M. T. Anderson (Feed, 2002) uses the life and works of Dmitri Shostakovich, particularly his Seventh Symphony, as a springboard to examine the Russian Revolution, the subsequent Stalinist Five-Year Plan and Great Terror, and the Nazi siege of Leningrad, in this dense, thoroughly researched and occasionally long-winded narrative nonfiction book.
Though the 1941-44 siege is the focal point, there is 150 pages of build-up, laying down the context of the tragic complexities and ironies of life under Stalin, the Friend of the People: the many purges of groups and individuals who were perceived as a threat; the paradox of a grim reality that was “too dangerously real for Soviet Realism”; and the Party interpretations of what ‘the people’ wanted and needed, that changed from one day to the next.
The depiction of life in Leningrad during the 872-day siege is beyond shocking, as the populace starves to death resorting at times to eating grass, wall-paper paste and, ultimately, to cannibalism. The turning point, at least as portrayed in this book, is when Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is premiered there, inspiring the citizens and bringing the city back to life. But this was not the only symbolic premiere: the broadcast on NBC radio solidified the new friendship between the USSR and the USA.
The author does a masterful job of laying all this out and it is clearly a labor of love. The lengthy bibliography, including many primary sources, and extensive source notes show the depth of research that went into the work, and he has obviously spent much time listening and interpreting the music.
However, for a large part of the siege account, Shostakovich is off stage as he was evacuated to Moscow fairly early on, leaving the narrative without an emotional focus. Additionally, there are some extended passages of musings and interpretation that slacken the pace, and just made me want to skip ahead.
Mr Anderson is honest in his author’s note, stating that “even the basic facts” of Shostakovich’s life are disputed. As he says in the text: “In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.” This leads to some rather awkward sentences using ‘supposedly’ and ‘apparently’ to qualify the composer’s words and actions.
Nonetheless, this attractively produced book brilliantly shows how Shostakovich’s music was integral to Russian culture and identity during these turbulent years of revolution, purges and war, and while Symphony for the City of the Dead’s appeal may be limited, it will find an appreciative audience both as a narrative read and research source.