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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 24, New Delhi, May 29, 2021

Music Had to Be in Tune With the Soviet Party Line: Composer Dmitri Shostakovich Paid A Price - a short note | Harsh Kapoor

Saturday 29 May 2021, by Harsh Kapoor


by Harsh Kapoor

Music at the service of ideology and party bureaucracy in the Soviet Union

The Russian music composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St Petersburg. In 1919, when he was 13 years old, Shostakovich joined the Petrograd Conservatory. After his graduation, he worked as a trained concert pianist and composer on contracts for all kinds of state entities that existed in the USSR.

He was a very active part of the progressive current of musicians of the Assotsiatsiia sovremennoi muzyki - Association of Contemporary Musicians (ASM) who were modernists and Avante Garde as opposed to the more politically powerful but conservative Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) [1]. RAPM dominated Soviet musical life during the years of the first five-year Plan (1928–32) and were hostile towards modern Western music or abstract music. [2] Shostakovich passionately defended ASM against illiterate attacks from RAPM.

(Youmans - Tea for Two / Tahiti Trot | 1927 arr. by Shostakovich)

( ♪ Film music in Golden Mountains (1931) by Dmitri Shostakovich | (Soviet silent drama film directed by Sergei Yutkevich)

From 1929 to 1931 he worked with Workers’ Youth Theatre, also known as TRAM (the Russian acronym for "Teatr Rabochey Molodyozhi") was a Soviet proletarian youth theatre of the late 1920s and early 1930s, on Liteiny Prospekt, in Leningrad. This provided him some ideological protection from RAPM.

RAPM was wound up in 1932 and making way for the Communist party-controlled Union of Soviet Composers (USC) which came under the Ministry of Culture. [3] If you were a trained music composer who could write opera music and or symphonies you had to go through the Union of composers for acceptance of your Musical Score for publication or job contracts. That was the time when Stalin drove the creation of Soviet mass culture, 1932–1936. The Communist Party’s commissars on art & music ruled on the direction of music-making and its use. Musicians had to be aware that they worked in the service of the state and supposedly their own organisation the Union of Soviet Composers [4] was there to keep them in check (as was the case of most Trade Unions in Soviet Times).

Musicians did not have carte blanche to perform exactly what they wanted. It is difficult to say what decided, what was allowed or not under Soviet music policy. Communist Party interference in the selection of repertoire did not always involve an official piece of paper but decisions got taken by low and mid-ranking, regional apparatchiks depending on their taste, etc. It wasn’t all ideological always, there were behind the scene internal rivalries in the control of state funding, approvals for certain works, etc. The overarching outward rationale presented was implementing high-sounding Socialist Realism into music.

From his early days, he was influenced by the work of Gustave Mahler, Bach, Beethoven among many other exponents of Chamber Music, and modern innovators like Igor Stavinsky (whose work straddled between neo-classicism to serialism) [5]. Chamber music was politically out of fashion in times of socialist realism and Stravinsky wasn’t looked at favourably either. He like many artists, authors, musicians in the Soviet Times had complicated and tense relations with the authorities who were driven by a logic of socialist realism. The socialist state tightly controlled the realm of art and here all art had to be educational and such that peasants and workers could understand and appreciate it. Music had to be in the mass song style, to be lively and avoid the cosmopolitan and western-style modernism e.g. music of Igor Stravinsky was to be rejected as in the 1940s. [6] The prototype of this Soviet-style music were march rhythms and tunes for parades and ascending melodic forms. Shostakovich’s Festive Overture written in 1947 is an example of a work that met the requirements of Socialist Realism.

There came to exist a climate of intimidation in which Shostakovich was forced to work. He had to produce politically acceptable music (but it is estimated by musicologists that irony and satire were also elements in his musical work that reflected some resistance).

Lady Macbeth of the MtsenskShostakovich was 26 when his opera, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo Uezda (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District) was performed in 1934 and ran for nearly two years at Malyi Opera Theater, Leningrad, and also in Bolshoi in Moscow. On 26 January 1936 Stalin with some top party czars in tow came to watch the Opera during its performance in Moscow but left abruptly from the audience before the end of the performance. Two days later his opera was denounced as formalist in late January 1936 editorial in Pravda —the tightly controlled party paper— [7] (probably written by Stalin) as ’Muddle Instead of Music’ and he was declared an ’antinarodnaya’ (anti-people) — almost a death sentence during the times of Great Terror. It is important to note that in early 1936, Shostakovich was one among the targets of the Party, others were the well-known writer Boris Pilnyak, Soviet theatre director, actor Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the film director Sergei Eisenstein [8], in the battle against formalism and naturalism in Soviet culture. [9] Not all of them survived [10]

The Original Russian Editorial of January 1936 in Pravda - the Communist Party Paper (probably written by Stalin) as 'Muddle Instead of Music'Caption for Image: The Original Russian ’Muddle Instead of Music’ Editorial of January 1936 in Pravda - the Communist Party Newspaper (probably written by Stalin)

Shostakovich faced a difficult time during the peak of the Stalin years. During the Stalinist purge of the party and the intelligentsia, he saw close friends, colleagues, and also family members arrested, some were shot or sent off to camps. in 1937-38 he started to teach at the Petrograd Conservatory.

Shostakovich was able to survive under Stalin as he tried to adapt to official demands and the party rules. His musical work began to focus on folk songs of Russia, and also war music much in the favour with Stalin. Many composers began to ‘play it safe’ took the form of folk-music inspired works, one example is, attempts by Mieczyslaw Weinberg in his Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47 Rhapsody on Slavonic Themes

In 1941 he was accepted in the party’s good books by the success of his patriotic “Leningrad” Symphony against fascism.

The fear of reprimand while crafting music under the constant watch of the state organs somewhat eased during the war- years of 1941-45

In 1946 Stalin delegated Andrei Zhdanov the Leningrad party boss —who had earlier made a mark for his role in Stalin’s purge of Leningrad Party organisation of 1937 [11] to direct the Soviet Union’s cultural policy and he came up with a whole doctrine —Zhdanovshchina— on how to purify communist art and culture. [12]

But, personal displeasure based on whims and preferences of Party czars would be dressed up in ideological clothing to justify certain works going out of favour.

Something very dramatic along these lines happened on January 5, 1948. Stalin’s distaste for a specific work—Vano Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship [13] had probably more to do with the supposedly wrong choice of music for the Lezginka dance sequence — but it escalated into a campaign to go after all composers displaying ‘undesirable’ traits.

In 1948, Shostakovich, along with Sergei Prokofiev and other composers [14], got into trouble with the Communist Party bosses and were denounced for formalism and cosmopolitanism and not being accessible to the public —themes present in the cultural decree formulated by Andrei Zhdanov. [15]. This meant that much of his work, and also the other composers named by the Central Committee was banned [16] and most privileges he had were withdrawn. He got much less work creating major financial difficulties

Shostakovich had to face all kinds of humiliation in 1949 he was made to deliver speeches denouncing some of his own work and, particularly, that of Igor Stravinsky, whose work he admired. He hoped his speeches lacking any conviction and read in a deadpan tone would be understood as having been forced on him by the state.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 Shostakovich got rehabilitated as an artist and felt safe.

1955 Film Poster for First Echelon / Первый эшелон (Pervyy eshelon) directed by Mikhail Kalatozov.

In better times post-Stalin in 1955 Shostakovich wrote “The Second Waltz” it is a part of the Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra – a suite in eight movements which was composed for a Soviet feature film The First Echelon / Первый эшелон (Pervyy eshelon) directed by Mikhail Kalatozov.

The Second Waltz, Op. 99a is performed in the first video below by André Rieu, Johann Strauss Orchestra

The original 1955 performance from the film by Kalatozov

Nikita Khrushchev who had taken over as the General Secretary of the ruling party after the death of Stalin, delivered his Secret Speech to the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, where he denounced the excesses committed under Stalin. A process of de-Stalinisation had begun. In the aftermath of the speech — intellectuals hoped that a new era of openness and liberalisation in arts, in the media would take hold in the Soviet Union. A number of novels and short stories that could not have been published in the past decades years of Soviet rule did emerge. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovlch, and Yevtushenko’s "Babi Yar" got published and none of these showed the State and the Party in good light. In December 1962, an art exhibition was held in Moscow, and Khrushchev, in the company of other Party leaders, attended the exhibition. A number of abstract works were exhibited; and when Khrushchev caught sight of them, he threw a fit. That is when Khrushchev decided to tighten literary policy, he had to keep hardliners at bay. [17]

The Kruschev years were comparatively easier for many writers and musicians but the bureaucratic controls continued, the ideology of socialist realism lived on —and absurd excesses of the regime continued as a result. At the Second Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers’ in 1958, Nikita Khrushchev put forward his definition of socialist realist music as:

The method of socialist realism demands from Soviet composers a systematic struggle with aesthetic over-refinement, lifeless individualism, and formalism, as well as with naturalistic primitiveness in art. Soviet musicians are called upon to reflect reality in moving, beautiful, poetic images, permeated with optimism and lofty humaneness, the pathos of construction, and the spirit of collectivism—all that distinguishes the Soviet people’s perception of the world. [18]

1960, Dmitri Shostakovich got pushed in a roundabout way to join the Communist Party and he had to play ball for Nikita Kruschev and the officialdom and all the constraints that came with it — getting used for state propaganda and he had to put up with the misuse of his name.

In 1965 he firmly spoke up for Joseph Brodsky who had been sentenced to five years of exile and signed an appeal along with the poetess Anna Akhmatova, and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. The appeal was published in France and in the West. We know that was his first such public stance and it was tolerated. We were in the midst of the Cold War and soon he was told by culture czars from the party to note that such action by him will give impetus to dissident circles. The message was don’t make trouble.

We know from observers and historians of the late Soviet period that the official newspaper Pravda would carry public statements with names of prominent writers, musicians, and artists as signatories without ever consulting them. Shostakovich was shown as a signatory to a statement demanding the release of the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was imprisoned by Greece’s right-wing regime from 1967 to 1970. This was politically good for state propaganda.

In 1973, he was named as a signatory to a letter denouncing the dissident Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. Similarly, he was shown as denouncing Solzhenitsyn but all this reflects the farcical face of the Soviet system that extracted a price for survival from the intelligentsia for being left in relative peace.

In the 1970s, Zhukovka, in the outskirts of Moscow, had dachas (officially allotted country homes) of people from the intelligentsia many who knew and interacted frequently; and so you have the dacha of Shostakovich adjacent to that of his good friend and famous Conductor Rostropovich (with Alexander Solzhenitsyn living in its outhouse), right next door lived Scientist Andrei Sakharov. Shostakovich wanted to write an opera on the house of Solzhenitsyn. Shostakovich interacted with and was friendly with all of them and yet he was presented as having denounced them. Total Lies! [19] Fiction, was presented as reality when that suited the Soviet state.

Shostakovich died in 1975 and his son sought political asylum in 1981


  • Dmitri Chostakovitch. Lettres à un ami: correspondence avec Isaak Glikman. Albin Michel, 1993.
  • Dimitri Chostakovitch, Fayard 1994
  • Antoine Baudin, Le realisme socialiste sovietique de la periode jdanovienne (1947-1953): Les arts plastiques et leurs institutions (Bern: Peter Lang, 1997)
  • Leonid Heller, “A World of Prettiness: Socialist Realism and Its Aesthetic Categories” in Socialist Realism Without Shores, edited by Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 51-75
  • Krebs, Stanley. Soviet Composers and the Development of Soviet Music. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970)
  • David G. Tompkins, Composing the Party Line: Music and Politics in Early Cold War Poland and East Germany. (Purdue University Press, 2013)
  • Patrick Zuk. Nikolay Myaskovsky and the Events of 1948, in: Music & Letters, Vol. 93, No. 1 (February 2012), pp. 61-85 - Oxford University Press
  • John Amis’s documentary ’Shostakovich: Music in the Shadow of Stalin’, BBC Radio 3.
  • The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin Directed by Larry Weinstein (1997 | 80 minutes) Bullfrog Films, Box 149, Oley PA 19547, USA (

[1Amy Nelson (2017) The Struggle for Proletarian Music: RAPM and the Cultural Revolution, Slavic Review, Vol 59, Issue 1

[2Similar groups in the realm of painting had started to opposed abstract art and the target of their attacks was the painter Malevich. On June 10, 19261 a sharp editorial in Leningradskaia Pravda attacked Malevich and his institute - State Institute of Art and Culture (Ghinkhuk) in Petrograd was shut down. In 1930 Malevich was arrested for three months and since then his work was mostly out of bounds in the Soviet Union

[3Stalin wanted people who knew how to execute orders he saw “Cadres are the key” (Kadry reshaiut vse) wanted centralised control and non-party members be replaced by party members in arts bodies; See: Moshe Lewin, ’Rebuilding the Soviet nomenklatura 1945-1948’, Cahiers du monde russe, 44/2-3 | 2003, 219-252 ; also see: M. Voslensky, Nomenklatura: the Soviet ruling class (preface by M. Djilas) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984)

[4Simo Mikkonen, Music and Power in the Soviet 1930s, A History of Composers’ Bureaucracy, Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 432 p.

[5Performances of Igor Stavinsky’s music were disallowed from around 1933 until 1962

[6Boris Schwarz (1962) Stravinsky in Soviet Russian Criticism, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Special Issue for Igor Stravinsky on His 80th Anniversary (Jul., 1962), pp. 340-361

[7“Muddle Instead of Music,” the translation of the Pravda article of 28 January 1936,

[8Iurii Olesha And Abram Room’s film Strogii iunosha (A Severe Young Man) was banned in 1936; Sergei Eisenstein’s film Bezhin lug was banned in 1937

[9McSmith, Andy (2015). Fear and the Muse Kept Watch, The Russian Masters - from Akhmatova and Pasternak to Shostakovich and Eisenstein - Under Stalin. New York: New Press.

[10In October 1937 Boris Pilnyak was arrested at his dacha in the writer’s colony at Peredelkino. He was convicted on charges of spying for Japan, plotting terrorist acts upon top Party leaders Stalin and Yezhov, and being a Trotskyist, Pilnyak was executed quickly after his fifteen-minute trial, in April 1938

[11J. Arch Getty, and Oleg V.Naumov (1999). The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven: Yale UP

[12In August 1947, Pravda attacked modern Western painting, especially Picasso and Matisse, though Picasso had joined the French Communist Party only three years before. Later in the same year, the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations published ringing attacks on Henry Moore, Jacques Lipchitz, Cezanne, Mondrian and - significantly - Malevich for their ’belligerent anti-Realism, their hostility to objective knowledge and to the truthful portrayal of life through art.’

[14Aram Khachaturyan, V. Shebalin, G. Popov, N. Myaskovsky

[15See Resolution of Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, Against Formalistic Tendencies in Soviet Music. February 10, 1948, in: Sovetskaia muzyka, No. 1 (1948), pp. 3-8. ; also page 248, Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Volume 3, The Stalin Years 1929-1953 In: Heritage Edited by: Robert McNeal, (University of Toronto Press,1974); and also, the Muradeli’s Opera: The Great Friendship Decision of the Central Committee, C.P.S.U. in: ‘Decisions of the Central Committee C.P.S.U.(B.) On Literature and Art (1946-1948)’, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1951, pp. 29-38

[16Days after the Central Committee resolution of February 10, 1948 on Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship, a report was issued amongst staff of the Central Committee, the ‘Prikaz 17’, which detailed works banned from performance. The list included Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Popov, and also several works by Weinberg

[17Polly Jones, ed., The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization. Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era. London-New York : Routledge, 2006, 279 p

[18Khrushchev, Nikita 1958, 64–65: Zatesnuiusviaz literaturyiiskusstvaszhizniu naroda. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

[19Galina Vishnevskaya, Galina: A Russian Story (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1984)

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