Now that the institutions that supported him, and that he served to his incalculable personal cost, have at last been discredited and dismantled, I find myself reflecting with urgency on Shostakovich, the musical figure from the Soviet past who has the most meaning for us today, wondering why he does so, and what that meaning might be.
Urgency has mounted in proportion to revulsion at the torrent of romantically revisionary, sentimental nonsense about the composer that has inundated both the Soviet (or post-Soviet), and the western musical press since the mid-1970s, but particularly since Gorbachov's proclamation of glasnost’ (airing-things-in-public) in the mid-1980s. Much of this literature has been motivated by an understandable but now pointless impulse to enjoy vicarious revenge. As long as the Soviet system and its institutions were alive and declaring themselves well, there was reason to do battle with them, reason to dwell on their hypocrisy, their criminality.
But enough of that. Poshlost’ – smug vulgarity, insipid pretension – has always lived and thrived in such accounts. Risking nothing, we excoriate the past to flatter ourselves. Our high moral dudgeon comes cheap. It is sterile. In fact it is nostalgic. We look back upon the Stalin period romantically, as a time of heroism. We flay the villains, as we define them, and enjoy an ersatz moral triumph. We not only pity the victims, as we define them, but envy them and wishfully project on to them our own idealised identities. Nor have we even given up our investment in personality cults, it seems; all we have done is install new worshipped personalities in place of the old.