1. The large disparity is due to some sources including Russia’s war dead among those attributable to Stalin. This follows from the interpretation that Stalin’s purges of the Red Army in the nineteen-thirties were directly responsible for the further catastrophic losses inflicted by the Nazis.
  2. Glasnost - public accountability and openness. Perestroika - fair reconstruction of economy.
  3. Gulag - enforced labour camp.
  4. Pravda - the official party newspaper. Meaning ‘truth’, it purveyed official news and policy to the population. The article in question is rumoured to have been written by Stalin, after attendance at a performance of Lady Macbeth.

I The State

Among the millions of human casualties of the communist experiment in the Soviet Union, the memory of the individual was all but eradicated by the constant revision of history and the continuous reversals of official policy and favour. No crime was too small for the attentions of the secret police and, at the height of the “Great Terror”, no real reason was needed for a person to be sent into internal exile or executed. Standing like a giant, casting his shadow across almost all of the Soviet Era and all of its people, was Josef Stalin - the “Man of Steel”. In a culture where the influence of religion was consciously annihilated, Stalin became a god to his people. He was present in the life of every citizen, so much like the “Big Brother” of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four that the resemblance is uncanny. His creed required that everyone be happy and enthusiastic; or dead. There was no room for disagreement or dissension - Stalin was the master of all. Since the fall of the Soviet system, Stalin has personally been accredited with the deaths of between forty-million and seventy-million Soviet people1. His rule, never fully understood before the political relaxation of glasnost and perestroika2, was more catastrophic in terms of human cost than the combined effects of both the First and Second World Wars. The Red Army, during the purges of the late nineteen-thirties, lost more men in peacetime than any army in history had previously lost in war. The “Five Year Plans” instituted by Stalin were indeed successful in turning the Soviet Union into a modern technological economy but the cost that was paid in human life and liberty was enormous. The endless roles of those sent to the gulag3 were the workers’ army that provided the USSR with its reversal of economic fortunes. What they produced was displayed to the world as an economic miracle but the truth about slavery in the Soviet Union remained well hidden by the Party’s propaganda machine. Paranoia was an everyday reality throughout the society. Each individual lived in emotional isolation from those around them and no one person could ever completely trust another. Betrayal of the bonds of friendship and family was a requirement that the state made of each person. The role of state informer was engaged in pursuance of any purpose - from actual political belief to simple personal vengeance.

The role of the arts within this system was deemed to be a very important one. In line with the tenets of Marxist-Leninist thought, all individual rights were subservient to the rule of the Party. From this point of view the arts, and the artists themselves, became one of the most important tools in shaping the mass-consciousness of the Soviet People. Eventually, all aspects of artistic output were subjected to centralised control through artistic unions and collectives. Initially, these unions were controlled by those involved in the arts, but gradually power was handed over to centralised ideological committees. Any artist who fell into disfavour with the authorities became subject to censorship, deportation or execution. Not only did artists have to try to abide by vague and contradictory directives from centralised ideological bodies, they also had to avoid recrimination in the persistent personal and ideological battles that raged back and forth through the unions. Of composers, Khrennikov, leader of the composer’s union for many years, appears to have used political denunciations of rivals as a method of personal advancement and consolidation on many occasions. He was one of the chief detractors of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and others during the various ideological clampdowns on the arts. Under the tyranny of the Soviet system, artists abandoned their principles and signed anything in order to attract the attentions of the State away from their own shortcomings.

The chief ideological battle in the arts under Soviet rule was that between “socialist realism” and “formalism”. In reality, these simply equated to that which was favoured, and that which was not. It was not uncommon for a work considered to be a very model of socialist art to be subsequently denounced, banned, and its creator “liquidated”. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District is an example of just such a work. Hugely successful and critically acclaimed, it disappeared from the repertoire and was banned as a result of an anonymous article in Pravda4. The chief idea behind socialist realism was that it should present a view of the future of the Soviet culture - the point towards which the intermediary stage, Marx’s “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”, was progressing. Unfortunately for Soviet artists, not only was this future unclear at any particular time, but it was also subject to the whims and vagaries of lunatics and megalomaniacs. Even for those who were happy to abandon artistic personal freedom, there was no peace of mind as attempts to ingratiate themselves with the authorities often backfired through the artist’s lack of knowledge about current political tastes.

The supposed antithesis of socialist realism was formalism. As with socialist realism, it was a catch-all term used to denounce anything that did not receive official approval. It had sister terms, such as bourgeois, decadent, anti-people and many more, but all amounted to the same thing. Ultimately the definition referred to a movement of “art for art’s sake” which had emerged in the nineteen-twenties and had initially been encouraged by the Party. Its later interpretation became such that any work of art that did not actively promote the Revolution, and find favour with its arbiters, was deemed to be anti-revolutionary and, therefore, at odds with the true purpose of art which was to serve the State.

The realm of music was no stranger to the ideological battles that raged back and forth across the artistic landscape of the Soviet Era. In addition to all other considerations, attempts to apply concepts such as socialist realism to abstract music were all but impossible to interpret. This particular conundrum very nearly resulted in the disappearance of instrumental music on the grounds that it could not be ideologically categorised or examined. In art music, the forms most favoured by the state were operas on revolutionary themes and a particularly Soviet interpretation of the choral symphony. This genre can truly claim to be a direct consequence of the imposition of political ideology on music: one which is peculiar to the set of ideals that were promoted by the Soviet system. The stated ideal behind the promotion of the song symphony was that composers should produce music that was accessible to the people. The underlying reason was that the imposition of communist tenets on artistic culture discouraged intellectualism and individuality. The content of simple vocal music was easier to examine and control. The intricacies and inaccessibility of the traditional instrumental forms were denounced as being anti-people. The song symphony became to Soviet citizens what the mass had been to previous generations - an expression of adoration, but now that adoration was for the state. As we shall see, the authorities were entirely correct in their interpretation of musical form - instrumental music could indeed be dissident and anti-revolutionary in a manner that was inscrutable to those who wished to control it.

In the final analysis, there was one overriding consideration for artists in the Soviet Union, a consideration that was shared by all Soviet citizens. State sanctioned murder was the ultimate form of censorship.