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.
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.