by Chauncey Tinker – 15 Nov 2019
An orthodox church in Novgorod
After spending quite a lot of time in the West, in 1936 Sergei Prokofiev returned to live permanently in Russia under the totalitarian Soviet government. He was by no means an active man politically, and yet the Soviet government still none the less disapproved of some of his work and made life very difficult for him, so difficult in fact that in spite of the popularity he enjoyed in his own lifetime he struggled financially, by 1948 near the end of his life he was heavily in debt. This is the more curious in light of the fact that he wrote music for the Soviet regime, for example he composed a piece of music called Zdravitsa for Joseph Stalin’s 60th birthday (the piece is also known as “Hail to Stalin”). It seems there is just no pleasing some people …
Image By Boris Grigoriev - From http://www.staratel.com/pictures/ruspaint/big/192-1.htm, Public Domain, Link
One of the people that Prokofiev collaborated with in his musical work was a prominent theatre director and producer called Vsevolod Meyerhold. Meyerhold was a supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, and in 1917 he accepted an invitation to meet the “People’s Commissar for Enlightenment”, subsequently he enjoyed success during the early years of the Soviet era. He hired another great Russian composer of the period as a pianist in his theatre, the young Dmitri Shostakovich, who it has been claimed said of Meyerhold at the time:
“It’s impossible to imagine now how popular Meyerhold was. Everyone knew him, even those who had no interest or connection with the theatre or art. In the circus, clowns always made jokes about Meyerhold. They go for instant laughs in the circus, and they wouldn’t sing ditties about people the audience wouldn’t recognise immediately. They even used to sell combs called Meyerhold.”
By the 1930s however, things weren’t going so well for Meyerhold, as the Soviet government under Stalin disapproved of his work. In 1938 his theatre was closed by order of the Politburo which apparently accused the theatre of bourgeois influence:
“throughout its entire existence, the Meyerhold Theatre has been unable to free itself from thoroughly bourgeois Formalist positions.”.
The next year, Meyerhold was arrested by the NKVD in Leningrad, as part of the “great terror” (during which it has been estimated as many as a million people or more were killed). Meanwhile, intruders broke into his apartment and stabbed his wife to death, a coincidence perhaps, or perhaps not? In February 1940 he was executed by a firing squad, for this crime of producing the wrong kind of theatrical entertainment. This is an extract from a letter that he wrote about his torture at the hands of the NKVD:
The investigators began to use force on me, a sick 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap. They sat me on a chair and beat my feet from above, with considerable force… For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal hemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain. They beat my back with the same rubber strap and punched my face, swinging their fists from a great height … The intolerable physical and emotional pain caused my eyes to weep unending streams of tears, Lying face down on the floor, I discovered that I could wriggle, twist and squeal like a dog when its master whips it … When I lay down on the cot and fell asleep, after 18 hours of interrogation, in order to go back in an hour’s time for more, I was woken up by my own groaning and because I was jerking about like a patient in the last stages of typhoid fever … “death, oh most certainly, death is easier than this!” the interrogated person says to himself. I began to incriminate myself in the hope that this, at least, would lead quickly to the scaffold.
Mugshot of Meyerhold taken at his arrest
Image By NKVD, official mug shot after arrest - NKVD personal file of Meyerhold Центральный архив ФСБ России, see also , Public Domain, Link
Prokofiev’s estranged wife Lina also got into trouble with the authorities, in her case for the “crime” of sending money to her mother in Spain. For this she was sentenced to 20 years of hard labour, of which she served 5 years (she was released after Stalin’s death in 1953). It’s hard to know exactly what Prokofiev thought about the Soviet regime, it seems to me that he was first and foremost a musician and composer above all else, but given these incidents it is hard to imagine that he had any great love of the regime. It has been claimed that hints to his true feelings can be found in his work, but when people are forced to speak in riddles it becomes very hard to know what they are really talking about.
I hope that our readers will reflect on the experiences of those who lived under the Soviet government, as a reminder that we should NEVER submit to totalitarianism, no matter in what form it arises! The first step is always intimidation, bullying of those few who dare to speak out against the direction of the government. The time to take a stand is not tomorrow, or next week, but now therefore, before things reach the kind of extremes that I mentioned above. The risks we take today may save us from far greater risks in the future however.
(Prince) Alexander Nevsky was a Russian hero who commanded an army that defended the city of Novgorod from an invasion by the Teutonic Knights. Today’s short musical piece comes from Sergei Prokofiev’s music for a film about Nevsky’s life (that was produced as part of the Soviet propaganda effort):
Have a good weekend everyone, while you still can …
What do you think? Should we submit to totalitarianism? Please leave a comment below.