If those newspapers and politicians that last week denounced judges as ‘enemies of the people’ ever proceed to brand certain composers or artists with the same obloquy, then we’ll know that we are indeed entering a very dark place.

This thought occurred to me after reading Julian Barnes’ novella, The Noise of Time, a fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich which enters into the mind of the composer whose opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was denounced in a 1936 newspaper article approved by Stalin as ‘muddle instead of music’. ‘The people expect good songs, but also good instrumental works, and good operas,’ ranted the (very) senior Party official who wrote the piece, before concluding with a sinister threat: ‘The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, ‘formalist’ attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.’

Living, as we do, in a very rare – if not unique – pocket of history in which democracy, freedom of expression and respect for the individual have formed the dominant value consensus, such detailed concern on the part of the authorities with questions of artistic form might seem inexplicable, even laughable. But it was no laughing matter in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Totalitarianism fears the pen and the paintbrush as much as – perhaps more than – the sword. Stalin liked to know that he inspired terror in his country’s artists. After all, they were, as Stalin once said, ‘engineers of human souls’, builders of a new world, the new man.

And so, in Julian Barnes’ story, state terror reaches out to dictate terms to a man who composes symphonies and sonatas, operas and concertos: every night Shostakovitch awaits his arrest, dressed and ready with his suitcase by his side, on the landing by the lift in his apartment block, for the men from the security service who always came for you in the middle of the night. In Stalin’s Russia, he muses, there would be only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.’

In the years of the terror, there was not a home in the country where people did not sit trembling at night, their ears straining to catch the murmur of passing cars or the sound of the elevator.
– Nadezhda Mandelstam, ‘Hope Against Hope’

In an interior monologue written in the third person, Barnes imagines three critical years in Shostakovich’s life. All of them – 1936, 1948 and 1960 – are leap years which the composer, like many Russians, believed brought bad luck. For Shostakovich, each involved a ‘Conversation with Power’ which threatened either his life, his work or his reputation. Barnes is not the only one to be fascinated with Shostakovich’s story. In recent decades the ‘Shostakovich wars’ have been fought over his reputation: whether, confronted by Power (Barnes’ term for the Soviet communist party leadership), he proved to be a hero or a coward.

'Muddle instead of Music': the Pravda editorial of 28 January 1936
‘Muddle instead of Music’: the Pravda editorial of 28 January 1936

The first is the year of his denunciation in Pravda and subsequent implication in a plot to assassinate Stalin. In the second he is humiliated as a Soviet stooge during a trip to America as a member of an official delegation to a Congress for World Peace, during which he denounces Stravinsky – the composer he most reveres – as having betrayed his native land by his American ‘exile among a clique of reactionary modern musicians’ where he had produced nihilistic music that served no progressive purpose.

Then, in 1960, he has his ‘Third and Final Conversation with Power’, when he is finally forced to join the Communist Party. Appointed Chairman of the Union of Soviet Composers and given a dacha and a chauffeur-driven car, he puts his name to Pravda articles written by party functionaries and signs letters denouncing dissidents such as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn (whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch he had privately admired). He ‘swam in honours like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce’. His shame and self-contempt leaves him ‘crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they – – had once fitted together.’

Yet, in those years, in private, he wrote his personal and deeply moving late string quartets, now regarded as among his greatest compositions. Julian Barnes pithily expressed his assessment of this man in the opening sentence of an article for the Guardian earlier this year: ‘My hero was a coward. Or rather, often considered himself a coward.’

Dimitri Shostakovich as a young man
Dimitri Shostakovich as a young man

There’s a passage in The Noise of Time that, in the third-person interior monologue through which Barnes channels Shostakovich, goes like this:

There were those who understood a little better, who supported you, and yet at the same time were disappointed in you. Who did not grasp the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live. Who imagined they knew how Power operated and wanted you to fight it as they believed they would do in your position. In other words, they wanted your blood.

In an afterword, Barnes cites the sources which he drew upon to create his semi-fictional account. They include Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimony, published in1979 which Volkov claimed were Shostakovich’s own memoirs as dictated to him. Testimony drew a picture of a terrorised man, rather than a loyal Soviet apparatchik.

In The Noise of Time, as his plane returns him to the Soviet Union after the shame of his American tour, Barnes has Shostakovich reflect:

He admired those who stood up and spoke truth to Power. He admired their bravery and their moral integrity. And sometimes he envied them; but it was complicated, because part of what he envied them was their death, their being put out of the agony of living. As he had stood waiting for the lift doors to open on the fifth floor of Bolshaya Pushkarskaya Street, terror was mixed with the pulsing desire to be taken away. He too had felt the vanity of transitory courage.

But these heroes, these martyrs, whose death often gave a double satisfaction – to the tyrant who ordered it, and to watching nations who wished to sympathise and yet feel superior – they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear.

As channelled by Barnes, Shostakovich often comes out with an ironical turn of phrase, so on this point he has him observe:

The system of retribution had been greatly improved, and was so much more inclusive than it used to be.

‘Life is not a walk across a field’, Shostakovich reminds himself now and again, quoting an old Russian proverb. In Stalin’s Russia it certainly wasn’t. For the composer, the terror began with the damning ‘MUDDLE INSTEAD OF MUSIC’ review in Pravda following the night in January 1936 when Stalin went to the opera to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and was not pleased. Having started out as a young prodigy, it seemed that Shostakovich ’s career – perhaps even his life – was over, and he was not yet thirty.

The first section of Barnes’ novel is perhaps the best. Following the editorial, Shostakovich is summoned to a meeting with an interrogator from the NKVD, who eventually demands that he return the following day with information that would betray his friend and protector Marshal Tukhachevsky, by implicating him in a plot to assassinate Stalin. But when returns the next day as ordered, Shostakovich discovers that his interrogator has vanished, consumed by the terror. His friend Tukhachevsky was later shot.

Shostakovich survived to pen his Fifth Symphony which was described in Pravda a few days before its premiere as ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.’ Whether Shostakovich wrote the article is a matter of debate; he never repudiated the phrase. From the success of the Fifth Symphony, Barnes skips forward to his second ‘Conversation with Power’, this time a telephone call from Stalin himself that recalls a similar call in Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate (as well as one received by Boris Pasternak in June 1934 following the arrest of Osip Mandelstam on whose behalf he made representations).

By the time Shostakovich gets his call from Stalin he is back in the Party’s good books as a result of the success of his patriotic Leningrad Symphony. Now he is put under pressure to join the delegation due to travel to the United States. There, Shostakovich delivers a series of speeches, written by party officials, denouncing the work of renegades and exiles such as Stravinsky, whom he greatly admires. In one gathering, questioned by Nicolas Nabokov (Vladimir’s cousin), he is forced to defend the views of Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s right-hand man in implementing the Terror of 1936-38 and the man ‘who had persecuted him since 1936, who had banned him and derided him and threatened him, who had compared his music to that of a road drill and a mobile gas chamber’. It is a moment of abject humiliation for the composer.

But, as Barnes put it in his Guardian article, ‘My Hero’:

Shostakovich stood his ground, paid Caesar his due (and Caesar was very greedy in those days), wrote his private as well as his public music, protected his family and hoped for better days. There are more forms of heroism than the obvious ones.


It’s a funny thing, this business of writing a novel that draws us into the mind of a real historical personage. There were moments in The Noise of Time when I would ask myself to what extent the words I was reading were true to the known facts, or to Shostakovich’s personality. The interior monologue voiced in the third person aggravated this concern: at times the voice seemed to shift. Was this Shostakovich – or Barnes?

As the historian of the Soviet era, Sheila Fitzpatrick wryly observed in her review of The Noise of Time for the London Review of Books:

The licence allowed novelists is something to envy. How I would have liked to invent a few interior monologues in my recent book on Stalin’s team! It would have made it so much easier to bring the characters to life. But as a historian you’re not allowed to invent interior monologues, only to quote texts that can be footnoted.

I think Barnes pulls it off with a narrative that seems to be rigorously faithful to the facts, and to the man himself (he provides an annotated reading list at the end of the book). He succeeds in less than 200 pages in evoking a sense of what it was like to be an artist in a totalitarian regime.

And this, perhaps, was their final triumph over him. Instead of killing him, they had allowed him to live, and by allowing him to live, they had killed him. This was the final, unanswerable irony to his life: that by allowing him to live, they had killed him.

Dimitri Shostakovich
Dimitri Shostakovich

Barnes has chosen as the book’s epigraph a Russian proverb:

One to hear
One to remember
And one to drink

In a prelude, Barnes describes two train passengers who, when the train pauses at a station, alight and offer a beggar a glass of vodka. One of the passengers is is Shostakovich (the one who hears), while the other seems to be the narrator (the one who remembers). The chink as all three touch their glasses together is heard by the one who hears as ‘a triad […] that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything.’

It’s one of very few references to music in this book about a person who made music. (I suspect that it is much harder to write about music than any other way of making art: the process of composition being abstract, even mathematical, while the response to a piece of music, particularly instrumental music, is deeply personal and ineffable. The only novel I know of that achieved it with success is Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, in my view one of the greatest American novels of the last half-century.)

But that chink of glasses, that triad, is a perfect note of music; Barnes is saying that it is what ultimately outlives the history of the Soviet Union – and the life of Shostakovich. Jeremy Denk is a concert pianist; he concluded his review of The Noise of Time in  the New York Times with this musician’s take on Shostakovich:

I recall vividly that when I first played the E minor Piano Trio and came to the slow movement opening, a series of loud chords, my chamber music teacher told me to think of each chord as a friend who is killed or marched off to a labor camp. At 20, I didn’t have much experience of death or labour camps, with the possible exception of my summer data-entry job, and I blinked back at him, a bit alarmed. But I tried in my sheltered American way to put myself in that place, and the chords came out darker and more shattering, and I felt myself trying to understand a whole different world of experience, people subject to arbitrary Power. And so it is: Shostakovich’s music reaches out to express a world, to give warning, to memorialise the pointlessly murdered. The gloom may be unremitting, but it is not selfish.

Barnes has borrowed his book’s title from an essay written by Osip Mandelstam while banished to internal exile in Voronezh. Mandelstam spoke of ‘the noise of time’ as the clamour of  history, the disturbing clatter of an age whose clamorous demands drown out the voice of the individual. ‘What could be put up against the noise of time?’ he questioned. His answer was ‘that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music.’

In his book, Barnes has Shostakovich say that real artists protect the private part of themselves against history, but if the music ‘is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time’ it is ‘transformed into the whisper of history.’

Osip Mandelstam NKVDphoto, first arrest 1934
Osip Mandelstam NKVDphoto, first arrest 1934

Perhaps no-one symbolises the fate of those who were swept to their deaths or into the camps of the Gulag in the Stalin years more than Mandlestam. His fate was sealed with the words of his Stalin Epigram, written in November 1933. Six months later he was arrested. He was tortured and, in a period when Stalin was conducting murderous purges, expected to be executed. However Bukharin (who would himself be put to death four years later) managed to intercede,so that Mandelstam’s life was spared and he was exiled to Voronezh in the Ural Mountains. In exile, Mandelstam lived in fear that Stalin was not yet done with him. In 1937 Mandelstam was arrested again, and this time he disappeared into the maze of Soviet work camps and prisons known as the Gulag.

This is the translation by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin of the Stalin Epigram:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

NKVD photo after the second arrest, 1938
NKVD photo after the second arrest, 1938

Mandelstam died on 27 December 1938, aged 47, in a transit camp near Vladivostok. His last letter was addressed to his brother Aleksandr (Shura) and his wife Nadezhda (Nadya):

Dear Shura!

I am in Vladivostok, U S V IT L [apparently an abbreviated form of the camp name; the last three initials stand for ‘corrective labor camp’], barracks 11. I got five years for counter-revolutionary activity, by decree of the OSO [an organ of the N K V D , the secret police]. By stages from Butyrki [prison] in Moscow on 9 September, arrived 12 October. Health very weak, totally exhausted, terribly thin, almost unrecognizable, but as for sending clothes, food, money – I don’t know if there’s any point. Try anyway. Terribly frozen without warm things.

Dear Nadenka, I don’t know whether you’re alive, my darling. Shura, you write to me right away about Nadya. This is a transit point. They didn’t take me to Kolyma. May have to spend the winter.

My dears, I kiss you.

If his wife Nadezhda had not committed his poems to memory, most of them would have been lost. Nadezhda recounted their story in her two volumes of memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Nadezhda, her name, is also the Russian word for hope.

In those years only the dead smiled,
Glad to be at rest:
And Leningrad city swayed like
A needless appendix to its prisons.
It was then that the railway-yards
Were asylums of the mad;
Short were the locomotives’
Farewell songs.
Stars of death stood
Above us, and innocent Russia
Writhed under bloodstained boots, and
Under the tyres of Black Marias.

– Anna Akhmatova, ‘Requiem’

Czeslaw Milosz
Czeslaw Milosz

In December 1980, a monument was unveiled at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, birthplace of the Solidarity trade union, in memory of shipworkers killed by the security forces during riots a decade earlier. Engraved on the Gdansk monument is the defiant penultimate stanza of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem You Who Wronged: ‘Do Not Feel Safe: ‘The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born. The words are written down, the deed, the date.’

Milosz wrote those lines in American exile in 1950. In 1981 Milosz returned to Poland after 30 years exile in the west. When he went to view the Gdansk monument, members of Solidarity unfurled a huge banner bearing the message: ‘The People Will Give Strength Unto Their Poet’.

You who wronged a simple man
Bursting into laughter at the crime
And kept a pack of fools around you
To mix good and evil, to blur the line,

Though everyone bowed down before you,
Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,
Striking gold medals in your honour,
Glad to have survived another day,

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.

And you’d have done better with a winter dawn,
A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.

– Czeslaw Milosz, 1950

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