Here’s to the Cowardly Ones: On Dmitri Shostakovich and Emotional Rebellion

May 10, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 11 6 min read


Dmitri Shostakovich was, by Julian Barnes’s reckoning, a coward. The leading composer of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR, Shostakovich never stood up to power; he was a constant compromiser, accepting what was asked of him by Soviet leaders and giving speeches written by party ideologues. When Soviet Culture Commissar Andrei Zhdanov lectured Soviet artists on the merits of socialist realism and the ills of formalism, ordering them to follow the Zhdanov Doctrine (“The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best”), Shostakovich did not oppose this shallow culture commissar. He was even compelled to join, in a music congress in New York, the public denunciation of the Soviet Union’s leading exiled composer Igor Stravinsky. In return, Shostakovich was rewarded with every available prize the party handed out to the faithful.

The opening chapter of The Noise of Time, Barnes’s portrait of the composer, puts us on the platform of a train station. The scene seems to come directly out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. A beggar (“the man — in reality half a man”) propels himself using a strange vehicle, “a low trolley with wooden wheels” that can only be steered by wrenching at “the contraption’s front edge.” In order to avoid overbalancing, the beggar uses a “rope that passed underneath the trolley [and] was looped through the top of his trousers.”

coverThis Beckettian beggar’s only concern is to make it to the end of each day, and in this he sets an example for other characters in the novel. Like Shostakovich, “he had become a technique for survival. Below a certain point, that was what all men became: techniques for survival.” Not until we reach the end of Barnes’s latest novel do we realize the significance of its sketchy opening scene, reminiscent of the sink scene at the start of Barnes’s Booker-winning, similarly slim novel, The Sense of an Ending. The scene conceals in it Shostakovich’s Rosebud, the mystery of which drives the reader throughout the book.

Barnes has composed The Noise of Time like a piece of orchestral music. The third-person narrative features numerous leitmotifs: the fear of detainment, the obsession with being on the right side of the party line, the fear of getting blacklisted from Soviet concert halls — none of which had been fears of a paranoid mind: Shostakovich experienced them all. His life was shaped by a series of catastrophes.

Shostakovich came from an urban Saint Petersburg family. His mother had danced the mazurka in front of Nicholas II; after the death of her husband, she took menial jobs to support her two daughters and “a musically precocious son of fifteen.” Shostakovich’s first public performance at the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire was a sad affair. But it had an ostensibly positive outcome: he met Marshal Tukhachevsky, a patron of arts, who helped the young Shostakovich get on with his career (and would eventually get him into serious trouble).

In between 1926 and the premieres of his first masterpieces in the mid-1930s, Shostakovich had already faced numerous hostilities. At the Conservatoire, leftist students tried to have him dismissed; the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians had accused him of being part of the bourgeois stranglehold on the arts and campaigned for his blacklisting. In 1929, at the age of 23, he was denounced, on the grounds that his music was “straying from the main road of Soviet art;” he was accused of formalism by youth organizations.

coverBut it was in 1936, with the publication of a Pravda article on the day after the performance of his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that Shostakovich’s real troubles began. In a powerfully imagined and chillingly lucid scene, Barnes depicts the composer anxiously watching the government box in the concert hall, across from the director’s box where he was stood. “Stalin was hidden behind a small curtain, an absent presence to whom the other distinguished comrades would sycophantically turn, knowing that they were themselves observed,” we are told. “Given the occasion, both conductor and orchestra were understandably nervous.”

Soon afterwards, on the third page of Pravda, the ominous headline, written probably by Stalin, stabbed a knife in him: MUDDLE INSTEAD OF MUSIC. Shostakovich’s music quacked, grunted and growled, according to the paper; it had a “nervous, convulsive and spasmodic” nature. It “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.”

The next year, in the spring of 1937, Shostakovich had his first direct conflagration with Soviet power when he was dispatched to the party building on Liteiny Prospekt. There he was questioned by a certain Zakrevsky, who asked him about Marshal Tukhachevsky, accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin. Barnes does an excellent job at depicting the psychology of his protagonist during the days when Shostakovich believed his life was about to come to an end. “They always came for you in the middle of the night,” we are informed. “And so, rather than be dragged from the apartment in his pajamas, or forced to dress in front of some contemptuously impassive NKVD man, he would go to bed fully clothed, lying on top of the blankets, a small case already packed on the floor beside him.”

Terrified and unable to think about anything besides power, Shostakovich started spending his nights by the lift, watching the opening of the elevator, waiting for the arrival NVKD men in terror. We watch Shostakovich as he kisses his wife and holds his child one last time before taking the bus to the gray building where he expects to be deported to a labor camp. “He was always punctual, and would go to his death being punctual. He gazed briefly at the River Neva, which would outlast them all.” A set of chance events (it turns out that Zaykrevsky has himself been arrested) helped Shostakovich get off the hook. But the experience has a transformative effect on him; the composer spent the rest of his life fearing the repetition of such a chilling experience. Barnes chronicles how, years later in 1949, the terror returns to Shostakovich’s life with his dismissal from his professorships at Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. The performance of his music are banned. Another miraculous event saved him when the telephone rings in March 1949, and the composer hears the magical words: “Stalin is about to come on the line.”

I was particularly impressed by this scene that brings to mind Louis Althusser’s concept of hailing: we become subjects as we answer to the hail of power — be it the policeman on the street or Comrade Stalin on the phone. The voice of power first asks the artist how he is and only learns that Shostakovich is suffering from stomach ache. Who in his case wouldn’t? “I am sorry to hear that. We shall find a doctor for you,” power says. Shostakovich informs him about his blacklisting; one word from power can surely fix that. And it indeed does. “The mistake will be corrected,” Stalin says. “None of your works has been forbidden. They can all be freely played. This has always been the case.”

Throughout the rest of this moving book, Barnes takes us inside the composer’s mind, observing how he reacts to the ceaseless demands of power. As power gradually thorns apart his soul, Shostakovich learns how to be a strategist. He is a cunning, silent character (not unlike James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus), but chooses not to live in exile, which might potentially save him. Barnes shows how being a coward is not easy as you think. “To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment,” he writes. “When you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t even relax.”

Barnes convincingly argues that it is precisely due to his cowardly qualities (these are very English qualities, according to Barnes) that Shostakovich was a hero. He did not make a show of his soul in public speeches or political statements; he was a misfit, an emotional rebel but only from the inside; only by being strategic was he able to preserve his artistic self in the face of party hostility and oppression.

The day after I finished The Noise of Time I started listening to Shostakovich albums on Spotify — I became fixated on the preludes. You should, too. I had little idea that a text could inflict such an effect on music. But there it was. As I listened to his “Prelude and Fugue no. 4,” all the pains Shostakovich took, all the paranoid acts Barnes meticulously details in his book, suddenly made sense. The introvert misfit whose public persona was so unlikable reveals himself fully in those notes.

If Shostakovich succumbed to power, it was in an effort to leave the world with beauty that cannot be marred by power. The composer’s real feat had been to be able to produce such fugues and preludes while mechanically submitting: as politics killed Shostakovich from inside, his misfit, soul remained magnificently alive in his fugues and preludes. Shostakovich, in his forced cowardice, found his own revolution in his music.

is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. He is the author of Under the Shadow (I.B. Tauris, 2016) and An Istanbul Anthology (American University in Cairo Press, 2015). Kaya is writing a history of Turkish literature for Harvard University Press. His first English novel, The House on Arundel Street, will be published next year.


  1. The aesthetic and literary value of this article was inexorably reduced to that of, well, another pathetic, shock-value article so prevalent in today’s easily distracted world when the opening line included the name “James Barnes” and his inflated, pompous opinion of someone he has absolutely no idea about. When did his highness become a psychologist and a Shostakovich scholar rolled into one? What a versatile man! Not only can he stick his nose into areas that don’t concern his morbid, thin-lipped-saggy-eyed visage but his convoluted, arrogant opinion is propagated by this pathetic article; please, if and when you use guerilla marketing, use it right. I would love to see his frail limbs gesticulate in protest when a figure like Stalin gives him an order; he would tremble so violently his protruding bones would likely be chased out his own skin, which, I dare say, would be a favor to the literary world as a whole.

  2. I love Shostakovich’s music, especially for its originality and courage, so perhaps this makes me biased. But given the quality of what he created, what gives anyone who has not faced the conditions he did and created something similarly significant the right to call him a coward? We all work for The Man, whatever the system is called, and all great art is defined by the limitations it encounters. To succumb to politics as the ultimate criterion of morality is to capitulate to the same mode of thinking that leads to power junkies oppressing the rest of us, which is arguably cowardly, and contains the seeds of defeat.

  3. “If Shostakovich succumbed to power, it was in an effort to leave the world with beauty that cannot be marred by power. The composer’s real feat had been to be able to produce such fugues and preludes while mechanically submitting: as politics killed Shostakovich from inside, his misfit, soul remained magnificently alive in his fugues and preludes. Shostakovich, in his forced cowardice, found his own revolution in his music.”

    Hmm. Looking forward to reading this. Was discussing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with someone, particularly the broad floor of basic “survival” needs which, having been met, allowed higher level “self-actualization” needs to be addressed. The idea of being a “survival mechanism” reminded me of my scappy days as a college student in Boston. We were considering action when the Archdiocese (I was still an active Catholic at the time) had demoted our spiritual advisor (a nun who lalter happened to quit and become a Justice of the Peace and the person who performed the very first civil union in Mass.) We had asked one woman, a student at Berklee jazz, to help us plan an action, and she declined, saying she agreed with what we were doing, but that her practice time came first. At the time, I was quite salty about it, but on thinking about it years later, felt a begrudging admiration for her total and complete focus.

    But what type of “survival mechanism” exists in the martyr?, The freeom fighter? The member of the French Resistance (in which Beckett fought?)

    How does a poet such as Ahkmatova fit into this equaltion. She refused to leave Russia, but was virtually “invisible-ized” for years, to the extent that her poetry existed not on paper, but in the memorized snippets held there by here devotees. Ahkmatova, when she was asked why she stayed in Russia, subject to ongoing marginalization, responded “How can one refuse to live one’s own life.” She felt her place with with her people. Odd that, as hard as Stalin tried to stifle Ahkmatova, she survived? But how many works of art, paintings, music were successfully suppressed?

    Just some thoughts.

    PS to Lydia: Almost done with draft!” Taking short break to rest my overwhelmed noggin.)

  4. “Requiem” opening:

    Requiem – Poem by Anna Akhmatova

    Not under foreign skies
    Nor under foreign wings protected –
    I shared all this with my own people
    There, where misfortune had abandoned us.

  5. (Last comment)

    A bit more background, attributed solely to Mr. Fabrizio Frosini’s comments at the Poem Hunter website referenced about.

    “Although it was composed in large part prior to 1940, Akhmatova considered Requiem too dangerous to be written down, much less published, at the time, so until the mid-1960s it remained unpublished, and existed only as individual verses memorized by the poet and a handful of her most trusted confidants.”

    “The poem opens with a declaration of the pain of one woman, an individual circumstance but recognizable to all who lived through the era. With each successive poem, the central figure experiences a new stage of suffering: mute grief, growing disbelief, rationalization, raw mourning, steely resolve. Sometimes writing in the first person, sometimes in the third person, Akhmatova becomes the voice of the people as she universalizes her personal pain over the repeated imprisonment of her son and the loss of friends and literary peers to execution and exile.

    “In Requiem, writes Amanda Haight, Akhmatova ‘has taken suffering to its limit and so there is nothing to fear.’ ”

    “Nikolai Yezhov as head of the NKVD from 1936 instituted a savage purge, akin to the Cultural Revolution in China, involving denunciations and show trials. He was in turn denounced in 1938 by Molotov, executed, and replaced by Beria. People in the Soviet Union came to call the Great Terror: Yezhovshchina (the time of Yezhov).”

  6. Considering the fact that most of the Liberal commentariat, in the US, was quakingly terrified to take on GW Bush c. 2004 (remember the critical drubbing brave Nick Baker got, from both sides of the War Church aisle, for Checkpoint?), it’s a bit rich to call anyone who was hesitant to risk having his or herself gulaged (or worse), by Joe Stalin, a “coward”. Who has Julian Barnes ever squared off against? Martin Amis?

    Barnes was anti-war in 2003, and that was good, but he was anti-war in a country that was largely anti-war… some reckon close to a million people marched, in London, against the invasion of Iraq… Barnes was hardly a bravely lone voice, perilously speaking truth to power, in the context of an Old Style Totalitarian regime (before They learned to smile and hug and pretend to consider all sides of an argument before going ahead and doing what Power does, ie, whatever it wants). Pinter was much, much braver and called GW (and, by extension, the US regime) a fuckwit very nearly to his face and did it at his Nobel speech.

    Barnes is indulging in ethical anachronism. judging Shostakovich by the lights of how saucy Julian himself might feel capable of being against chinless, pig-boinking David Cameron, say.

    But I doubt seriously that, in the event a career criminal with a tire iron ordered Julian to shine his shoes for him, Julian would “speak truth to power” and tell the fella to eff off. I know I wouldn’t… because I’m not insane, and neither is Julian, and neither was Dmitri Shostakovich, who had the bad luck of being born when he was. Seventy years later (and a few thousand miles to the west) and all he’d have to lower himself to would be the shaking of the hand of a mass-murdering president at a Kennedy Center Honors gala.

  7. To be fair *shudder* the critical consensus on Shostakovich has been, basically, that he was a coward. Which reduces Barnes’ estimation, if it is correctly represented, to that of commonplace, rather than transgressive or even impertinent.

    And yet, there is no debate whatsoever that Shostakovich wrote at least one piece that he would have reasonably expected would get him killed, and that after he knew he had Stalin’s attention. With that in mind, I have always found the eagerness of Western artists to decry Shostakovich’s compromises … a little bit rich.

  8. “The _____er’s real feat had been to be able to produce … while mechanically submitting: as politics killed ______ from inside, his misfit, soul remained magnificently alive in … __________ found his own revolution in his …”

    Now multiply the statement above by a factor of one-hundred million – coal miners, engineers, school teachers, physicians, physicists, and farm workers – and discover the reason the USSR fell apart as quickly as it did. 100,000,000 tiny revolutions does a motherlode of damage, given sufficient time.

    To misread, laughably, historical context in service of his literary conceits is becoming a habit for Barnes. To be fair, in the interest of a good read, sometimes you can shrug off that brand of superficiality. In the interest of human compassion, though, sometimes you can’t, and Barnes’ assertion of “cowardice” rings remarkably consistent with the usual caliber of his prose: too clever by half, and rarely the equal of its pedigree. That is, unless he meant to indict every single Soviet citizen for the choices they were compelled to make? If so, that’s beneath him. Unless, of course, it’s not.

    Was Shostakovich a coward? Or, more to Barnes’s point, a craven opportunist? I wouldn’t venture a guess. Perhaps it takes one to know one.

  9. @Moe Murph

    Stanley Kunitz/Max Hayward produced a gorgeous translation of (probably) all AA’s “core” verses. It’s a bi-lingual version, so if you’re interested in Russian, it’s pretty cool. (I think) it was Kunitz from whom I gleaned to “never translate Russian into English, but poetry into poetry”, and this one is pretty great.

    The tension of those talents who fled/capitulated and those who stayed/were repressed is fascinating, isn’t it? It seems like about every other month I’m getting a Facebook post of an exhibit/reading of some “hidden collection” of some previously unheard-of constructivist painter or acmeist poet. I occasionally even remember to be thankful for where I live.

    When you scan the disciplines of the arts and start to uncover this huge body of subversive creativity going on here, it had to have driven the commissars nuts just trying to snuff it all out, particularly when you consider that the enforcers were rarely as bright as those they were trying to suppress.

    Saw the most interesting documentary years back about the great Soviet rom/com (approximation) director Eldar Ryazanov where he talks about all the “overtly unorthodox” extra scenes he’d film for a production, KNOWING the censors would cut them, and distracting them from the really subversive stuff that got left in the final film.

    You want subversive Soviet art? Watch soviet “rom-coms” from the 50s – 70s. Or, if you want a modern subversive whose work is nonetheless very accessible, ANY film by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Outstanding.

    All of which is to answer, in part: how did Akhmatova survive? Like Ryzanov, like Bulgakov, like Malevich: any way they could. Doesn’t make them cowards. The cowards? Gorky comes immediately to mind.

    So that was long. Here endeth the lesson.

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