From his rise to cultural prominence in the mid-1920s, the compositions Dmitri Shostakovich were originally granted deep renown and honour by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet state. His first two symphonies were admired in particular, not just for their musical qualities, but for the affective gravitas they supplied to Soviet propaganda commemorating the tenth anniversary of Russian Revolution. In later seeking to fulfil his artistic vision, Shostakovich was uncompromising, and for this his latter compositions were severely attacked by critics; most of these critiques are known to have been guided and ordered via intimidation by Stalin directly. His descent into disfavour with the government began with his two operas, The Nose (1928) and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the ballet The Golden Age (1930). For his pioneering and determined rejection of the country’s conventional musical standards, such as in his use of the operatically satirical scherzo and instrumental passacaglia, they were famously attacked in the state newspaper Pravda in 1937 as “muddle instead of music”. There is no coincidence that Shostakovich’s most negative reception corresponded to Joseph Stalin’s severity in totalitarian exertions. Compared to most musicians composing triumphalist orchestral pieces to commemorate Stalin’s central role of victory in the aftermath of war, Shostakovich’s sombre and dissonant seventh, eighth and ninth symphonies instead expressed horror and grief in the face of both the tremendous loss of life in Stalin’s prior purges, and the war’s atrocities; the indistinguishable “mountains of corpses” seen in either the mass graves of Gulags or the trenches of Stalingrad. Essentially avant-garde in nature, they were strongly attacked as “repulsive” and “grotesque” for their “atonal” and “formalistic” qualities. It is important to put this cultural dissidence in greater contemporary context. All Soviet artists were obliged to conform to traditional standards and styles defined by Soviet institutions. For example, graphic artists, painters and architects were expected to model their works upon isolated Soviet styles of realism and modernism.
Music in the Soviet Union is described as being “expected to be rousing simple, and tuneful, in order to demonstrate public happiness and allegiance to the state, and not to challenge or include dissonance”. Shostakovich’s deliberately experimental scores were in profound contrast to such expectations. The notion of “tradition” in this case is a fairly exceptional one. Rather than precisely rebelling on a frontier against longstanding notions of artistic acceptability, Shostakovitch instead represented a form of opposition against the side of Stalin’s authority, which he was inspired to hold to account in synchronicity to the drastic and one-dimensional implementations of totalitarian ideology. It is accounted that many Soviets respected Stalin’s role in the war effort, even if resenting or despairing of existence under his rule. And though some benefited from his socioeconomically radical reforms and modifications to their society, the majority were obviously forced to deal with profound discord and strife. In official state-controlled media, these conflicting perspectives were simply ignored. In conveying suffering experienced by the great proportion of people in Soviet society, as well of own life as in his fourth and fifth symphonies, Shostakovich boldly and dangerously refused to submit to these conventions. The chamber music and string quartet ensembles he favoured was important in this respect. The chamber form is described as being used by many composers “to give us the truest portraits of themselves, [and] their most intimate thought and feelings.” This emotional individualism and intellectual honesty was in great deviation from established propaganda narratives and patriotic collectivism. The third aspect of Shostakovich’s dissidence is elaborated in his disputed memoir Testimony, published by Solomon Volkov in 1979. His determination as an ethnographer to incorporate Jewish forms of folk music and poetry into to his work, such as in his String Quartet No. 2 and Piano Trio No.2, was strengthened through his stand against the anti-Semitic abuse, cultural oppression and genocide of Jews within the Soviet Union, such as the mass shooting of 400 Jews who were killed for being writers, artists and musicians that fostered Jewish culture in their work. As such pogroms of Soviet Jews were justified by to references them as “unpatriotic” and “rootless cosmopolitans” by Stalin’s regime, we can understand Shostakovich’s disobedience as being a just as “undesirable” influence against its power. In light of his Symphony No. 7 being smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Arturo Toscanini for interpretation as a score of solidarity with Jewish resistance in Western Europe, it provides understanding of the treatment of Soviet Jews as essentially differentiated from those in Nazi Germany. And beyond ethnic discrimination, Shostakovich’s music relates to the genocidal famine of the Holodomor just as it does the Holocaust. Shostakovich’s compositions inspired by Jewish musical styles such as the klemzer, expressed personal mourning of these events. Alongside his politically-charged protest, this could be considered as a simultaneous exertion of dissent, in terms of public and personal expression of such negative perspectives otherwise neglected by other artists. In conclusion, Shostakovich can be recognised as a dissident against Soviet totalitarianism in the cultural rather than usually political realm, but with the implications of this noncompliance to traditional expectations equally as a relevant to dissent within Soviet society as a whole. Even if the exact verifiability of Volkov’s Testimony is challenged, it was only until long after the end of Stalin’s rule that its directly articulated anti-Stalinism, in obvious contradiction to Stalin’s personality cult, could it be permitted for publication. In experiencing events of history as they occurred, Shostakovich strove to portray the sense of his reactions and objections to the occurring and increasing malevolence of the regime, and the sacrifices caused by the war, through the interpretative medium of music. Instead of the dissenting political speech entirely forbidden and punished with exile, purging or imprisonment. For this, numerous members of Shostakovitch own family were deported to Siberia and Central Asia. For coming to his defence following Pravda’s scathing article, friend and patron Mikhail Tukhachevsky was executed under Stalin’s order. It perhaps this subtlety alone, aside his international standing, that spared Shostakovich from such a fate. His distinction illustrates the importance of artistic expression in influencing, expressing and directing dissenting socio-political sentiments within an authoritarian society, which even under the ubiquity of a traditionally absolute power, has in the Lacanian sense the role via reflection and subtlety to challenge and inspire to do so indirectly. The extremity of such examples accentuates the importance of a sense of satire and creative expression generally.