…a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say ‘From this day you will be a genius cog’, and everyone else will consider it a genius. It does not matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader.
Dimitri Shostakovich from Testimony (conversations with Solomon Volkov)
This statement is taken from a book which is still treated with suspicion by some – they think either that Volkov fabricated these exchanges or that Shostakovich himself was guilty of re-inventing his own past.
It has been interesting to read Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich, a book which explores the process by which the composer, like so many others, was made to collaborate with a communist regime that he loathed. MacDonald argues, persuasively, that the horror, tragedy and vicious pettiness of communism is reflected in many aspects of his music – if you have the ears to listen.
This book also reminds us how many of us in the West were willing to suspend disbelief in the crimes of communism. The dream of a utopian, state-controlled future was enough to lead many intellectuals to simply disregard the uncomfortable truths that kept emerging Soviet Russia.
Shostakovich’s own collaboration can be understood. He had to try and protect himself, his family, his friends, and his music. He was threatened with death and he saw many of those he loved and respected led away to death. But how can we excuse the collaboration of Sartre, George Bernard Shaw and so many other Western intellectuals, who simply didn’t want to admit that they were wrong? Their own collaboration helped to perpetuate the largest system of mass murder in human history and their only excuse was that it might have been a little embarrassing to admit that they were wrong.