Stalin and Shostakovich

What is it like to live in a country where the leader does not care for artists (except those that praise him) -- and where the leader can write your name on a piece of paper, and you will be killed? Composer Dimitri Shostakovich was just one of many who went through that hell, but he was one of the most famous Russians terorrized by Stalin. Here is the story, in a poem, from my book, Twilight of the Dictators:


It's three in the morning and snowing in Moscow.
The streets are dark--but here and there a light--
a solitary bulb throws out its beacon:
a yellow beam from Stalin's workroom,
steady when the Great Helmsman has an idea,
tilted downward as he studies his lists,
casting a shadow of his giant hand
as fountain pen
makes check marks next to offending names.

Tomorrow those names and their owners
will separate forever as People's Enemies
become "Former People."

The offices of Ministries are well lit, too--
memos to write, conspiracies to ferret out,
coffee to drain by the cup, by the gallon.
(If Comrade Stalin can work all night,
who dares to leave his tasks unfinished?)

At the Lubyanka Jail, one basement window
emits its light in slitted segments.
One could see--
if anyone dared to press his face there--
an arm with a truncheon--a mangled visage.
Dim slots of light--a doorway--come on and off.
Men in black coats are framed there.
Then slashing beams and feral tail lights
precede and follow the Black Marias.


The clock chimes four.
Another lamp is burning, too--
another hand makes nervous tick marks
as Shostakovich blocks out chords and melodies.
Even the vodka and cigarettes
are quite forgotten as the climax approaches.
Eyes blur with staves,
sharps dance like angry snowflakes.
He cannot concentrate.
Half his brain is listening.
Not to his inner Muses--
not tonight,
not any night this year--
listening for the Black Marias.
A car glides by--too slowly?
Someone is running at the end of the block--
why, at this hour?

An interval of silence--too long, too quiet.
A truck stops--how long until the doors swing wide
and heavy-footed steps
echo from the building fronts.

A street lamp winks out; across
the street a curtain parts,
a candle moves once
across a table--
is it nothing-- or a signal?

He cannot go to the window and look.
Watchers in raincoats
dislike being spied upon.
It's never wise to stand in a window, anyway:
rocks have been thrown
by zealous members of the Communist Youth
rocks with notes
What if one of them took a gun to a nearby rooftop--?
Open season on Formalist Anti-People Artists!

His hands make notes in jagged gesture.
Attaca subito-

Stalin condemned his last opera.
What will he think of this symphony --
its Mahleresque, giant orchestra,
its jarring, piled-on harmonies,
its bleak and withering quietudes?
Will this, too, be a "muddle instead of music?"
How can be help being himself? 

He writes not what he wants,
but what he has to.
He tries to be grand -- it comes out bombast.
Tries humor, only to ooze sarcasm.
He has no smile that convinces --
could a lobster smile
while dangling over the cooking pot?

He must put everything into this symphony.
It may be his last, anyway.
Ignoring the clock, he labors on.
This page: the whimper of the beaten.
There: the shriek of the victims' widows.
There: the whining voice of the apparatchik.
This horn sounds a denunciation.
This oboe betrays a friend for a dacha.
This violin divorces its partner,
disclosing her unacceptable class origins.
A clarinet warns of rootless cosmopolitans.
Let them guess what it's all about!
To hell with their need for uplift! 

Rub their faces in the ruin of Russia!
Let them try their dialectic on this one!

Stalin works on. He sees the name
of Shostakovich. A memo asks:
Arrest and interrogate?
"I like a tune," he says to himself,
"and now and then even a poem."
The chastised artists would come around.
They'd write their odes and symphonies
to Russia and Comrade Stalin.
They'd do it willingly.
They'd trample one another for the privilege.
No action at present, the dictator writes.

Done for the night, the weary composer
dons coat and shoes, tiptoes
out door to the unheated hall.
Suitcase beside him, he curls up there
between the elevator and the apartment door.
Tries to sleep, tries not to listen
to the spiderweb sounds of the dying night.
The suitcase is packed for a long journey--
a cold one.
Better to wait in the corridor, he thinks;
better not to wake his sleeping wife and son
if this is the night that makes his life
another unfinished symphony.


  1. We know that all dictators in the 20th century kept their power through terror.
    Stalin's style added a cynical touch, the ultimate terror.
    Shostakovich, as this poem tells us, satisfied his most sadistic urges.
    Lets not forget: The young Stalin, when still a native of Georgia, wrote poetry, loved music and even contemplated becoming a priest...
    I think that Shostakovich, in a way, was a symbol of Stalin's impotence and therefore unfulfilled desire of becoming an artist. The terror in which Shostakovich lived resulted in the most powerful music the 20th century offered us. For him it was a life of constant preparations for another unfinished symphony. Or as Rutherford's poem concludes:
    "if this is the night that makes his life
    another unfinished symphony ".


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