Monday, February 29, 2016

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

Stalin was a paranoid and cruel dictator that killed millions of Russians crippling his economy, government, Arts, and military long before World War II even broke out. While the Germans laid siege to Leningrad during the war, it was Stalin that initiated the "first siege" during his Great Terror and Five-Year Plan. Like most despots, he murdered anyone that disagreed with him, repressed free will, free press, violated human rights, and ruled with terror. Popularity and capitalist notions could get you killed or sent to Gulag labor camps. Stalin trusted no one (except Hitler who betrayed him). He felt it was his right to enact terror - he was an institutionalized psychopathic leader. Through music, Russian composer  Dmitri Shostakovich, was able to give the people a voice to express their feelings and emotions in a state where it was not allowed.

Stalin was trying to break down social structure to the point that people were denied their souls and aligned with the party. Through alienation, loneliness, and terror he tried to create a classless society and in the effort tore down the moral fabric. Shostakovich's symphonies allowed listeners a respite and not only pride in their Arts but an understanding that was unique to their own experience. And Shostakovich managed to hold on to his humanity even though Stalin attacked him twice and had him publicly denounced. Shostakovich remained a kind man who cared for the students he taught at the Conservatory and his family for his whole life. He was a complex mixture of defiance and compliance with the Party. He easily could have ended up murdered like so many of his other friends, but he survived even when the odds looked bad.

The first part of the book shows the experimentation that Lenin allowed before his death and Shostakovich's extraordinary gift in music at the piano and later writing of symphonies. When Lenin died and Stalin's Five-Year Plan and Great Terror steamrolled through the Arts, Shostakovich's wildly popular 4th Symphony was marked as being too individualistic. A smear campaign by the Party and the death of his other successful friends, led to him fearing for his life. He wrote symphonies that reflected more of the Party's liking, but he also had discordant sections that spoke to the people and reflected the repression of will by the government. Stalin was always leery of Shostakovich and his popularity. It is somewhat of a mystery that he let him live.

The second part of the book focuses on the horrors of the siege of Leningrad that lasted for three years. The desperate and terrifying situation is reflected in Shostakovich's 7th Symphony that he wrote as German bombs pounded the city mercilessly. Shostakovich ended up escaping to Moscow after a year-and-a-half and times got even worse for the Leningrad people. As the winter temperatures plunged to minus forty degrees people died of exposure and hunger by the thousands. While some resorted to cannibalism, others created communities that cared for one another. The library stayed open for people to read and the orchestra got together to play Shostakovich's 7th Symphony when he completed it in Moscow. The concert was a turning point for the people in Leningrad for it told the Germans that they could not break the Russian spirit and it was their identity. While Stalin used the 7th Symphony as propaganda to inspire national pride, the Russians saw it as Art as a way of self-expression.

Any good history book shows the struggles the author has with its sources and whether or not they are truthful or exaggerated or false. M.T. Anderson does this with exhaustive notes and logic to create a solid glimpse of Russian history. Last year I read the book, "The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia," by Candace Fleming that explains the downfall of the 300-year-rule by Russian tsars. The books combined show how the severe economic distress, ineffective political, and judiciary system made it ripe for the Russian revolution and rise of despotic rulers such as Lenin and Stalin.

5 Smileys

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