Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovitch ed. Solomon Volkov
No Travel like Russian Travel:
by Nora Beloff
For decades, Dmitri Shostakovich was presented as the personification of all that was best in Soviet culture. On his death in 1975. the accolades from the high and mighty cattle cascading down in a torrent of grief. Behind the official mask sat an introverted man. seething with anger and resentment at the tyranny perpetrated by Stalin and his heirs.
In the early seventies. he dictated his memoirs iti a series of clandestine interviews with a young Jewish musicologist Solomon Volkov on the stipulation that they should be published only after his death. In his introduction, Volkov considers Shostakovich to be a “yurodivy” — one who is both observer and individualist, an apparent conformist who paradoxically exposes evil and injustice.
Shostakovich’s vehicle was his music. He was not willing to be moulded by the demands of the state or the whims of its leaders. A prime example of this was his Thirteenth Symphony, in which he orchestrated Yevtushenko’s epic poem, Babi Yar. In openly condemning anti-Semitism, he earned the enmity of Khrushchev and the party’s cultural hacks. Indeed, it was a struggle to ensure the premiere of the symphony. The soloists mysteriously dropped out, one after another. Shostakovich comments: “They were all worried about their position, their reputation. They behaved shamefully, shamefully.”
There are some very powerful denunciations of anti-Semitism in this book. Shostakovich often tested a person by his attitude towards Jews. or him, anyone with pretensions.to decency could not be anti-Semitic. His disgust at the virulent anti-Jewish attitudes still prevailing after the mass murders of the Holocaust propelled him to write a vocal cycle from Jewish folk poetry. But this was in 1948, when the Great Gardener Stalin was already weeding out rootless cosmopolitans from every nook and cranny. Such works with Jewish themes were not heard until after Stalin’s death. There are hints that there are works from this . era which have vet to be heard and ! performed in public.
Oppressed by the situation of being psychologically needed by Stalin, Shostakovich was neither liquidated nor permitted to express himself. He considered his life to have been grey and wasted. For him. Soviet history was a mound of eminent corpses. This .! is certainly a book for music lovers, but it will be appreciated even more so by students of human nature.
Nora Beloff’s book is a light travelogue of a five week car trip to the USSR in the summer of 1978. She is well qualified to parade impressions and opinions, with Russian Jewish parents and a long stint as the Observer’s Moscow correspondent. Anti-Jewish prejudice is encountered. in many instances. A visit to Babi Yar is discouraged. Even in institutes of . higher learning the old ways die hard. Miss Beloff quotes the Russian editor-in-chief of a prominent mathematics journal as reducing the number of contributions by Jews from a third to zero between 1970 and 1977.
Numerous examples illustrate bow the Kremlin has turned the USSR into a conservative backwater — have been over into the past and it creaks—Miss Beloff describes Soviet man as he exists in reality. Much will not be new to those who know and understand the USSR. Her book will not be accepted by those in search of an ideal. It is, however, a very good guide to the uninitiated as well as to the perplexed who intend to travel to the Soviet Union.
Jewish Chronicle 1979