Photo of Shostskovich about 1941

Shostakovich's creative years were lived under the Communist rule of the Soviet Union. Three articles on this website discuss what influence this had on his music. This, the first, entitled 'Communism and Artistic Freedom', discusses the reasons why the Communist Soviet Union restricted an artist's (or any other individual's) freedom of expression. The second article, entitled 'Socialist Realism and music', explains why only a certain form of art was tolerated and how this form was defined. The final article, 'The Lady Macbeth Affair', describes how this ideology impacted on the Shostakovich's music and examines why his attempt to create an ambitious Soviet opera went astray. As all Shostakovich's string quartets were composed after the opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' the three articles seek to explain the social-political background of his string quartets.

To restrict artistic freedom was a natural consequence of Communist rule; to understand why we need to consider what differentiates a communist society from other political systems.

The most defining feature of the Soviet Union's Communist ideology and that which differentiated it from other dictatorships was its idealism: its utter conviction that it policies would inevitably lead to an utopian society. Dreams of realising Utopia were not new to European political thought: indeed the word 'Utopia' originates from the title of a book written by the renaissance humanist and Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More1 (1478 – 1535). His book, published in 1517 described an ideal society in which property was owned by the community rather than individuals. In More's words,

....I'm quite convinced that you'll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property altogether. So long as it exists, the vast majority of the human race, and the vastly superior part of it, will go on labouring under a burden of poverty, hardship, and worry.2

It was this belief of heralding the beginning of a new age for humanity that explains communism's attraction, even in the darkest day of Stalin's rule, to intellectuals on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It was this declared goal of the Soviet Union - the achievement of a communist utopia - that was its ultimate justification. Only years after the Bolshevik putsch of 1917, when this was seen to be but a dream did Soviet communism lose its appeal and its legitimisation.

Common with other dictatorships there was, in the Soviet state, a monopoly of power. It was held by the Communist party and in Stalin's time this was known as 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'. Following Stalin's death the principle was referred to as 'the leading role of the party'. Article 6 of the 1977 version of the Soviet constitution expressed it concisely:

The leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state organisations and public organisations, is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

This meant that although other important institutions existed, such as ministries, police, military and judiciary, they were all subject to, and controlled by, the Party. As Archie Brown says: 3:

Within Communist states there was only a partial differentiation of functions and no separation of powers.

Each institution was supervised by an appropriate department of the Party's Central Committee and this in turn was directed by the even more powerful Political Bureau (Politburo) at the head of which was its General Secretary. Whether the whole organisation was oligarchical or a dictatorship depended on the relationship between the General Secretary and the rest of the Politburo.

A further defining political feature was what Lenin referred to as 'democratic centralism'. In practice this meant that issues could be discussed but once a decision had been taken by a higher Party organ all further debate ceased and the policy was to be fully implemented within the society. This lead to a vertical hierarchical structure and a highly disciplined party apparatus. Whilst this might have been useful when the communist were a revolutionary party trying to gain power, it became restrictive later.

As an illustration how the Communist' party's monopoly of power in practice (though not in theory) restricted democratic freedom consider Article 124 of the revised Constitution of the Soviet Union announced by Stalin on 25 November 1936. This stated that:

In conformity with the interests of the workers, and in order to strengthen the socialist system, citizens of the Soviet Union shall be guaranteed (a) freedom of speech; (b) freedom of the press; (c) freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings; (d) freedom of street processions and demonstrations.

Note, however, that all of these 'freedoms' must comply with the 'the interests of the workers' and be consistent with strengthening 'the socialist system'. And who decided whether these conditions were fulfilled? The answer was the Communist party, it being the sole representative of 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'.

Communist societies can be further identified by their economic structures. These too acted against individual freedom.

The aim of a Communism was to ban any capitalistic ownership of the means of production. Instead production would only be permitted under state ownership. Furthermore Communist states would have command economies, rather than market ones. This meant that what was to be produced, in which quantity and at what selling price, was subject to central decisions. They were not to be the result of interactions between individual consumers and producers in a free market. Everyone was working according to a central plan and it was the wishes of the planers that were paramount not those of potential customers. Furthermore there was no need for competition.

The cumulative result of these distinguishing features was to produce a society where, in the absence of private production, only the state could offer a career. There was simply no other alternative to the state controlled economy. All possibilities to actively participate in society, were under the control of the Party. To run foul of their ideology by uttering any kind of public dissent could be at best career destroying, at worst life threatening.

What did this mean for artists and in particular composers? In a society designated to workers and farmers the importance of artists and other members of the intelligentsia was secondary. Their role was not so vital to the functioning of society that they were required to become Party members. Nevertheless their artistic creations were expected to support the ideology in particular its idealism and its sense of progress and struggle which was required to achieve a utopia.

What this meant was that art should conform to the tenants of 'Socialist Realism'. What the doctrine 'Socialist Realism' was and why it was introduced in 1936 as the only musical style acceptable to the Soviet Communist Party, are topics discussed in the next article: 'Socialist Realism and music'.

Opening Image:

A Russian stamp shows Vera Mukhina's (1889 - 1953) iconic statue of Socialist Realism, 'Worker and Kolkhoz Woman'. The 24 meter-tall work, which later became the logo for the Russian Mosfilm studio, originally crowned the Russian pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris in direct confrontation to the eagle and swastika on the opposing National-Socialistic German building. The statue can be seen at a permanent exhibition still best known under its Soviet title of the 'Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy' (VDNKh) but renamed in 1992 to 'The All-Russian Exhibition Centre' (VVTs). This lies in the north of Moscow near the VDNKh subway station.

Mukhina and Shostakovich were both awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941. One for the statue and the other for the Piano Quintet, Opus 57.


  1. The lives of early writers of Utopias were often very different from that which they describe in their books. For example, More's Utopia advocates religious tolerance for all those who believe in the immortality of the soul and in a final judgement. However Tudor England had other values and More, as Lord Chancellor of England, had Protestants burnt at the stake. More's own fate equally political if more humane: a swift beheading - for opposing Henry VIII's separation of the English church from the Catholic faith. Presumably this rather than his inconsistent ethics explains More being canonised in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

    Tommaso Campanella's (1568 - 1639) book, publish in 1623, 'Civitas Solis' ('City of Sun') describes another communistic Utopia. It is also an example of the discrepancy between the author's reality and his fiction. Campanella was a Dominican priest but also a heretic with an interest in astrology. He took part in a revolt against the Spanish rule in Naples but was captured and repeatedly tortured on the rack by the inquisition. Crippled and after spending 27 years in prison he was finally released through the intervention of Pope Urban VIII and died in Paris under the protection of Cardinal Richelieu. back

  2. It is characteristic of books on 'Utopia' that they assume, rather than justify, what is required for, and what is understood by, a better life. Thomas More assumes that 'a fair distribution of goods' and 'satisfactory organization' are required, but gives no justification why. Plato begins 'The Republic', in which a communist society is also advocated, by submitting arguments to justify the general principles underlying his ideal state. The attempt to vindicate the underlying principles differentiates works of political philosophy, like Plato's, from those of political Utopia, like Thomas More's. back

  3. Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism (The Bodley Head, London, UK, 2009), Chapter 6. I referred to this standard work frequently when writing this article. back