NOTE: This is written as if it were being told to an acquaintance, say, someone that I saw regularly at the off-leash dog park. It contains some admissions that are potentially embarrassing, and many very indulgent yet salient musings, ones that feel incumbent on me to express, for whatever reason. It is not really a review of M.T. Anderson’s incredible book Symphony for the City of the Dead, but it is about my reaction to it.
It is with some chagrin that I admit that M. T. Anderson would not have come up on my literary radar had I not attended NerdCon: Stories last year. Seeing him “in action” at the convention had me admiring his wit and his abundant personality. I committed then and there to read at least some of his works, to get to know him a bit better.
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I must admit with further chagrin that I didn’t follow through on that pledge. Oh, I ordered one of his books through the interlibrary loan, but when my TBR pile grew ungainly, it was one of those that I ended up returning unread, for reasons that now seem idiotic.
So, as this year’s NerdCon: Stories draws near (next weekend!), I find that I have been lucky enough to be selected to take part in one of the new “Kaffeklatche” features: an hour long, informal chat between a dozen selected attendees and one of the featured guests. The featured guest that I drew? M. T. Anderson. “Well,” I thought to myself, “if I’m going to be sitting down and talking directly with this man, I’d darn well better read some of his works!”
So I actually went out and bought a couple of his books, assuming that Mr. Anderson will be gracious enough to sign them after the session. I picked up a copy of his National Book Award finalist Feed, and his incredibly well received non-fiction book (ostentatiously for young readers) Symphony for the City of the Dead – Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.
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I decided to read Symphony for the City of the Dead first, for two (albeit tenuous) reasons. The first is that I was a music history major in college, and of course knew of Dmitri Shostakovich. However, my main interest was medieval music, with the period in which Shostakovich composed being one of my least favorite and therefore one of my least studied. (Don’t hate me.) Also, having moved around a lot as a child, the curriculums of the various schools I attended did not exactly jive when it came to world history: something taught in sixth grade in one school where I was in fifth grade was taught in fifth grade at the school I moved to as a sixth grader. So while I know the rudimentary basics of history, much of it is a kind of scholarly mush in my head (so much so that at one point in time I created my own broad history timeline, as I had been constantly embarrassed by being confused by basic knowledge, such as distinguishing the personnel and motives of the two World Wars).
The second reason I was anxious to read Symphony for the City of the Dead is that I have been to the Soviet Union. Not just Russia, but Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. I traveled there in 1979, as part of a theater group participating in the heady days of cultural exchanges allowed through Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. (Little did I know that the wheels were turning to dissolve the Soviet Union in Moscow at the very time I was there.) Still, even then I was cloudy about the relationship of Trotsky, Marx, Lenin and Stalin, other than knowing that Stalin was the “bad guy”.
It is only now, in the last two days as I have been reading Symphony for the City of the Dead, that I have come to realize just how “bad” Stalin truly was, and have a new – unfortunately, too late – appreciation for the words of a young Muscovite named Sergei who told me with great pride, “The government, it will go and another will take its place, but what will remain, always, is Mother Russia.” I also cannot help but feel disheartened at the blanket vilification, borne of the Cold War and still lingering today, of this country and of a people who have endured so much and who have continued to show such tenacity and resolve in the face of political exploitation and hardship.
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And now that the stage has been set…
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in what was then known as St. Petersburg, in 1906. That city, proclaimed “the Venice of the North,” had been built by Peter the Great and was the magnificent capital of the Russian Empire; “a city of the arts, a city of poetry, a city of music, a city of the sciences,” opines M. T. Anderson at the start of his book.
Dmitri was 11 when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in March of 1917, ending a 300 year long Romanov dynasty. Russia at that time was in turmoil with rampant poverty, a collapsing economy and a disastrous involvement in WWI. Dissatisfaction with the Romanov rule had erupted into open rebellion and brought about the monarchy’s fall.
This was not the first time the Shostakovich family had seen political upheaval from their front steps. A dozen years earlier, St. Petersburg was rocked by what history calls Bloody Sunday, when desperate workers marched on the Tsar’s Winter’s Palace to demand justice and bread, only to be cut down by the royal guard, leaving hundreds dead in the snow. Some reports even have Dmitri’s father taking part in the demonstration. Dmitri and his two sisters themselves were witness to some of the brutal violence that occurred in the streets of their city, between the police and the poor, between the tsar’s guard and protestors. But on February 27, 1917, young Dmitri was hurriedly fetched home from school early as what is now known as “the February Rebellion” grew in the streets of city that had been renamed Petrograd (a more Russian take on “Petersburg”). This time, the people were victorious.
The Tsar was soon gone and a Provisional Government was in place, promising a universal vote, universal education, and industrial and judicial reforms. The people rejoiced in the streets, and celebrated in music and song, including the Shostakovich family. Young Dmitri, already hailed as a budding musical genius, was writing music to herald these momentous occasions, from “Hymn of Freedom” to the more somber “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” These early melodies would later find their place in his more mature works.
In the political turmoil following the revolution, radical factions elbowed each other for supremacy, threatening lawlessness. Finally, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks (Communists) and their galvanizing leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, took control of the government in the second rebellion of that year (named “the October Rebellion”), attacking the headquarters of the Provisional Government and seizing power in the name of the people (although they were not elected to their positions and their actions were not popular with the very people they said they were representing). The Bolsheviks promised much, but the people did not see an immediate improvement of their lot; if anything, life got harder, especially for prosperous peasants and the middle class. Still, the patriotic slogans and heroic speeches gave the people something to rally around, and to hope for.
Although life for the Russian people did not improve under the Bolsheviks, artists such as Dmitri Shostakovich thrived -not materially, perhaps, but in appreciation for their talents and skills. On May 12, 1926, a day he called his “second birth”, Dmitri’s First Symphony was performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic. Audiences loved it even though some critics were a bit reserved; his fame quickly grew. Soon, orchestras all over the world were clamoring to perform his first major work.
He was nineteen.
Dmitri’s Second Symphony came closely on the heels of his first, the Third, two years later. The people reveled in his music, they heard Russia in the themes, the melodies, the marches, the passion, even though parts of it – the “ultramodern” parts – were not as well received. He was embraced by experimentalists from many disciplines, and soon was working with renown “Futurist” poets, writers, and stage directors. He split his time between St. Petersburg – which in 1924 had been renamed Leningrad – and Moscow (now the capital of the government now known as the Soviet Union); the slight, bespectacled young composer, who had little concern with politics, was in the thick of it all.
But in 1928, four years after the death of Lenin, the Communist Party rolled out its infamous Five-Year Plan, which ushered in a new age of uniformity and regulation across all walks of Soviet life. Millions of villagers across Russia were forced to give up their belongings and move to communal farms, where production quotas were impossible to meet and workers had little to stave off their own starvation. Harvested grain was not redistributed as promised, but sold overseas in order to buy heavy industrial machinery. Factory workers who could not meet outrageous demands were accused of sabotage. Any kind of push back was brutally squashed. Anyone, at any time, could be accused of being an “enemy of the people” and imprisoned, sent to a communal farm, sentenced to hard labor, or shot.
The Five-Year Plan affected the arts, as well. Already there was heavy handed pressure to produce works that pleased Soviet officials. Shostakovich himself had been cautioned to “reflect more seriously on questions of musical culture in the light of the development of our socialist society according to the principles of Marxism.” The threat behind those words was clear.
Individualism was frowned upon, satire was not allowed, formalism was required. The joyous experimentation of the past few years was now replaced with cold, party-line uniformity. The artists that had enjoyed almost unlimited freedom were now under the watchful eye of party intelligentsia, and threats against them were thinly veiled, punishments meted out immediately and brutally. People were imprisoned, tortured, or simply disappeared.
And then, another man rose to unchallenged power within the Communist Party. His name was Joseph Stalin.
(to be continued)