Saturday, January 15, 2011

Censoring symbols will not change history either

One of the great advantages of having a blog is that one can take one's fierce arguments on other forums and turn them into a posting. Naturally, one's opponents can respond though in this case, I suspect, they or, rather, she will not. But if she does, she will be welcome.

Readers of this blog know well how I feel about the inequality between the opprobrium that is expressed by all sorts of people about the Nazi regime and about the Communist regimes (as there were several and some are still in place). I have written about it, have spoken about it and never fail to sneer at the morons who wear t-shirts with Che Guevara the mass murderer, the hammer and sickle, symbol of mass murder or Lenin the founder of that mass murder. But, the other side of that is the need to mention Communism when it is relevant to some event or activity or artistic performance in the way Nazism is always mentioned.

Not so long ago I wrote about in connection with plays about Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler. In the posting I postulated that one day the comments made about Strauss would be made about Shostakovich
There is, yet another way of testing our attitudes. Suppose the discussion quoted at the beginning had not been about Richard Strauss but about Dmitry Shostakovich. “He wrote glorious music but what a f***ing Stalinist.” How does that sound? Yet, it was true. Shostakovich wrote music to order, agreed to censorship, watched silently as his colleagues were persecuted and arrested without, to my knowledge, saving anybody. Perhaps he could not. It is not, precisely, for me to judge. But it is something to remember.
The debate on the subject was also about Shostakovich but took rather a curious turn.

The discussion started with Dan Mitchell, a man whose economic acumen and pronouncements I have quoted on this blog repeatedly, posting on his blog that he was slightly surprised to find that the hammer and sickle, a symbol of a regime, as he rightly said, which had murdered "nearly 62 million people between 1917 and 1987" in advertising a performance of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.
Is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra really oblivious to the monstrous nature of Soviet Communism? Would they feature a swastika in an ad for concert featuring the music of a German composer who produced works in 1938? I hope not, just like I can’t imagine an architecture exhibit on the work of Albert Speer featuring a swastika (other than in a way designed to connote evil). Nothing positive should be associated with horrid regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
As a matter of fact it would be impossible to have an architecture exhibit of the work of Albert Speer without featuring a swastika in a purely factual rather than emotional manner. And yes, almost all German musicians who stayed in the country have the word Nazism mentioned somewhere during a concert of their music or any programme about them. That is, precisely, what I object to. Why should we not be told the truth about Shostakovich?

I replied to the blog and then re-posted the reply on another forum:
This could be justified by saying that Shostakovich wrote under a Soviet regime and was, largely, a loyal Soviet artist (well, he had to be – that is not a criticism). Cutting out the hammer and sickle would be like purging Tom Sawyer of the “n” word. You cannot change history by changing words you don’t like. And yes, I think a programme about Albert Speer will have to feature the swastika. Richard Strauss is a bit trickier.
On the other forum (which is private so I cannot link to it) I was attacked for mixing art and politics to which I replied by saying that in the Soviet Union the two were mixed. In fact, this particular symphony is particularly political.

In 1936, as the Great Purge was taking off, Shostakovich had fallen from favour and had been severely criticized for two of his works, particularly the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He was under pressure to produce simpler music that could be called Soviet and patriotic. His immediate patron in the party hierarchy, Marshal Tukhachevsky, was arrested (and hideously tortured in prison though that was not known at the time) and shot with numerous other officers of the Red Army in 1937. Shostakovich's friends and colleagues were under threat or were being arrested. He, understandably, gave in to the pressure with alacrity. The Fifth Symphony was performed in the summer of 1937 at the height of the Great Purge, was a huge success and ensured Shostakovich's place in the Soviet arts hierarchy. The idea that there is no politics attached to that piece of music is balderdash.

When I presented some of this facts, I was asked by the lady mentioned above whether I had ever lived behind the iron curtain, a stupid question in my opinion. Nevertheless, I could reply in all honesty that I had been born and brought up there. I did not add that my father is still known, many years after his death, as one of the leading experts on the Soviet Union and that I have written on the subject myself. She seemed a little taken aback by the fact that she was not the only one who had lived behind the iron curtain and by my insistence that neither her nor my biography is of any significance in this case. It's Shostakovich's biography that matters, the facts of the arts in the Soviet Union and the peculiar situation there in the mid-thirties. Just as you cannot erase the nastiness of slavery by deciding that you are too sensitive ever to read nasty words, so you cannot change the facts that the Soviet system was appallingly nasty and interfered heavily in the arts by censoring its symbol and producing it only as an emotional hate picture. The facts matter. In fact, as Stalin used to say, "facts are stubborn things". (He did, honestly.)

ADDENDUM: Some time ago I wrote about the uselessness and, indeed, harmfulness of arguments on the basis of "I was there". Here it is.


  1. According to Hans Swarovski, whom we knew when he was a conductor in Glasgow, because my mother was from Vienna, Strauss was certainly NOT a Nazi. He told us he worked with Strauss on Cappriccio, RS's final opera.

    I have observed that the imbalance between anti-Nazi and anti Soviet propaganda is purely because Russia was on the winning side - history is written by the victors.

    Am I right that the vile anti-apardheit propaganda was also Soviet-inspired ? Because every word of that could easily have been about the Russians too, but never was.

    Alan Douglas

  2. Helen, a great post. I'm here via Dan Mitchell. I have an opposite opinion, more or less (see here:
    It's not about censoring symbols because no Soviet icon is attached to this symphony. It's about how one chooses to present a work of art to American audience. Yes, the 5th was a product of its time, but because of Shostakovitch's personal history and because it was understood to be a reflection on life at the time of terror, using the symbol of the oppressor to promote it strikes me as plain wrong.

  3. I think the anti-apartheid writing is a bit more complicated than that, Alan. The Soviets used to say "if only we were as oppressed as the South African blacks". Actually, they knew very little beyond what was written in Pravda about apartheid. Agree about Strauss but that myth seems eternal.

    Eots, we shall just have to agree to disagree.