Shostakovich and Soviet Society

Not all Soviet artists were either craven toadies or gulaged dissidents. Not all Soviet officials were bureaucratic oppressors. There was a sincere effort on the part of many, including Dmitri Shostakovich (who was both a Soviet official and a Soviet artist), to work out ideological positions about music and the arts.


Given a completely socialist system, the state is the equivalent of the composer's employer. What composers are to be paid for producing what kind of works? What gets performed when by who? Of course, for works that have been around for a long time the Soviets went by the same track record everyone else did, which is why the Tchaikovsky 5th got played a lot on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But for new works, there needed to be a system for making such decisions.

Of course, any such bureaucratic system contains much inefficiency, error, prejudice, and corruption. (So does the West's worshiped Market. Which of these produces more or better music you can decide for yourself.)

While Shostakovich certainly despised some of these bureaucrats (as artists always have done everywhere) he was a dedicated socialist and sincerely tried to make the system work as well as possible. That he was able to turn the poorly expressed criticism of people whose musical understanding was infinitely inferior to his own into a work of genius like the Fifth Symphony is a demonstration of that dedication, that sincerity, and that genius.

As with all great artists: At times he tried to push the envelope, at times he overestimated what his society was willing to accept, and at times he suffered for it. Artists are difficult for their societies to understand, and the paranoid often mistakenly fear them to be disloyal. Those on the other side wish to imagine it were so. This is not a new or strange story!

As has been said before, it is hugely ironic that, of all things, Soviet music should attain a cult popularity among certain right-wingers of today based on the imaginary anti-Sovietism of Soviet composers. What is doubly ironic is that, thanks to the school of Socialist Realism, Soviet music is the only 20th century music they (think they) can understand!