I was reading the liner notes to the pianist Roger Woodward’s excellent recording of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Twenty-Four Preludes & Fugues, and was struck by the following anecdote concerning the composer’s experiences under the Stalin regime:
In February 1948, Shostakovich was denounced by the Communist Party chairman, Andrei Zhdanov, for political incorrectness and although rehabilitated three months later, it was the composer’s second reprimand in just over a decade. His official standing and income was reduced and he was dismissed from the Moscow Conservatorium.
In his Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer recounts Stalin’s ensuing five-year period of terror during which Shostakovich frequently lay awake in the small hours, listening to NKVD officers knocking on doors throughout his apartment building, wondering when it might be his turn. Given the fate of neighbours and colleagues who were either deported to remote Arctic labor camps, whose careers were terminated or who simply vanished, Shostakovich spent many nights camped outside his apartment door, bag packed in readiness for the secret police to arrive, so as to avoid the impression that an impending arrest might inevitably have on his family.
(I’m aware that there’s some long-standing controversy over how much of Testimony was written by Shostakovich himself or by his biographer Solomon Volkov, but this anecdote is consistent with well-documented accounts of Shostakovich’s life, so I’m inclined to believe it’s true.)
Shostakovich’s first wife Nina Varzar didn’t die until 1954, so he would have been living with her and their two children during this period — his daughter Galina was born in 1936 and his son Maxim in 1938.
Not a physically imposing figure, Shostakovich was prevented from serving in the Russian army by his notoriously poor eyesight, though he served as a volunteer fireman during the siege of Leningrad (and was pictured on the cover of Time magazine in his fireman’s helmet and thick owlish spectacles.) We live in a world now in which cartoon supermen, steroid-toxic wrestlers and heavy-armament-toting special forces too often provide our definition of “heroes” to us. But I find something deeply moving in the mental image of this slight figure, bundled up in his overcoat against the Russian winter, sleeping outside the door of his apartment, all to spare his wife and children from the sight of him being dragged away by the secret police. Heroes do what they can, I suppose.
Another image enters my mind: Shostakovich’s oldest child, his daughter Galina, would have been twelve years old in 1948. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t know what her father was doing, sleeping outside the apartment door. Given how close oldest daughters are to their fathers, I wonder if there were nights when Galina wrapped herself in the blanket from her bed and slept on the other side of the door, the thin wood panels all that separated her from her father.