was constantly bowing to the decrees of the Stalinist regime, stunting his natural growth in efforts to please the government. Although his vast output is variable in quality, Shostakovich was nevertheless able to compose some powerful and lasting works. He is known primarily for his fifteen symphonies and string quartets, as these are the works that contain much of his most original thought and expression.

The symphonies, in particular, remain his best-known works. Although many of them, in attempts to conform to the decrees of the government, contain pages of inflated heroism and bombast, one or two stand out as perhaps the composer's finest achievements. The Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 for example, shows what the composer could do to please Stalin, while at the same time may have been expressing his true feelings about the difficulties of artistic life in Russia at the time. In the later Symphony No. 10, Shostakovich's irony and anger at the losses the Russian people suffered during World War II is given voice in a relentless, motor-driven scherzo.

However, in the experimental atmosphere of post-revolutionary Russia, the young Shostakovich absorbed features from all the various movements into his music, forging early on his own individual, highly original style which remained with him throughout his life. This style combined rhythmic vitality, a menacing, at times violent atmosphere and frequent satirical allusions, suggesting challenges to the Stalinist regime.

His striking, powerful music won him widespread popularity. But his willingness to experiment was less popular with the Stalinism that was firmly entrenched by the late 1920s. From then until his death in 1975, Shostakovich's relations with the Stalinist authorities was a tense one, in which he struggled to maintain his artistic and political integrity. In this sense, he arguably remained a composer of the revolution.

In 1934, 'socialist realism' became state policy. According to Stalin's representative Zhdanov, its purpose was to limit popular culture to creative expression that promoted Soviet ideals. Because the present and the future were constantly idealised, socialist realism had a sense of forced optimism.

The trigger for the great crisis in Shostakovich's career was his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. The opera was performed in Leningrad and Moscow to great critical and popular success. It tells the story of a 19th century provincial woman driven to murder by the oppression and boredom of her life. It is a gripping drama, with raucous music which is audaciously modern. It was performed over a hundred times in two years, after which Stalin went to see it. A month later, a savage attack on Lady Macbeth and Shostakovich's music in general appeared: he was accused of being a 'formalist', more interested in playing with musical form and structure than in conveying a clear and simple meaning. The cultural experimentation of the previous decade had given way to the conservatism of socialist realism, according to which art had to serve the interests of the new regime.

Nonetheless, the Russian Revolution gave rise to a huge wave of creativity across all the arts, and wrote a new chapter in the history of modern music.

Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian
Thursday, 16 August 2018 18:24

A wave of creativity: music and the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

Sabby Sagall describes the wave of creativity unleashed by the Russian Revolution, altering the course of twentieth century classical music.

The carnage and brutality of World War One had punctured the balloon of late nineteeth-century optimism and established that the industrial and scientific progress of capitalism had not led to a world based on justice and reason but to unimaginable horror. Industrial cities had created unprecedented wealth but also poverty and alienation hitherto unknown.

The Russian revolution offered a beacon of hope. The spectacle of ordinary workers and peasants grasping the reins of society, creating their own revolutionary state through elected councils or soviets, inspired an entire generation in a world grown weary of internecine war. Of course, the western capitalist ruling classes weren't going to take this unprecedented challenge to their wealth and power lying down, and unleashed a bloody civil war with the aim of destroying the fledging workers' state. Musically, the extremes of these social contradictions could no longer be adequately expressed in the traditional form of the classical symphony that had expressed the confidence of the eighteenth century bourgeoisie as they overthrew the old order.

In the early days of the revolution, the Bolsheviks adopted a civilising mission intended to cultivate new socialist attitudes and habits in the masses, but also new cultural forms that would both reflect the new way of life and also have broad appeal. One aspect of this was the attempt to create a 'socialist' musical culture involving the overcoming of the divide between elite and popular culture, both by democratising the 'high' culture of the pre-revolutionary elite, making it more accessible to the masses, and by cultivating new forms of artistic expression.

However, after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, the central task of the revolution was survival in the face of international right-wing forces that moved in to attempt to destroy it. With the regime's survival at stake, cultural matters had a relatively low priority. Where music was concerned, the Bolsheviks' primary task was to establish control over the 'commanding heights', by nationalising the conservatories, publishing houses, and theatres, as well as confiscating valuable musical instruments from private collections and their aristocratic owners trying to flee the country.

The Bolsheviks moved quickly to achieve administrative and economic control over musicians and musical life, but had little time or interest in formulating music policy itself. As part of the effort to mobilise support for the revolution among Russia's toiling masses, and extend the revolution to the cultural sphere, the government funded a host of programmes administered by the Red Army and the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Nakrompros) as well as a vast network of Proletarian Culture (Proletkult) organisations. These programmes offered musicians, writers and artists employment and the opportunity to continue pre-revolutionary activities, albeit under very different conditions.

In music, as in other areas, a main objective of the Commissariat of Enlightenment led by Anatoly Lunacharsky was to cultivate old 'specialists' and enlist their support for the revolutionary project. With some notable exceptions, musicians found in early years that they had considerable latitude in their affairs. They not only facilitated but largely defined the terms under which musical institutions made their transition to Soviet power and the way musical life responded to the revolution.

For most Russians, the years of revolution, civil war and Western intervention to attempt to crush Soviet power were haunted by hunger and terrible material hardship. Survival was the key priority while musicians began to formulate their creative responses to the challenges raised by the revolution. A few pursued radical creative agendas in an effort to link artistic and revolutionary iconoclasm - smashing the previous social and ideological order. Some tried to enlist music directly in the revolutionary struggle and the effort to win the Civil War. But for most, there were strong threads of continuity that linked them to the pre-revolutionary period, and these dominated their creative activities and attitudes towards Soviet power.

The October revolution had given fresh impetus to cultural life, with a great flowering of the arts. But it also created difficulties. The problem was that the chief moving force of the revolution was an oppressed, propertyless, and necessarily uneducated working class. This was contrary to the bourgeois revolution in England or France where the revolutionary class was an educated, cultured class of property owners. The weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie and the general lack of confidence in its capacity to produce social and political change meant that Russian culture, including music, could not express their interests.

True, the Bolshevik leaders were mostly men of the intelligentsia, some possessing a deep cultural understanding of the world. But the cadres consisted mostly of self-educated workers and half-educated people of petty bourgeois background. The party had trained them in politics, organisation and sometimes in Marxist philosophy. But often their approach to cultural affairs showed that a little knowledge could be worse than complete ignorance.

Most intellectuals were hostile to the revolution. Many emigrated. But many also served the new regime as 'specialists'. A few even became enthusiastically converted to the revolution. But most of the intelligentsia were either too conservative in habits or else too intimidated or mediocre to exercise fruitful cultural influence. They reacted badly when placed under the orders of semi-educated or self-educated commissars. On the other hand, many commissars lacked confidence, but tried to cover up their inner uncertainty with bluff and bluster. They believed that Marxism, in which they were not fully educated, provided the master key to all problems of society.

Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders tried to bridge the gulf. But after the devastation of the civil war, the party hierarchy began to free itself from public, workers' control and began to impose its dictates on the scientist, the writer and musician. The slogans of 'proletarian art' and 'proletarian culture' were coined and became popular. The theory arose that just as there had been feudal and capitalist epochs in the history of civilisation, accompanied by their respective cultures, so the proletarian dictatorship would inaugurate its own specific culture permeated by Marxism, internationalism, etc.

This idea appealed to some Bolshevik intellectuals and young workers in whom the revolution had awakened a desire for education but also iconoclastic instincts. Many peasants, too, displayed anarchic hostility towards everything to do with the gentry's way of life, including its 'cultural values'. When the peasant set fire to the landlord's mansion, he often let go up in flames the library and paintings.

Trotsky argued it was harmful to reject the cultural heritage of the bourgeois era: the working class had, on the contrary, to take possession of it and protect it, while viewing it critically. But the working class, as an oppressed, exploited and uneducated class, could not create its own culture: it emerges from bourgeois rule in a condition of cultural pauperism. And insofar as the working class creates a classless, socialist society, so it abolishes itself and sets about creating a truly universal, classless human culture.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European music was transformed by two strands of modernism: the atonal music developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his two leading followers, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and the revolutionary music of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Atonality is music that lacks a tonal centre, that does not depend on the 'diatonic' system of major and minor keys which had been the basis, and had provided the coherence, of European art music since the late 17th century.

SS stavinsky

1. Igor Stravinsky(1882-1971)

Stravinsky's music remains within the tradition of modern tonal or diatonic harmony. But he transformed music through his revolutionary approach to rhythm and his use of dissonant harmonies. In Paris in 1913, the dynamic, rhythmic innovation of his ballet The Rite of Spring was evident. At its first performance, the music provoked derisive laughter which quickly developed into an uproar among the well-heeled French bourgeois audience.

Like Schoenberg, Stravinsky had discovered that increasing chromaticism was loosening the power of diatonic harmony to sustain the movement of music. (Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing diatonic notes and chords of the traditional tonal scale with notes of the chromatic scale, consisting, as it does, of semitones. Chromaticism is in contrast or addition to tonality or diatonicism - the conventional major and minor scales. It became more widely used in the second half of the nineteenth century).

Stravinsky's answer to the problem was different. The Rite of Spring, composed as music to accompany scenes of earthly joy and celestial triumph as understood by the Slavs, showed with almost savage force that rhythm could be a new motivating impetus. The point here is that in European music since the Renaissance, rhythm had been subservient to melody and harmony. In contrast, in The Rite of Spring, especially in the final Sacrificial Dance, it is rhythm that drives the music, with harmony of secondary importance. Stravinsky's earlier career had revealed the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, composer of the symphonic suite Scheherezade. This was notably shown in Stravinsky's ballet suite The Firebird (1909-10), a brilliant and exotic fairy tale.

But his style matures in his second ballet Petrushka where rhythm is becoming the most important structural and expressive element. Petrushka uses a significant number of Russian folk tunes; it also reveals fantastic harmonies associated with the puppets which are based on traditional techniques that produced sharp dissonant combinations (eg, the so-called Petrushka chord).

Again, these dissonances express the intensifying contradictions and dislocation of a society in which advanced capitalist relations prevailed in the urban industrial areas – Petrograd's Putilov engineering factory boasted the most highly developed technology in Europe – alongside semi-feudal relations in the countryside and an absolute monarchy. And, importantly, by the time Firebird and Petrushka were produced, Russia had already experienced the 1905 revolution, the 'dress-rehearsal' for the 1917 revolution.

So, while Stravinsky's music cannot strictly be described as 'music of the Russian revolution' – he himself was hostile to the revolution, left Russia in 1914 and didn't return until 1962 – yet it is music whose dissonances and rhythmic innovations express the dislocation and contradictions of society in the throes of the deepening crisis that were the backdrop to World War One and the revolution itself.

SS Prokofiev and rostropovich

2. Serge Prokoviev (1891-1953)

Prokofiev's life and musical styles fall into three periods: the first being his formative years in Russia, the second (1920-1933) his years in Paris, and the third in which he returned to his homeland. The music of Prokofiev's first period is mostly of the primitive style brought about by the onslaught of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Prokofiev's music of this period utilises driving rhythms and dissonant harmonies, and includes his first three piano concertos and the ballet Ala and Lolly. Also from this period comes the delightful "Classical" Symphony no. 1 in D major, written to convince his critics that he could, when he wanted, compose in the refined style of Mozart.

Prokofiev's second period resulted in such works as the Symphonies Two, Three and Four, two more piano concertos, the satirical opera The Love for Three Oranges (from which comes the famous and jaunty March) and two more ballets. Many of Prokofiev's most famous compositions were written after he had returned to Russia in 1933. These include the children's story for orchestra and narrator, Peter and the Wolf, several film scores, Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular ballets of the twentieth century, and his greatest symphony, the Symphony No. 5.

In keeping with government dictates of the Stalin Regime, this music is more tonal, less dissonant, and conforms to classical styles, making them generally accessible to the public. Even so, Prokofiev was denounced in 1948 by the government as being "too modern" and he composed no more music for the remainder of his life. Prokofiev had composed the gigantic Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, originally intended for performance during the anniversary year but effectively blocked by Platon Kerzhentsev, head of the culture and science department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who demanded less 'incomprehensible music'. The Cantata had to wait until 5th April 1966 for a partial premiere, just over 13 years after the composer's death.

SS shostakovich

3. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Unlike his countrymen Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Shostakovich opted to remain in Russia throughout his life. Stylistically, this meant that the composer was constantly bowing to the decrees of the Stalinist regime, stunting his natural growth in efforts to please the government. Although his vast output is variable in quality, Shostakovich was nevertheless able to compose some powerful and lasting works. He is known primarily for his fifteen symphonies and string quartets, as these are the works that contain much of his most original thought and expression.

The symphonies, in particular, remain his best-known works. Although many of them, in attempts to conform to the decrees of the government, contain pages of inflated heroism and bombast, one or two stand out as perhaps the composer's finest achievements. The Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 for example, shows what the composer could do to please Stalin, while at the same time may have been expressing his true feelings about the difficulties of artistic life in Russia at the time. In the later Symphony No. 10, Shostakovich's irony and anger at the losses the Russian people suffered during World War II is given voice in a relentless, motor-driven scherzo.

However, in the experimental atmosphere of post-revolutionary Russia, the young Shostakovich absorbed features from all the various movements into his music, forging early on his own individual, highly original style which remained with him throughout his life. This style combined rhythmic vitality, a menacing, at times violent atmosphere and frequent satirical allusions, suggesting challenges to the Stalinist regime.

His striking, powerful music won him widespread popularity. But his willingness to experiment was less popular with the Stalinism that was firmly entrenched by the late 1920s. From then until his death in 1975, Shostakovich's relations with the Stalinist authorities was a tense one, in which he struggled to maintain his artistic and political integrity. In this sense, he arguably remained a composer of the revolution.

In 1934, 'socialist realism' became state policy. According to Stalin's representative Zhdanov, its purpose was to limit popular culture to creative expression that promoted Soviet ideals. Because the present and the future were constantly idealised, socialist realism had a sense of forced optimism.

The trigger for the great crisis in Shostakovich's career was his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. The opera was performed in Leningrad and Moscow to great critical and popular success. It tells the story of a 19th century provincial woman driven to murder by the oppression and boredom of her life. It is a gripping drama, with raucous music which is audaciously modern. It was performed over a hundred times in two years, after which Stalin went to see it. A month later, a savage attack on Lady Macbeth and Shostakovich's music in general appeared: he was accused of being a 'formalist', more interested in playing with musical form and structure than in conveying a clear and simple meaning. The cultural experimentation of the previous decade had given way to the conservatism of socialist realism, according to which art had to serve the interests of the new regime.

Nonetheless, the Russian Revolution gave rise to a huge wave of creativity across all the arts, and wrote a new chapter in the history of modern music.

Journal review: Stalin - what does the name stand for?
Thursday, 16 August 2018 18:24

Journal review: Stalin - what does the name stand for?

Published in Visual Arts

Andrew Warburton reviews the Spring issue of the Marxist journal Crisis and Critique, which focuses on art, music and culture in the Soviet Union under Stalin. 

One sign of the enormity of Joseph Stalin’s influence on the international labour movement throughout the twentieth century is that intellectuals on the left continue to debate the lessons to be learned from his regime. These lessons concern not only the political experience of totalitarianism but also the cultural phenomenon of “socialist realism” and the nature of communist art. One of the most significant analyses of Stalinist culture in recent times, reprinted in 2011 by Verso Books, is Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism. Groys' book has provided, for many people, a completely original understanding of twentieth century communist aesthetics. This is why the Spring issue of the Marxist political journal Crisis and Critique - titled “Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For?” - comes at such an opportune time. This article is a review of that issue.

A troubling question that may arise for some readers approaching this topic for the first time is why the journal’s editors would publish an issue with such a provocative title. One might expect conservative or liberal-minded critics to react to the question with a straightforward condemnation of Stalin. The explanation the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, give is that reductive interpretations of Stalinist culture - for instance, approaching that culture as “pathological,” “unintelligible,” or “irrational” - fail to adequately explain its driving force. By offering an immanent explanation of the “political rationality” of Stalinism, they hope to arrive at a clearer understanding of a culture that includes, among its contradictory effects, an apparently irrational campaign of terror and an enormous increase in Russia’s productive forces.

This approach can be seen, in many ways, as an extension of Boris Groys’ own analysis of Stalinism. Similar to Ruda and Hamza, Groys describes his approach as an “immanent” one and contrasts it with historical work that explains Stalinism through a “detailed chronology of historical facts.” For Groys, the latter approach results in misunderstandings of communist culture’s “inherent logic” and gives rise to an “outside observer’s fascination with the ceremonies of the centralized Soviet bureaucratic apparatus.” According to Ruda and Hamza, this fascination also encourages a limited representation of Stalinism as pathological or irrational and prevents an understanding of its internal dynamic. In contrast to this approach, the authors mentioned here begin with the assumption that all the features of Stalinist culture - even its excesses - must be available to analysis.

For anyone not familiar with Groys’ thesis, Alexei Penzin’s essay in this collection - Stalin Beyond Stalin: A Paradoxical Hypothesis of Communism - offers a precise summary and critique of both The Total Art of Stalinism and another book by Groys focusing specifically on communism: The Communist Postscript. In fact, as Penzin shows, Groys’ thesis on communist art is deceptively simple: rather than portraying Stalinism as a betrayal of the revolution and of modernist forms of art, as many critics and historians tend to do, Groys considers “socialist realism” to be their consummation.

His reasoning for this is that whereas the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s wanted to use art to remake society completely from scratch (i.e., it wanted art to become a productive force that would break with every aesthetic and social formation that went before), Stalin and the socialist realist “regime of art” turned this dream into a reality by remaking society as a “totalized” aesthetic form. As Groys points out:

Under Stalin the dream of the avant grade was in fact fulfilled and the life of society was organized in monolithic artistic forms, though of course not those that the avant-garde itself had favored.

It is difficult, in the light of this thesis, to think of socialist realism as a simply “reactionary” form of art, because it contains within it - in a more radically politicized form - all the lessons of the Russian avant-garde. Whatever one’s thoughts on Stalinism, many of the authors in the present issue of Crisis and Critique cannot help but respond to Groys’ insistence on its artistic and ideological power.

Tatlins Tower maket 1919 year

Tatlin’s Tower (1919) by Vladimir Tatlin, avant-garde constructivist design.

Although this issue of Crisis and Critique concerns itself primarily with politics, one essay, in particular, responds to the call for an immanent exploration of Stalinist art and culture in a way that aligns with Groys’ project. The essay - Who is Stalin? What is he?” by Lars T. Lih - pays particular attention to the mythical dimensions of two cantatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Hail to Stalin and Song of the Forests.

Rather than explaining the Stalinist features of these compositions as reactionary impositions on the composers’ otherwise “authentic” careers, Lih chooses - like Groys - to analyse the Stalinist integrity of these artworks by “taking Stalin into account.” This means placing the librettos in the context of Russian literary history and understanding Stalin, both the “mythical figure” and the “actual individual,” as the latest representative in a succession of Russian leaders, including Peter the Great and Boris Godunov. Song of the Forests, for instance, portrays Stalin in the act of mobilising the people for a great “reforestation project.” According to Lih, this representation contrasts Stalin deliberately with Pushkin’s character of Peter the Great in a poem of the same name. Whereas Pushkin’s Peter was an imperialist whose “great project is to remove a forest associated with darkness and primitiveness,” Stalin emerges as an anti-imperialist builder of peace whose “main motive in the cantata [is] ‘happiness for the narrod [i.e., the people].’”

Prokofiev’s Hail to Stalin, on the other hand, uses the “folklore-like expressions of the Soviet people” to portray Stalin in different states of mythic transcendence drawn, apparently, from ancient traditions. In the line “the sun now shines differently to us on earth… it is with Stalin in the Kremlin,” Lih sees Stalin as “a sort of vegetation god who guarantees fertility and growth.” Amid all this, the leader is portrayed, for Lih, as a “sacred” figure who demonstrates the ability to access a “sacred truth” and mediate between this truth and the life of his people; he does this, however, through a Marxist understanding of the laws of history, not through any divine communication.

Prokofiev’s Zdravitsa. 

The implication of Lih’s readings supports Groys’ thesis that Stalinist culture offers its consumers access to a mythology that transcends economic necessity and touches the transhistorical. As Lih points out, the Stalin one finds in these works is

an entryway into myth - a symbol whose meanings can only be grasped through knowledge of the Stalin of history, but whose ramifications far transcend him.

In Stalin’s lifetime, critics and philosophers already understood that the overcoming of the contradictions of capitalism would inevitably lead to a radically different approach to the distinction between aesthetics and economics. In 1938, the Soviet Marxist Mikhail Lifshitz explained that the capitalist mode of production had brought the “inimical relationship… between the poetical play of fantasy and the prose of life” to its fullest possible tension. By alienating workers from their labour, capitalism emphasized the sharp distinction between work and play to an intolerable degree.

With this in mind, Lih’s insights into the mythic dimension of Stalinism are clarified: Stalinist art works derive their power from portraying the Soviet Union’s socialized mode of production - in this case, the reforestation project of Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests - as transporting workers out of the “prosaic” level of existence and thereby resolving the contradiction between a reality reduced to economics and the desire for mythic existence. The consumer of the Stalinist artwork aesthetically attains such an existence: his life is no longer limited to economic exchange and his aesthetic senses are liberated from the compartmentalized world of “play.”

As Lifshitz points out:

Communist society removes… the abstract contradiction between ‘work and pleasure’… Together with the abolition of classes and the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between physical and spiritual labour, comes that all-sided development of the whole individual which the greatest social thinkers hitherto could only dream about.

Stakhanovite

Stakhanovite from the OGPU plant (1931-1939) by Vitaly Tikhov.

Many of the authors in the present issue of Crisis and Critique demonstrate an acute awareness of the power of ideology, which is really another word for “myth.” This awareness, of course, places great importance on art, literature, and aesthetics as bearers of ideology. However, the authors also seem ambivalent about the role of ideology in communist politics, an ambivalence that’s heightened, of course, by the awareness that so many communist experiments have degenerated into ideologically repressive regimes (Stalin being the quintessential example). The fact that many of the writers seem to believe that the existence of democratic, working-class organizations will never produce meaningful changes without some larger political - and ideological - oversight only heightens the sense of ambivalence.

Jean-Claude Milner, for example, in his article “The Prince and the Revolutionary,” points out that Lenin’s gravest “political mistake” was that he believed too much in Marxist economics and failed to understand the importance of a political imaginary. Believing he possessed full knowledge of Russia’s economic situation and that an “affirmative doctrine of economic management” would be enough to build socialism in the country, he failed to grasp the sheer level of ideological manipulation required. It was therefore left to Stalin to create a political mythology capable of transforming society through fiat. One only has to return to our earlier discussion of Groys and Lih to understand the aesthetic character of this mythology.

Other writers in the collection dismiss Stalinism as not introducing anything original to the Marxist-Leninist tradition. The writer and Trotskyist activist Paul Le Blanc learns songs from Maoists in India but finds that the aspiration these comrades express - “we demand our share of wealth earned by our sweat!” - bears no essential relationship to the “Stalinist reference points” they use. The essence of the Maoists’ songs, for Le Blanc, is “far more consistent with core beliefs… found in such revolutionaries as Marx, Lenin, and Krupskaya.” In other words, in contrast to Lih, Milner, and Groys, Stalinism is reduced to a husk containing a properly revolutionary core, and any original aesthetics produced under Stalin could only be in the service of reaction.

Le Blanc’s dismissal of Stalin finds support from Louis Proyect in his review of Crisis and Critique’s new issue on the blog The Unrepentant Marxist. Proyect describes some of the authors in “Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For?” as “crypto-Stalinists,” saying they’re “more interested in what Stalin said than than what he did.” He goes on to argue that “abandoning the rigid dichotomies of crypto-Stalinism is a major task facing the left.” However, the role played by language and aesthetics in Groys and in the writings of the so-called crypto-Stalinists in Crisis and Critique suggests that a fundamental disagreement exists between Proyect’s Marxism and the postmodern dialectics of the former writers. Their interest in “what Stalin said” and in official Soviet ideology arises from an emphasis on the role of language and aesthetics in the shaping of history.

Hence, for Groys, socialist realism may resolve the problem of art’s subordination to market forces and might even allow art to accede to its true power as art. But that doesn’t make Stalinism palatable. Equally, the unpalatability of Stalinism does not mean that philosophers should simply stop questioning what art would look like if it were freed from market forces. With the Soviet Union being our only model of a society in which the market was completely abolished, this question is inevitably going to come up against Stalinism. By dismissing those who attempt to understand Stalinism and who see it, theoretically, as an “answer” to a philosophical dilemma, Proyect surely fails to understand the dilemma itself.

Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For? is a varied and profound collection, which adds to our understanding of Stalinist culture. The willingness to approach Stalinism from the “inside” is daring, and yet, it mustn’t be avoided simply out of fear of irrationality or “evil.” Without an understanding of the rationality that motivates seemingly irrational events, communist projects of the future will be impoverished.

An example of such impoverishment and fear can be seen in the response of the tabloid press to Jeremy Corbyn’s attendance at a May Day demonstration this year, where, it was reported, some marchers carried an image of Stalin. When a Daily Mirror journalist asked Corbyn if he’d “condemn” the Stalinist marchers, the implication was that any “right-thinking” person must immediately condemn anything associated with the name of “Stalin.” But how can the act of condemning something—without giving its associations sufficient thought—ever be an example of “right thinking”? Thankfully, Corbyn didn’t rise to the hysteria, saying simply: “You can’t stop people holding them up. I’d rather they didn’t.”