Political Repression, Cultural Autonomy and Artistic Excellence: The Case of Shostakovich As an important type of suppression of dissent, political repression on arts refers to actions taken by the government to censor certain forms or subjects of artistic expression because of inconformity to the regime’s legitimacy or official ideology (Mulcahy, 1984). Often seen in totalitarian societies such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Union and China in modern ages (Rothstein, 1981), this kind of repression is regarded as a characteristic of nondemocratic society (Mulcahy, 1984) and is broadly criticized for hindering artistic development and freedom of expression (Martin, 2012). Hence it seems natural to tend to be over-pessimistic about artistic achievement under dictatorship.
However, the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich during the Soviet Period shows us a different situation. Shostakovich lived through a special and turbulent historical period of Russia. He was born in a revolutionary family, experienced the Second World War and the Civil War, built most of his career under threats of political purges and intensive cultural control during Stalin’s governance, but still maintained his life and extended his musical creation to the period when the huge totalitarian regime of Soviet Union began to collapse after Stalin’s death (Bryner, 2004; Mulcahy, 1984; Volkov, 2004). Over his career, he enjoyed recognition and awards but also went through two denunciations from the state (Mulcahy, 1984). Nevertheless he is still regarded as one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, not only within Russia, but also in the international music community (Bryner, 2004; Kay, 1971; White, 2008). The strong connection between political circumstances and his musical career, the unusual fluctuation of his relationship with the government, and the artistic excellence he still managed to achieve all make his case interesting and suitable for investigation on the interaction between political repression and artistic creation.
Therefore, this research paper will focus on the artistic development under totalitarian governments as well as on the influence of modern cultural regulation through study on the case of Shostakovich. As the first denunciation in 1936 can be thought as the most vital and fateful one in Shostakovich’s life (White, 2008), in which case the whole process and many characteristics of political repression under totalitarian regime and dictatorship can be observed, the paper will primarily focus on the repression actions imposed on Shostakovich by the Soviet government and his reactions in the first denunciation, as well as the impact caused on his composition, taking Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 for example. At the end the paper will highlight several issues observed in the first denunciation and question the possibility of artistic excellence under cultural repression by connecting the characteristics of political repression and the nature of musical creation.
Backgrounds before the first denunciation
When the young composer initially began his musical creation at the beginning of 1920s, the cultural situation of Soviet Union was at one of several free and open periods of its whole history. Lenin’s New Economy Policy was being conducted, allowing a certain degree of expression freedom (White, 2008). The government also announced an open cultural policy particularly for artists’ creation (Dudeck-Wiseman, 1998). In addition, the avant-garde influence from the West and the growing experimental artistic atmosphere in Russia were thought to accord with revolutionary spirit, which accompanied the establishment of the country and was still tolerated by the government during this period (Mulcahy, 1984; Volkov, 2004). As a result, contemporary music thrived in Russia before Stalin came into power. Closely guided by Alexander Mosolov, a significant futurist composer, during Shostakovich’s study at...
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