The dictator and the composer

5 March 2013

Life was never so happy...

The sun shines differently

Knowing that Stalin is in the Kremlin!

Those words come from Sergei Prokofiev's cantata Zdravitsa, celebrating the 60th birthday of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1939. They were broadcast on loudspeakers in the streets of Moscow. History does not record personal contact between the two men though Stalin, whose minute knowledge of the cultural world was legendary, was more than aware of Prokofiev's status as an internationally famous composer, recently returned to Moscow from emigration and one of the Soviet Union's top cultural assets. What linked them forever was the fact they both died on the same day 60 years ago: March 5, 1953. Stalin was 73 and Prokofiev 61.

They probably won't be playing Zdravitsa in Moscow on March 5.

Apart from the fact that it's a joyous piece and thus unsuitable for remembering a death, the words, taken from the pseudo-folk poetry of various Soviet republics, praised Stalin in terms that were over the top even in the 1930s. But that doesn't mean that Stalin isn't held in high regard in Vladimir Putin's Russia. In the rest of the world Stalin is remembered as a ruthless tyrant and mass murderer, often mentioned in the same breath as Hitler. In Russia, however, the picture looks different. Stalin is the man who led his country to victory in World War II, under whose rule the Soviet Union achieved the dizzying status of a world superpower. No matter what the rest of the world thinks, that makes him a hero for many Russians.

Yes, Stalin's posthumous domestic reputation has had its ups and downs. His rule was condemned selectively by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 and comprehensively during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s. (Prokofiev's Zdravitsa had to have its words rewritten, substituting "Communist Party" for "Stalin".) Under Putin, however, Stalin's reputation has risen sharply. Stalin scores high on all the popularity contests for Russia's historical leaders. Ordinary Russians are aware that millions died under his rule but still regard him as a wise statesman who led the Soviet Union to greatness.

Politicians close to Putin have advocated reinstatement of the name of Stalingrad for the city of Volgograd, site of the great World War II battle. Putin himself recently recommended a modernisation plan for the defence industry in the spirit of the "powerful, all-embracing leap forward" of the 1930s, a clear reference to Stalin though without mentioning his name. The Russian Communist Party, now in opposition, freely refers to "the great Stalinist era" of the l930s and 40s; one of its leaders recently stated on radio that the human cost of Stalinist industrialisation was "normal" (or normal no, meaning not worth talking about).

Most Russians are not celebrating Stalin the communist but Stalin the builder of the Russian nation, an ironic legacy for a Georgian who wrote romantic poetry in his native language when young and as ruler tried to build a multinational Soviet nation with Russia and Georgia among the constituent republics. Liberal intellectuals hate the Stalin revival, but they are a vanishing breed since the collapse of Gorbachev's perestroika, despite their continuing popularity as old friends and contacts with Western Russia-watchers. A good rule of thumb is that the opinions expressed to Westerners by their usual informants in Moscow are likely to be the opposite of those held by the (provincial, non-intellectual, non-liberal) majority of the Russian population an example being reactions to the convictions for hooliganism of three members of the feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot for mocking Putin and the Orthodox Church in a performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. National pride and "decency" trump liberal democracy and free speech any day in post- Soviet Russia.

Stalin was at the height of his power, and the height of his tyranny, when he died 1953. He had been a hands-on leader during World War II, which ended with the triumphant march across eastern Europe to Berlin and the German surrender. Eastern Europe had been whipped into line with quasi-communist regimes as a "Soviet bloc" and buffer zone. The Soviet Union and the United States were the two superpowers, with their respective spheres of influence, confronting each other in the Cold War. Stalin's cult had never loomed larger or his paranoia been more intense. Personally, however, he was a lonely mart. His second wife had committed suicide in 1932, leaving him with a young daughter, Svetlana, to whom he was much attached, and two sons who were disappointments. His social circle in the 1920s and early 30s, consisting largely of in-laws from his two marriages, was effectively wiped out by the Great Purges of 1937-38, despite the fact that he was the architect of the purges. In the post-war years, his top political associates were drafted as unwilling companions in late-night drinking parties at his dacha to keep loneliness and insomnia at bay.

When Stalin's body was laid out in state at Moscow's Hall of Columns, thousands turned out to mourn and pay their last respects, causing such crowding in the streets that thousands were trampled and hundreds died. No doubt a few people privately rejoiced at the passing of the tyrant. But almost all the memoirists, including those who later became strongly anti-Stalinist, recall shedding tears for Stalin and fearing for the future.

The other notable death in Moscow that snowy Thursday was Prokofiev's. Twelve years younger than Stalin, Prokofiev had spent the 1920s in the West and built a substantial reputation as a modernist, though it frustrated him that his fame never equalled that of his fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky.

He was famous enough, however, for the Soviet regime to want him to come back and to woo him with promises of performances and privilege; and he finally moved from Paris, with his Spanish-born wife, Lina, and their two sons, in the mid-l 930s. Musicians, writers and other artists were indeed richly rewarded in the Soviet Union, but there was a price to pay: accepting Party control, censorship and, in case of contravention of Soviet norms of "socialist realism", loss of privilege.

Even as the Prokofievs were moving their wordly goods to Moscow, Prokofiev's foremost Soviet competitor for composer's laurels, the young Dmitri Shostakovich, was harshly criticised for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, seen and disliked by Stalin and other Politburo members at its Bolshoi Theatre production. This heralded a harsh campaign against modernism, although Prokofiev at this time was not a target. Prokofiev, in fact, was well disposed to the idea of moving his style away from the modernism of his earlier years. Ironically, his readiness to embrace a "new simplicity" satisfying Soviet demands for cheerfulness and popular accessibility was not a product of admiration of Soviet values he was totally apolitical and had come back in the hope of more productions and more reliable income but rather of his conversion to Christian Science, a faith he quietly retained in atheist Moscow until the end of his days.

Prokofiev survived the great purges (though a close associate, the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, fell victim), and even achieved the almost unparalleled feat of pretending not to notice that anything untoward was going on.

Music written in his "Soviet period", including the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the opera War and Peace and Peter and the Wolf did well with the Soviet public. He had troubles with the musical bureaucracy but seemed to take these relatively in stride, as an 18th century court composer with a touchy patron would have done.

Prokofiev had a relatively productive war. Evacuated to safety in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, he wrote his popular Cinderella ballet music as well as the score for Sergei Eisenstein's film Ivan the Terrible.

There was trouble after the war, however, when the five "greats" of Soviet music, including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, were condemned by the Party Central Committee for writing music that was too Western, modernist and elitist for the Soviet public. It was a big scandal, though not a fatal one (none of them was arrested or deported or permanently lost their privileges).

Prokofiev's response was grudging: while he made the expected apology and promised to do better, he insisted on ignoring the ideological aspect of the criticism and treating it as a musical problem he could easily fix.

Prokofiev's marriage had broken down in 1941 and he left Lina for Mira Mendelson, a young Soviet admirer who was to co-author the libretto of War and Peace. Mira accompanied him into evacuation, but Lina refused to leave Moscow, which meant she had a hard and hungry war. Isolated and alienated, she spent a lot of time with diplomats from Western embassies, a dangerous connection in the paranoid post-war period. In February 1948, around the time Prokofiev was condemned for modernism, Lina was arrested and vanished into a gulag.

Mira was the incumbent wife at Prokofiev's funeral at the House of Composers, along with the two sons and a small group of mourners. As he was a five-time Stalin Prize winner, Prokofiev's death would have rated major press attention, but under the circumstances was overwhelmingly overshadowed by Stalin's. The Borodin Quartet managed half a movement of Tchaikovsky not Prokofiev's favourite composer, but that's what officials told them to play before being whisked off to Stalin in the House of Columns. It was only a few streets away, but they barely made it through the milling crowds.

With Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrentii Beria and other Politburo members standing solemnly by Stalin's coffin, taking the place of honour normally occupied by the family, the Borodin Quartet played Tchaikovsky again real "Russian" music for an adopt ye Russian hero.

Stalin was laid to rest in the mausoleum alongside Lenin until 1961, when he was abruptly removed as part of Khrushchev's de-Stalinisation and reburied along with lesser members of the Communist pantheon in the Kremlin Wall. Prokofiev's buria1 place, like that of Stalin's second wife, Nadya, and other elite Soviet members, was the Novodevich monastery. Both left human tragedies behind. Stalin's unhappy daughter Svetlana defected to the West in 1967, renouncing and later denouncing her father's legacy Seventeen years later, she redefected, resuming Soviet citizenship and living in Georgia, her father's birthplace; but two years later she changed her mind again. She died in 2011 in Wisconsin, US.

Lina Prokofiev, released from the gulag in 1956, had bitter legal with Mira abut who was the real widow and heir to the estate. After years of seeking permission to leave Russia, Lina and her sons finally managed it in the mid-1970s. She continued to see herself as guardian of Prokofiev's musical legacy until her death at 91 in 1989.

Looking back on the two deaths, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke imagined their funeral corteges passing each other in Moscow, travelling in different directions, the one attended by teeming crowds, the other by a devoted few. He saw Stalin and Prokofiev as representing two opposing principles, the darkness of tyranny and the light of art. That's an image of moral confrontation much loved by the old Soviet/Russian intelligentsia, but it's not the one that matters in Russia today. For Putin, Stalin and Prokofiev are not mutually exclusive principles: both are part of the great Russian national tradition that he embraces. Prokofiev's Zdravitsa is up on YouTube, with the original "Glory to Stalin" words, in multiple Russian performances. Stalin and Prokofiev are linked not only by the accident of simultaneous death but by their contributions - different in kind though they may be - to the era of Russia's glory, the half century from the 1940s to the beginning of the 1990s when Russia really mattered in the world. While it's scarcely likely that glory will be recovered, it's Putin's - and Russia's - benchmark for national achievement. Just as Prokofiev's War and Peace has won a permanent place in the Bolshoi Opera repertoire, so Stalin's wartime and peacetime achievements look firmly embedded in Russia's narrative of 20th century history, under Putin and beyond.

Sheila Fitzpatrick is honorary professor in the Department of History at the University of Sydney and emerita professor in history at the University of Chicago. She is the author most recently of Sedition: Everyday Resistance in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Yale University Press, 2011.

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