The Phantom Purges of the Opera

Russian opera was under strict scrutiny in the 30’s. Ideas, people, subjects, or traditions that went against the Soviets were not tolerated in 1936. Cultural norms were not to be violated. Once they were, it could potentially have life-threatening ramifications. Two composers faced accusations of violating cultural norms. This was especially dangerous because of the “Great Purges” were occurring throughout Russia. Lenin wished to destroy any person that posed a threat to the Soviets. Therefore, any person that was labeled as an “enemy of the people” was arrested and possibly executed.

Dmitrii Shostakovich was a Russian composer during the time of the “Great Purges”. He was accused of violating cultural norms in 1936 at the young age of 29. He had been praised for his wonderful work prior to the accusations. The opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” was a controversial piece of work. It pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable socially and boldly stepped past those lines. Many loved the opera, though some did not believe it to be acceptable. Most notably of those people was Stalin himself, who stormed out of the opera. A newspaper editorial appeared later in the week accusing Shostakovich of violating cultural norms.

Dmitrii Shostakovich in the 1930s
Dmitrii Shostakovich in the 1930s

Another notable Russian composer was Semian Bednyi. Bednyi was a different kind of composer than Shostakovich. He loved satire, and used it as a weapon. His opera ‘Ancient Heroes’ was a satire of the first Russian national heroes. He mocked the men, and made them into drunken idiots.He had been hugely popular for his previous work. However, he was condemned for this opera.

Music that was even slightly controversial was shunned during this time period. The population was terrified of having an accusation being made that condemned them as an “enemy of the state”. The Soviets had an incredible amount of power, and this affected cultural and social dynamics. They had the power to arrest and execute anyone that did not conform to social norms. For that reason, musical modernism did not appear until much later in history.


Image: Grigori Chudakov, Olga Suslova, and Lilya Ukhtomskaya, eds.: Pioneers of Soviet photography. New York: Thames and Hudson. 1983.

Freeze, Gregory. (2009). Russia, A History. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

6 thoughts on “The Phantom Purges of the Opera

  1. High culture has always been very important to Russia. But, as in an totalitarian/authoritarian state, art walks a fine line. The freedom in the U.S. that allows SNL to mock the president and members of Congress can get somebody killed in other countries, like you showed with your examples. I do want to know if the government persecuted those who listened to controversial music or went to see a play that was deemed inappropriate.

  2. I wrote a post about the evolution of film under Soviet rule and I found that film became less serious and made more for the enjoyment and entertainment of the people. Suddenly, films became much more lighthearted and funny and less about ideals the government thought was important to convey through a film medium. I wonder if opera in the 30s was made more for the masses. Clearly, there were exceptions such as Shostakovich, but during the Great Purges when it seemed that anybody was susceptible to death, I would think that opera became less of an artistic form and more of a form of entertainment.

  3. This was a really interesting post! I liked that you linked the new-age operas to the events of the censorship installed by Stalin. I think that it is pretty crazy that just the mildest bit of satire was outlawed by Stalin and makes me grateful for what we have today. One thing that made me chuckle, however, was thinking about what Stalin would do under our music and arts today (Miley Cyrus…). That would truly be a show!

  4. In high school I was in the band and play some music written by Shostakovich. I honestly had no idea that his music was considered “too modern” for its time or that he was accused of violating cultural norms. I personally really his music and would love to find out why it was considered so controversial, but it is interesting that music in general was so heavily scrutinized during this time.

  5. Great post and great title! As others have pointed out, art holds an important if contentious place in Soviet history. How did state control of music and opera compare to state control over cinema and literature? Was there a central body like RAPP promoting a party line in music?

  6. I found this post to be incredibly interesting. When I first read the title I thought it was just a clever name for the Great Purge,was I surprised when I started reading. I really enjoyed when you started comparing new operas to that of the censorship instilled by Stalin. Though I do wonder if there was any backlash for Stalin’s restriction of the arts which is a huge identity for Russia.

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