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Censorship as co-creation

July 6, 2020

I’ve been enjoying the SRB Podcast so much lately, and I want to share another episode here: Leah Goldman on Soviet classical music. It’s framed like this: what Socialist Realism meant was contested across all branches of culture, but it was especially confusing in music, which (except for narrative forms like opera) seemed too abstract to be ideological. Goldman’s research shows how things played out in practice in the late Stalin years.

Goldman is skeptical of the old-fashioned way of looking at Soviet culture as an oppressive state censoring free artists, where the scholar’s task is to try to reconstruct what the artist would have done in a vacuum. She’s not naive about the degree of artistic freedom in the USSR by any means, but she looks at a more complex picture where between the state and the individual artist are all kinds of agencies and committees, and the musical works that are eventually published and performed have been shaped by so many people (an overlapping group of censors and colleagues besides the original composer) that we can think about Soviet censorship as a process of co-creation. For Goldman this isn’t so different from artists in the West responding to commercial pressures (they don’t even begin to write things they know won’t sell, which is a kind of self-censorship) or from academic peer review. I think the host, Sean Guillory, also compares the censorship-as-co-creation model to the many power centers and points of view that collectively produce a Hollywood movie.

In the nuts and bolts of how Soviet music was created, some things conform to the old Western idea of blunt, ideological, oppressive censorship and others amount to a professional elite’s collective decision to impose a particular conservative aesthetic:

LG: There’s a small number of people who go to Conservatory. And they end up staffing the censorship agencies, working at the Composers’ Union, working in the theaters, being composers, and changing jobs all the time. So sometimes a censor will write music, sometimes a composer will either be hired by a censorship agency or they’ll be called in as a consultant. So saying who’s a censor and who’s a composer is not a very meaningful thing, because everybody is both at some point.

SG: So, OK, then this, of course, then directly goes into the self-censorship, because it seems like it’s all self-censorship. Right? The artistic community is, you know, the main community that’s censoring itself.

LG: Yes, yes, absolutely!

SG: […] from what you said, it seems really hard to disentangle “the state” from the people who actually produce, or participate within the arts.

LG: Yeah, no, it is! And so once you look into these processes, we can find that the state-versus-artist paradigm, which is, like, this big sort of Cold War monolith—it doesn’t work that way, because these are all the same people. And, you know, like, the process I just described with the Committee on Arts Affairs—an equivalent process happens in the Composers’ Union, sometimes simultaneously. There are genre-based consultative sections in the Composers’ Union, so there’s, like, a symphony and chamber music section, there’s a popular song section, there’s an opera and ballet section… there are a couple others—there’s a military music section for quite a long time, even after the war […] it’s effectively mandatory that you should bring your pieces for consultation with your colleagues, because the section will recommend you to the Committee on Arts Affairs, they will recommend you to a performing organization, they will recommend you to a publisher. Without their recommendation… If you don’t have a really famous reputation, this is how you get things done. But yeah, censors sit in on those meetings, sometimes in their role as censors, sometimes just in their role as fellow composers, and that is sort of the place where this conservative aesthetic is collectively imposed.

I don’t want to overstate the case, because the initial Western research on the creative unions was very much pushing the line that these are agencies that censor and repress artists. And Kiril Tomoff has shown that there is a locus of professional agency there, there’s a space there for composers to say “hey, we are the experts, and so we are going to say the details of what Socialist Realism is and what’s acceptable in your piece of music” and whatever. I hope that what I am doing is adding a layer of complexity on to that and saying that, yes, there is this agency, but they are using this agency to keep things very middlebrow and keep composers away from more experimental methods.

Now, you don’t have to do that for everybody. Some people love to write in a nineteenth-century idiom, and that’s fine, but there are those who try to get a bit more experimental or just go in a direction that’s… I mean, I have seen the silliest things in these conversations in the Composer’s Union. You know, they’ll say, like, “oh, well, but this is a cello sonata devoted to Stalin, so you can’t have a sad third movement! Stalin’s not sad, we’re not sad about Stalin!” And it’s not usually that simplistic, but it can be things like that. And so even as they are also doing quality control—this is another kind of revise-and-resubmit process—but they’re also sort of keeping everything at a level that they feel is going to be safe, because you never know when the next scandal is going to blow up, you never know when the Central Committee is going to get upset with you, and when they do, you never know whose head it’s going to fall on. (18:29–22:50)

For me the most convincing proof that the composers as a professional group had power to shape music separate from state political censorship was Goldman’s contrast of two operas Stalin went to in 1936, Ivan Dzerzhinskii‘s The Quiet Don (Тихий Дон, 1935) and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, 1934) (12:37–15:25). The story of Shostakovich’s opera, denounced in Pravda shortly after Stalin walked out, is famous, but the fate of Dzerzhinskii’s opera, which Stalin adored, shows the locus of professional agency at work. The Quiet Don was musically terrible—Goldman describes Dzerzhinskii as “a Conservatory student who is not passing his classes”—so the composers treated it as an opera that Soviet music had moved beyond and could now ignore.

Goldman’s research is mostly about rank-and-file composers—she says it was different if you were Shostakovich or Prokofiev and had networks that let you bypass certain parts of the system—and she discusses in detail (26:11–35:55) the opera The Decembrists (Декабристы, 1925–53 [!]) by Iurii Shaporin (1887–1966). Over successive drafts a lot was cut from the very long opera apparently for musical reasons. But Shaporin also had to add counter-attacks by the rebels against the forces of Nicholas I. These counter-attacks didn’t actually happen but were more historically accurate by Soviet lights because they fit with the big idea of what the Decembrist Uprising really meant for the future revolution. They also made the opera work better on stage, since the Decembrist forces standing around would make for a boring scene.

One of the Socialist Realist formulas was “national in form, socialist in content,” and later in the podcast Goldman lays out what this meant. Non-Russian Soviet composers could make a career for themselves by writing music that sounded “ethnic,” but they were discouraged from writing music that didn’t obviously seem related to their own ethnic group (around 42:00). Ethnically Russian composers were given more freedom, encouraged to draw on Russian folk songs but allowed to do other things too. In 1948, during the anti-formalist campaign, Shostakovich’s friend Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996) had some of his pieces blacklisted. For him, at that time, it turned out that the way to rehabilitate himself was to “go ethnic” and write “Jewish” music. At the same time, however, he knew he had to write his opera about the Holocaust “for the drawer” (48:01–56:06).

Listen to the whole thing! Goldman is a magnificent speaker, and they play a lot of the music they discuss.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    July 6, 2020 8:25 am

    we can think about Soviet censorship as a process of co-creation. For Goldman this isn’t so different from artists in the West responding to commercial pressures (they don’t even begin to write things they know won’t sell, which is a kind of self-censorship) or from academic peer review.

    There’s nothing new in this; it’s been a standard line as far back as I remember, just like “You complain about our gulags? What about your lynchings??” In both cases there is a clever tit-for-tat containing just enough truth to keep it from being laughed out of court, but it’s basically both-sides nonsense. It is absurd (and frankly подло) to compare Soviet censorship to Western commercial pressures, and it is a flat-out lie to say artists in the West “don’t even begin to write things they know won’t sell” — I won’t bother listening to anything else said by someone who could spout such a line. Do they even know any artists? It’s true that things that don’t sell don’t sell, but it’s also true that the penalties for writing something that doesn’t sell and for writing something that upsets the Communist Party (in its heyday, of course) are so wildly disparate they can only be jammed together by someone with an axe to grind. It’s like the good old revisionist “Sure, Stalin killed, imprisoned, and exiled a lot of people, but he also provided social mobility for a lot of proletarians!” argument. In the immortal words of Hall & Oates, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”

    • July 6, 2020 2:11 pm

      Goldman does not come across as a Bolshevik apologist or as engaging in whataboutism at all. It’s an hour-long conversation, and my summary doesn’t do it justice. Of course artists can and do create things they know will be banned or unpopular (Goldman herself talks about composing for the drawer), but come on, surely it’s true everywhere that some artists sometimes make compromises to try to get a book published or a film released or a song played on the radio.

      It’s absolutely true that the penalties are wildly disparate, and that’s important and acknowledged by all, but I think it’s worthwhile to go beyond that starting point to look at the forces that shape the works that reach a large audience in each place. It’s not a human tragedy if Christopher Nolan feels more restricted filming Batman Begins than Memento, and more restricted filming Memento than if he recorded something on his phone and e-mailed it to interested friends, but it still affects (in complicated ways) what the movies that people actually watch are like.

      And I know this isn’t why you mentioned lynching, but it is a human tragedy that the threat of lynching silenced (and reshaped the work of) an unknowable number of African-American artists. The penalties in the US for crossing certain lines can also be worse than the work not selling. Saying that doesn’t make the Gulags any better.

      • languagehat permalink
        July 6, 2020 2:19 pm

        Fair enough, and I admit to having a hair-trigger reaction to what seem like attempts to portray Soviet repression as “not all that bad” / “not so much worse than happens in capitalist countries”; I’m sure the discussion is far more nuanced than I imagined.

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