All is Dust

Shostakovich and Stalin
By Solomon Volkov; trans. By Antonia W. Bouis
Alfred A. Knopf Press; 336 pages

Artistic types have always had a bit of a tough go in totalitarian regimes. Something about the creative impulse doesn't seem to mesh well with crushing authoritarianism. But the irony is that most dictators have a soft spot for art and almost always demand a little culture to soften the blow of their iron fist. Wrenching the irony even further, said despots almost always insist that the art conform to their myopic vision of glory.

In Shostakovich and Stalin, Solomon Volkov (who also co-wrote composer Dmitri Shostakovich's memoir) has crafted a fine book that examines the peculiarly thorny relationship between its titular subjects while providing a unique insight into the corruption and oppression of the capricious Stalin regime. Although Volkov insists on comparing their relationship to that of the poet Pushkin and Czar Nicholas I, the analogy is tenuous inasmuch as Shostakovich and Stalin were highly distinctive individuals in a highly distinctive time. Pushkin was a fiery romantic while Shostakovich was a much more pragmatic revolutionary; more tellingly, Shostakovich (despite constant pressure from Stalin) was able to maintain his creative dignity in an oppressive atmosphere without becoming a blind loyalist.

Despite the title, Shostakovich and Stalin tells a much deeper story than just that of a composer and a dictator. Volkov eloquently describes the conditions of life – and art – in the Stalin-era Soviet Union and leaves the reader with something that might approach the sense of foreboding that surely weighed upon the citizens and artisans of the time. Though he takes a strident and occasionally arch tone with the facts, Volkov has created a well-researched book that's thrilling in the tension that develops between the two.


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