What We Can Learn from Shostakovich’s ‘Testimony’

I have been researching for a short presentation at a friend’s home film festival where I’ll be introducing a documentary on leading Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich and his relationship with Joseph Stalin. The story is familiar to me, and is the only thing I learned in college that tied art with something real, despite having been a fine arts major.

Because the professor of that particular music history course was a performer (he was the orchestra conductor) — not a musicologist or music historian — he delved into meaning in music. Even the composition professors often-times had no performing skills or understanding of art serving a higher purpose. Their jobs were to write unlistenable avant-garde music with no meaning and teach us to act like we appreciated it ourselves. One composition professor bragged about listeners needing to understand quantum physics to appreciate his music.

So much for the American education system.

What Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoir Testimony taught me was to see the creeping signs of totalitarianism here in America. I saw them under Bush with the Patriot Act, rendition, torture, and surveillance. And I saw them continued under Obama with an actual indefinite detention bill that no one talks about, kill lists, and the political imprisonment of whistleblowers and truth-tellers. With help from the media who spun or simply ignored their worst crimes, Bush and Obama have led us to Trump. He inherited a Stalin “wet dream,” and I don’t see it stopping here.

Perhaps most people saw these things, but what Shostakovich gives us in his memoir is a warning about how bad things could get. Many people he knew and loved were disappeared and imprisoned or shot. He himself barely escaped this fate, and spent countless nights waiting for that dreaded knock on his door.

An old and dear musician friend of mine committed suicide last month, and my dreams are now filled with death. I can’t help but think of his death as a precursor to very dark times. Perhaps he saw them coming and just didn’t want to witness them. I can sure understand that. Or maybe he had other reasons. But the effect it’s having on me is chilling. (Beyond of course, the horror of having lost such an amazing person who meant so much to me.)

The Hitler comparisons with Trump fall flat for me because there are aspects of what life might be like under such a regime that are lost by just throwing the name around. It’s good for partisan shock value. But to me, Trump’s megalomaniacal personality seems closer to that of Stalin.

I can’t recommend Testimony enough, but there are also three films online that are great. They depict the day-to-day terror of life under the Soviet dictator.

Stalin killed 30 million of his own people, and yet they weeped at his funeral. As we are now and always have been, they in the Soviet Union were a heavily propagandized population.


Testimony from the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich – starring Ben Kingsley

Shostakovich against Stalin, The War Symphonies – A Documentary by Larry Weinstein

Dmitri Shostakovich – Into the Cold Dawn (Documentary, 2008)


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