View all news

Shostakovich 2006

26 February 2007

Is there any evidence that Shostakovich really was a Soviet dissident?

During Shostakovich’s lifetime (1906–1975) the idea of his being a dissident was never really seriously mooted; passing speculation by Western music critics and broadcasters was as close as it ever got. It was only after his death that, at least for the Western media, Shostakovich ceased to be a successful Soviet composer and became instead an embittered dissident. The event that provoked this shift in popular opinion was a book written by a young Soviet émigré musicologist, Solomon Volkov. The book in question was Testimony, published in 1979. This was claimed to be Shostakovich’s dictated memoirs and proclaimed that every one of his symphonies written after 1936 was a ‘tombstone’, commemorating the victims of Stalinism and Soviet power.

As the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 recedes into ever-distant memory, the heat of the controversy over Testimony is beginning to cool. For the generations of students and scholars who have no memory of the Soviet Union, it will be increasingly difficult to understand why some writers invested so much in defending Testimony’s authenticity.

For regardless of our own personal politics, our way of hearing Shostakovich’s music, or our respect for some of those who have chosen to support Volkov, Testimony is a fake.

 The allure of his dissidence has proved far greater than the inconvenient facts of Volkov’s betrayal of the aging composer.

Did Shostakovich meet with a young Russian musicologist in secret, confide in him anecdotes and opinions that he kept from his family and closest friends, and instruct him, as was claimed, to publish the book ‘after my death’? Since there is no record of anything other than a few brief meetings, we shall never know. Did Shostakovich say any of those things to Volkov? He may well have done; but there is no written or taped record of their conversations. The shorthand notes Volkov claimed to have taken have never materialised. What did materialise was a book neatly organised into chapters with the first page of each chapter signed ‘Read. D. Shostakovich’ in the composer’s hand. Volkov emigrated to America, showed his publisher the ‘evidence’ of his collusion with Shostakovich, and the rest is history. It is now almost impossible for us to imagine a pre-Testimony Shostakovich: the allure of his dissidence has proved far greater than the inconvenient facts of Volkov’s betrayal of the aging composer.

‘Betrayal’ is a strong word. But when the American scholar Laurel Fay finally accessed the original Russian manuscript of Testimony in 2000, she found that Shostakovich’s signature appeared on pages where only previously published anecdotes and reminiscences by the composer appeared. Not a single word on those pages had not already been published openly in the Soviet Union. The shocking line on the first page of Testimony’s Chapter One – ‘Looking back, I see nothing but mountains of corpses’ – was printed on a separate page, slotted in before the signed one, with pagination accordingly altered. What is more, the signed page was counter-sunk to appear like the opening page of a chapter; Shostakovich had clearly believed he was signing something utterly innocent: harmless reminiscences about friends and colleagues that he had already published anyway. 

Fay suspected something of the sort had occurred when she first read Testimony in 1979 and recognised passages from the Soviet journal Sovetskaya Muzyka. She challenged Volkov to respond; he never did. It took almost 20 years for Fay to prove that her original suspicion was correct, and now there are comparatively few who would seriously contend that Testimony was exactly what Volkov had originally claimed: Shostakovich’s dictated memoirs, read, sanctioned and signed by him. But since then the goalposts have been moved. Too much has been invested by too many prominent publishers, Russian émigrés and music journalists to accept that Testimony is literally nothing but a fake. Having believed in it for a quarter of a century, how can the West see a Shostakovich that has not been reconstructed by Volkov? And so the issue of its authenticity has been quietly shelved while those who previously insisted upon it now maintain that, regardless of how it came into being, it still presents the ‘essential truth’ about Shostakovich. Can there ever really be any such thing, though? What was the ‘essential truth’ about Mozart, about Stravinsky, about Beethoven?

Shostakovich had clearly believed he was signing something utterly innocent

At the Music Department’s Shostakovich centenary conference in September 2006, the archivist Leonid Maksimenkov revealed how Shostakovich wrote to several members of the post-war Politburo requesting a new apartment, substantial sums of money and even a trophy German car; hardly the actions of a secret dissident. There were even greater revelations on the musical front: the chief archivist of the Shostakovich Family Archive in Moscow, Olga Digonskaya, described how she had found parts of two abandoned comic opera projects from the 1930s, as well as a wealth of sketch material that sheds new light on familiar works.

There will be many more such discoveries over the next decade as Russian archives continue to be explored, throwing up revelations about both the composer and the man. With so much still to discover, we cannot afford the luxury of imagining we know all about Shostakovich from Volkov’s Testimony or from his recent book, subtitled ‘The Extraordinary Relationship between the Great Composer and the Evil Dictator’. We hardly need fake memoirs to sensationalise Shostakovich’s career; the facts are infinitely more exciting than lies and spin; and it will, in the end, be the facts that remain.

Department of Music / Dr Pauline Fairclough

Edit this page