Between a Rock and a Red Place

Opera censorship in 1936

The reformation in Soviet culture during 1936 caused controversy and contradictions, as the government castigated the creativity and innovation that it once supported. The primary victims of this artistic purge included poet Demyan Bedny and avant-garde composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, as their personal lives and creative work suffered because of the Soviets’ lack of tolerance of progressive art and it’s influence.

Poking Fun Brings Grief

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16, 1936

Pokes Fun at Gods

Chicago Tribune, Nov. 16, 1936

The anti-religious writings of Bedny, a Party member, upset Soviet leaders, despite their previous distance from the Church. The Bolsheviks proved to be humorless hypocrites by banning Bedny’s comic opera, “The Titans”, based on a story by Victor Krylov. A vicious review, “The Falsification of National Pastpublished in the popular Prvada, scorned Bedny for his vulgar portrayal of the iconic Russian baptism, which shamelessly mocked the heroes and glorified the villains in the tale of Russian mythology. The art committee of the Council of People’s Commissars ordered the withdrawal of the opera from the Kamerny Theater based on allegations of it’s perversion of Russia’ history, and gross misrepresentation of the historic tale of Prince Vladimir’s conversion to orthodoxy. Though Bedny scoffs at religion in his folk epic, the Soviet state’s defense of religion is ironic since it formally separated from the Church in 1918, which destroyed the clergy’s class standing and brazenly robbed the Church of its property.

Lady M

Lady Macbeth of Mysensk

Similarly, Shostakovitch became familiar with the wrath of Prvada criticism when his second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was denounced for its foreign influences and primitive characteristics, the existence of which disturbed Soviet leaders. In the article “Chaos Instead of Music”, the opera was generalized as a leftist distortion that is a danger to Soviet music because the innovations of the petty-bourgeoisie would lead to the eventual break with “real” art, science, and literature. Shostakovitch’s satire includes elements of jazz and a scandalous plot, troubling conservatives- including Stalin, who walked out of the performance. Though Stalin’s disapproval spurred the Prvada article, the government leaders overall were discomforted by the cacophony, modernism, and coarse content of the opera, wishing such “savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life”.

Shostakovich Strikes Back, too

1945- New York Times

As other radical artists were executed, put in labor camps, or committed suicide, appeasement was the only way for Bedny and Shostakovitch to avoid further detriment. Though Bedny lost his membership to both the Communist Party and the Union of Soviet Writers, he regained Stalin’s favor with a 1945 poem that payed tribute to Soviet victory. While Shostakovitch fluctuated between creative rebellion and politically submissive phases during his career, he was much more conventional after the suppression of 1936. During a “cultural conference for peace” in New York, 1949, the composer praised the U.S.S.R. in return for Stalin lifting the ban on his music.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

Shostakovitch moved onto more conservative compositions, like Symphony No. 5 Composed in 1937

The work of both Bedny and Shostakovitch was choked by censorship and hindered by political limitations, stagnating Russia’s development and presence in the contemporary age of culture. While these restrictions were justified by purifying and preserving Russia’s standard for art, the intervention in culture conveys the government’s continual fear of criticism and liberal expression.


  6 comments for “Between a Rock and a Red Place

  1. Jimmy Jewett
    October 13, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Do you think arguments could have been made by members of the petty bourgeoisie that this new style of art was actually supportive of new regime? It seems to me that the main issue with the works by Shostakovitch and Bedny were that they depicted images that the Politburo deemed too extreme for citizens to see, but were things the Soviets themselves had little issue with. The continued theme I’ve seen throughout Soviet history so far is the constant crackdown on things that seem contradictory and I feel this would have put the citizens of the Soviet Union in a position where it was difficult to trust their government, regardless of the propaganda constantly released by the regime.

  2. annapope
    October 13, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    The opportunity for government critique in response to these occurrences of censorship was available but not utilized, and the potential for opposition was squashed by fear of the purge. During the anti-formalism campaign, there was little room for “non-Russian” and Western influences, and the chance to argue or defend their style of creation was sacrificed for personal safety. This lack of artistic expression, though universal, was likely viewed as a struggle just for the intelligentsia, and would not have gained popular support from the lower classes because of their distance from the intellectuals.

  3. October 13, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Good questions and what a thoughtful, in depth post! In the case of Lady Macbeth, it’s important to remember that it would have made just about ANY audience in the 30s squirm. There’s murder, adultery, and a bedroom scene with a trombone solo that is so racy it will make you blush – even in 2014. In other words, the criticism of Lady M was not just about Stalin’s personal tastes, but about the broader parameters of what the public considered “art”.

  4. court18
    October 13, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    Great post, Anna! If the relationship between the Soviet regime and the arts is something that really interests you, be sure to come back to the topic when we get to the USSR under Khrushchev!

  5. court18
    October 13, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    Also, I love the blog beautification!

  6. ryandellinger
    October 19, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    I find it interesting how even then media censorship was an issue. Today, China restricts its citizens in their ability to research controversial events such as the massacre at Tienanmen Square (Google returns no search results for that query in China). North Korea also restricts the public’s access to reliable information and replaces it with government lies (one I remember said that the first time Kim Jong Il played golf, he got 11 holes-in-one, and never bowls anything less than a 300). I like how even today there are still those world leaders fearful and insecure enough to control what the public sees and knows, just as Stalin did during his rule.

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