Cold War Propagandist: Nicolas Nabokov, JFK, and the Shostakovich Wars

By Joseph HorowitzJanuary 4, 2020

Cold War Propagandist: Nicolas Nabokov, JFK, and the Shostakovich Wars
STEPHEN JOHNSON’S BOOK How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (2019) begins with an unforgettable story. In 2006, Johnson traveled to St. Petersburg to meet an aged clarinetist named Viktor Kozlov. Kozlov was a member of the Leningrad orchestra that somehow performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 on August 9, 1942. The city was under Nazi siege. Hundreds of thousands had died. The survivors were starving. Only 15 members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra remained alive. They were joined by dozens of additional instrumentalists, mainly from military bands, brought in under armed convoy. Special rations were procured. The players were so weak that the initial rehearsals lasted only 15 to 20 minutes. The 75-minute symphony, composed in wartime, mirrored the fraught moment. Kozlov remembered:

There was a lot of applause, people standing. One woman even gave the conductor flowers — imagine, there was nothing in the city! And yet this one woman found flowers somewhere. It was wonderful! The music touched people because it reflected the Siege. […] People were thrilled and astounded that such music was played, even during the Siege of Leningrad!

Johnson then writes:

“When you hear this music today,” I asked hesitantly, “does it still have the same effect?” Despite all I had heard, nothing prepared me for what happened next. It was as though a huge wave of emotion struck that apartment, and instantly both Kozlov and his wife were sobbing convulsively. He grasped my forearm tightly — I can feel it again as I’m writing — and just about managed to speak: “It’s not possible to say. It’s not possible to say.”

A couple months after the Leningrad premiere, Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony was performed by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic. The most cited review of that performance was written by the composer/critic Virgil Thomson and published in October 18 issue of the New York Herald-Tribune. It ended:

That [Shostakovich] has so deliberately diluted his matter, adapted it, by both excessive simplification and excessive repetition, to the comprehension of a child of eight, indicates that he is willing to write down to a real or fictitious psychology of mass consumption in a way that may eventually disqualify him for consideration as a serious composer.

Obviously, the wartime catharsis of the Leningrad performance did not grip Thomson at Carnegie Hall. He had experienced the symphony as music and nothing more. But he knew the backstory. Everyone did. The miraculous Leningrad premiere; the microfilm of the score airlifted to New York via Teheran; the Time cover story showing Shostakovich in a fire brigade helmet; the American premiere led by Toscanini and his NBC Symphony. However privately, Thomson had all this in mind when he opined that Shostakovich’s symphony “seems to have been written for the slow-witted,” that it disclosed “no real freedom of thought,” that it was “as limited in spiritual scope as a film like The Great Ziegfield or Gone with the Wind.”

This juxtaposition of Kozlov and Thomson barely samples the layered complexity of the Shostakovich phenomenon. A book could be written about the books written about Shostakovich. In fact, at least two books have been written about Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (1979) by Solomon Volkov. The pertinent controversy even has a name: “The Shostakovich Wars.”

And there was yet another Shostakovich war, postdating World War II, Kozlov, and Thomson, predating Volkov, his detractors and defenders. It was the propaganda war waged by the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, in which Shostakovich was, as ever, hero and villain, actor and pawn. In the US, the public flashpoint was a “World Peace” conference at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in March 1949. The conference was denounced in Life magazine as an elaborate instrument of Soviet propaganda — which it partly became. And the American participants — including such celebrities as Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Aaron Copland — were designated in Life as dupes or traitors. As for the seven-man Soviet delegation, its celebrity was Dmitri Shostakovich. Stalin had personally telephoned and instructed him to go. Shostakovich played the piano, answered questions, and listlessly read two speeches apparently prepared by others. At one point, he apologized for his formalist deviations, losing touch with “the people” and with “big themes.” In response, a member of the audience demanded to know if Shostakovich stood by “bilious” Soviet denunciations of the Western composers Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith. This provocation compelled a necessary and humiliating response: yes, he did. The questioner’s name was Nicolas Nabokov.

The following year, a Congress for Cultural Freedom was organized to combat Soviet cultural propaganda. Covertly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, it aimed to woo the intellectual left. To this end, the CCF founded magazines in Latin America and Western Europe. It also organized conferences. As the CCF music expert, Nabokov wrote copiously for a variety of CCF and non-CCF publications. He also organized music festivals in Paris and Rome. The CCF eventually inflected the Kennedy White House, which had cultural aspirations of its own. One result was a series of presidential orations as risible as they were eloquent. Here, for instance, is a sample of JFK’s central manifesto on America and the arts, delivered at Amherst College on October 16, 1963:

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. […] In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not [as Stalin had put it] “engineers of the soul.” It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may …

A December 18, 1962, article in Look magazine, signed by Kennedy, added:

We know that a totalitarian society can promote the arts in its own way — that it can arrange for splendid productions of opera and ballet, as it can arrange for the restoration of ancient and historic buildings. But art means more than the resuscitation of the past: it means the free and unconfined search for new ways of expressing the experience of the present and the vision of the future. When the creative impulse cannot flourish freely, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art.

The Soviet Union might boast the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet, but contemporary creative achievement was reserved for the “free societies” of Europe and the United States. Kennedy also cast aspersion on all political art. He reiterated these opinions on other occasions. He must have been aware of Shostakovich — as a ruined talent: conventional wisdom during the Cold War decades. But is it possible that JFK refused to validate any 20th-century political art? Brecht? Neruda? Rivera? Is it imaginable that he believed totalitarian regimes were inimical to high cultural achievement? The siglo de oro — the highwater mark for Spanish literature, music, and visual art — coincided with a ruthless religious autocracy. Had Kennedy never heard of Velázquez and El Greco? Cervantes? Tomás Luis de Victoria? And what of the Soviets Eisenstein, Meyerhold, and Akhmatova, whose reputations penetrated far to the West? A riddle.

It is well known that culture at the White House was Jackie’s affair, not Jack’s. Were the cultural Cold War principles he propounded a matter of sincere conviction or ideological calculation? It is impossible to say. But I am satisfied that I know their source.


Nicolas Nabokov was a White Russian expatriate composer, a man of acknowledged learning and charm. He was born in 1903 to a distinguished family of landed gentry (Vladimir Nabokov was his first cousin). He was educated by private tutors in multiple languages. With the eruption of revolution, the Nabokovs fled to the Crimea, where they owned land. Nabokov later lived in Germany and France before relocating to the United States in 1933. He taught at Wells College, then at St. John’s of Annapolis. He entered government service in occupied Germany; Charles (Chip) Bohlen, a leading State Department authority on Soviet affairs, became a close friend. Writing for Partisan Review and for Dwight Macdonald’s Politics, he consolidated a reputation as an authority on Soviet culture within the anticommunist left. In 1951, he was named General Secretary of the new Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CCF collapse in 1967 when it was revealed to be a creation of the CIA. Nabokov died 11 years later.

All of this submerged his continued vocation as a composer. Two big operas — Rasputin’s End (1958) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1971) — led nowhere. More noticed were his ballet-oratorio Ode (1928), premiered by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes; Union Pacific (1934), an “American ballet” for Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Russes; and Don Quixote (1966), for which George Balanchine famously returned to the stage to dance the title role opposite his muse Suzanne Farrell. While these works do not evince a highly personal style, their aesthetic direction is neoclassical — and Stravinsky, the king of musical neoclassicism, became Nabokov’s signature musical ally. In articles and books, Nabokov celebrated Stravinsky as the “discoverer” of new domains of rhythm, instrumentation, and harmony; his concert and stage works, perpetually evolving, signified “a necessary and sound development” in the dynamic evolution of 20th-century modernism, “overleaping” the 12-tone rigors of Arnold Schoenberg and his acolytes.

Stravinsky in turn acclaimed Nabokov the “cultural generalissimo” of the non-communist West. He was also called, by an émigré acquaintance of mine, a “consummate opportunist.” This description was knowing, not pejorative. Exiled at 16, Nabokov created a singular persona as a Cold War cultural ideologue. And this act of self-invention was by no means cynical. Rather, it was born in exigency: a life experience encumbered by continuous change and displacement (Nabokov titled his 1975 memoir Bagazh — baggage). The end result, intellectually, was an anchoring cultural/historical doctrine: that only in freedom could artists truly flourish. The central example was Stravinsky, who had escaped pitiless Soviet shackles that ensnared his antipode Shostakovich. And the keynote of authentic creativity, without which art lacked a validating originality, was innovation.

Nabokov plied this calling card among a range of acquaintances so large and varied as to constitute a personal achievement as formidable, in its way, as the doctrine itself. From an early age, he enjoyed striking access to the famous and influential personalities of his time. In Berlin, while still a teenager, he fell in with Count Harry Kessler. In Paris, Diaghilev premiered his Ode with choreography by Léonide Massine; Nabokov also came to know George Balanchine, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Maritain, Serge Prokofiev, and Pavel Tchelitchew. Upon arriving in New York in 1935, he wound up living with Henri Cartier-Bresson. In Washington, DC, in 1945, working for the War Division, he bonded with Isaiah Berlin. During his decades as a de facto New World cultural ambassador, he routinely crossed paths with the likes of W. H. Auden, Willy Brandt, George Kennan, André Malraux, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Robert Oppenheimer. His ultimate range of musical acquaintances was equally copious: how many other composers could claim to have known both George Gershwin and Pierre Boulez?

It was Nabokov’s longtime association with Arthur Schlesinger that brought him into contact with the Kennedys. Doubtless, as general secretary of the CCF, his activities would not in any event have gone wholly unnoticed in the Oval Office. But it was Schlesinger, as special assistant to the president, who facilitated a direct relationship. Nabokov was first received at the White House in 1961 during a visit to fundraise for CCF programs; the First Lady gave him a tour. At Schlesinger’s suggestion, Nabokov compiled for Mrs. Kennedy a list of cultural personalities worthy of White House notice. A year later, thanks to Schlesinger, Nabokov helped to plan a White House dinner honoring Stravinsky’s 80th birthday. In the Green Room, Nabokov observed Kennedy asking Stravinsky what he thought of the leading Soviet composers. Stravinsky, Nabokov later recalled,

turned to the president, in his most courtly manner, and replied: “Mr. President, I have left Russia since 1914 and have so far not been in the Soviet Union. I have not studied or heard many of the works of these composers. I have therefore no valid opinion.” And the president looked at me over Stravinsky’s shoulder and smiled approvingly.

Stravinsky, to his chagrin, had been conspicuously preceded at the White House by Pablo Casals. Nothing like this had occurred under Dwight Eisenhower. A declared outsider to high culture, Eisenhower had called “freedom of the arts” a “basic freedom,” versus using artists as “tools of the state” — but with nothing like JFK’s patina of erudition and experience. At the Kennedys’ “Camelot,” Jackie’s high-cultural aspirations were tangible, and her husband (as we have seen) made the arts a pronounced American cause. No less than the Russia hands Bohlen and Kennan, the White House doubtless deferred to Nabokov’s expert understanding of Soviet musical life. In fact, Kennedy’s core arts manifestos — the 1962 Look magazine article and 1963 Amherst speech that I have quoted — were drafted by Schlesinger. This connects the dots. In The Vital Center (1949), Schlesinger had reframed liberal democratic politics in terms of a fierce individualism, rejecting the collectivism of the Soviet-based cultural front. High culture, concomitantly, was an elite exercise in art for art’s sake. Nabokov, the authority on Soviet culture, furnished empirical proof that, absent unfettered individualism, the creative act was nullified. Surely Nabokov was, in effect, the source of the president’s elaborated views on “free societies” as a necessary precondition for high creative achievement, and of his blunt dismissal of political art.

Nabokov found the Kennedys a little gauche and likened the First Lady’s idea of hostessing to a mixture of Dior, Chanel, Saint Laurent, and Broadway. In settings more intellectual than the White House, however, he was the proverbial life of the party. His conversational aplomb is on full display in Tony Palmer’s superb 2008 Stravinsky documentary, as he elegantly frames the composer’s “inherent quality of irony”: “Stravinsky on one side was a hedonist, enjoying all the pleasure of life — loving to eat, good wine, and for a very long time pretty girls. On the other side, he was a rigorously ritualistic and religious person — like ancient people are.” He is also observed sipping scotch with Stravinsky while conversing in four languages.

Nicolas Nabokov seemed the very embodiment of cosmopolitan charm. But his worldliness can be read as a destabilizing rootlessness.


Between 1941 and 1957, Nabokov wrote for a dozen American journals: Atlantic Monthly, Encounter, Harper’s, High Fidelity, Musical America, Notes, Partisan Review, Politics, The Reporter, and The Saturday Review. Every one of the resulting 22 articles directly or indirectly addressed the fate of 20th-century music in the democratic West versus in Soviet Russia, the prime exemplars being Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Concomitantly, he curated cultural festivals for the CCF, of which the first, biggest, and most noticed was “L’oeuvre du vingtieme siècle” (called in English “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century”) in Paris in 1952.

All of this has been touched upon in two central studies of the CCF: Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999) by Frances Stonor Saunders and The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008) by Hugh Wilford. There is also a painstaking 550-page biography: Nicolas Nabokov: A Life in Freedom and Music (2015) by Vincent Giroud. An inescapable focus has been the CIA’s covert role in American cultural propaganda — and whether Nabokov knew about it. Though it seems he became increasingly aware of a CIA link around 1960, he never acknowledged full understanding prior to a series of New York Times articles that, in 1966, clinched prior disclosures. His final word, in Bagazh, was that the secrecy apparatus was in any event pointless and self-defeating:

Was it really impossible to find open channels of subsidizing the CCF […]? Could it not have been done imaginatively, courageously, through the establishment of a worldwide fund made up of those famous “counterpart funds” that in the late 1940s were spread all around the world? A kind of Marshall Plan in the domain of the intellect and the arts?

While this much rehearsed debacle can now be put to rest, none of the pertinent commentators were sufficiently knowledgeable about music to glimpse a second finding hiding in plain sight: Nabokov’s readings of Soviet music were wildly inaccurate, and his concurrent doctrinal pronouncements formidably implausible. What is more, these mistakes of reportage and judgment are in retrospect explicable — and the explanations are fascinating and instructive.

Consider Nabokov’s month-long 1952 Paris festival. Aside from the Edinburgh Festival (beginning in 1947), the scope and caliber of international artistic talent he managed to assemble had no precedent. He brought the Vienna State Opera, performing Alban Berg’s Wozzeck conducted by Karl Böhm; the Royal Opera of Covent Garden, performing Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd conducted by the composer; and six programs by George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux led the Boston Symphony. Bruno Walter led the Paris Opera Orchestra (with Kathleen Ferrier in Gustav Mahler’s The Song of the Earth), Ernest Ansermet his Suisse Romande orchestra, Hans Rosbaud the French Radio/Television Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay his RIAS Orchestra of West Berlin, and Igor Markevitch the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli as piano soloist). By far the composer most performed was Stravinsky — who himself conducted his Oedipus Rex (with Jean Cocteau as narrator), Symphony in C, Capriccio, and Symphony in Three Movements.

The purpose of it all was framed by Nabokov as follows:

No ideological polemic about the validity and meaning of free culture can equal the products of this culture itself. Let the great works of our century speak for themselves. They alone can stimulate our faith in a free civilization and provide us with a living positive example of what the imagination of free men was able to achieve in the first half of our century.

Certainly the festival produced stirring 20th-century cultural experiences. But its propaganda value was debatable. Was Nabokov attuned to the French non-communist and communist left he wished to court? So far as the European avant-garde was concerned, the contemporary moment was politically charged and radically dissident. The impulse to break with art for art’s sake was tidal, and so was the impulse to shatter tonality. The neoclassical Stravinsky — Nabokov’s main event — seemed passé. With the single exception of Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia, the festival eschewed political art; such significant 20th-century musical activists as Berlin’s Kurt Weill, Mexico’s Silvestre Revueltas, and Britain’s Michael Tippett were not included. The only Shostakovich was a suite from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District — a querulous choice, because this was music that notoriously offended Stalin. A smattering of non-tonal repertoire included two works by Arnold Schoenberg, one by Anton Webern, and one by Pierre Boulez. Of the century’s leading Americans, George Gershwin was absent and Charles Ives was only represented by his Concord Piano Sonata.

If, overall, the festival repertoire more suggested strong personal predilections than a considered strategy of influence, Nabokov’s writings were, if anything, more tendentious. His landmark opus, long preceding the CCF, was “The Case of Dmitri Shostakovitch” [sic] in the March 1943 issue of Harper’s — in the author’s opinion, a “thorough and objective investigation” of a “success story” too little scrutinized. Though conventional wisdom framed (and frames) the Soviet 1920s as a decade of radical experimentation, Nabokov presented Shostakovich as an artist born into bondage. He did not partake in the “audacious experimental spirit” of the ’20s in “central and western Europe.” Though his Symphony No. 1, finished in 1925 when Shostakovich was all of 19 years old, revealed great gifts (Shostakovich was widely hailed as a genius), it was “essentially conservative and unexperimental,” “synthetic and impersonal,” “in the long run, extremely dull.” Its “utilitarian” spirit, addressing “large masses of people,” betrayed the bygone Russian intelligentsia, “which comprised in its ranks all that was vital, imaginative and creative in the nation.” Shostakovich himself said “very clearly”: “I cannot conceive of my future creative program outside of our socialist enterprise and the aim which I assign to my work is that of helping in every way to enlighten our remarkable country.” Even Lady Macbeth, which aimed to shock, was “neither particularly daring nor particularly new.” Like everything else Shostakovich touched, it was fundamentally eclectic and derivative.

Nabokov found only “two positive qualities in the music of Shostakovitch.” The first was his “versatility and efficiency”; the second — “to foreigners so surprising” — was “the inherent optimism of his music,” which “drives the young composer to naïve and dated formulae.” Nabokov’s crowning metaphor, endorsed by Stravinsky in a congratulatory letter, read: “It is as difficult to describe the music of Shostakovitch as to describe the form and color of an oyster […] because it is shapeless in style and form and impersonal in color.” He concluded by comparing Shostakovich unfavorably to seven other 20th-century composers, including Walter Piston, William Schuman, and Vittorio Rieti. Finally:

He does not now merit the injudicious acclaim he is receiving here; neither will he deserve the inevitable repudiation which will come in its wake. Both extremes are shameful evidence that contemporary music is judged indiscriminately and contemporary composers are used irresponsibly.

A decade later, Nabokov contributed “No Cantatas for Stalin” to the initial issue of the CCF’s British flagship, Encounter. Assessing the state of Soviet composition, he summarized: “It is difficult to detect any significant difference between one piece and another. Nor is there any relief from the dominant tone of ‘uplift.’ The musical products of different parts of the Socialist Fatherland all sound as though they had been turned out by Ford or General Motors.” This generalization, girding Nabokov’s continued disparagement of Shostakovich, says more about Nabokov the dispossessed Russian than about Shostakovich the Soviet composer. Mere weeks after the launch of Encounter, Yevgeny Mravinsky premiered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 with his peerless Leningrad Philharmonic. Some two years before that, Shostakovich had completed a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano. His Piano Trio No. 2 of 1944, and Symphony No. 8, completed in 1943, were other benchmarks. Not one of these famous compositions sustains “a dominant tone of ‘uplift.’” Are they “audacious”? Do they fulfill Nabokov’s criteria of newness and “experimentation”?

Yes and no. Certainly Shostakovich was no more enslaved to dogma than were hundreds of American composers who appropriated Schoenberg’s arcane 12-tone method or Stravinsky’s stripped-clean neoclassicism — both of them styles produced by exigencies of wartime and exile irrelevant to the American experience. If Shostakovich, by comparison, did not flaunt “originality,” it is partly because he drew profound sustenance from lineage. His symphonies are sequels to the autobiographical symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler. His 24 Preludes and Fugues celebrate Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier. And yet, Shostakovich unquestionably honored his forebears in original ways.

The titanic 12-minute D-minor Prelude and Fugue, ending Shostakovich’s cycle, sustains the poise and clarity of Bach’s high example. But its vast, mournful terrain equally evokes Mussorgsky’s primal choral utterances in Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov, music itself indebted to Russian liturgical chant. The refulgent closing page — an object lesson in scoring, in which every register of the modern grand piano is craftily deployed to maximize sonority — pays homage to Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate at Kiev.” And Shostakovich’s 10th is a new kind of program symphony, in which meanings are encoded: a “message in a bottle.” The composer’s German initials — DSCH — translate as the notes D-E-flat-C-B: a musical signature. The furious scherzo supplies a theme for Stalin. These become dueling motives — culminating, unforgettably, with Shostakovich dancing on Stalin’s grave. I would call that kind of musical symbolism “daring.”

And so Shostakovich arrives at something new via something old — he links to a grand narrative centuries in the making. One crowning Shostakovich paradox is that the Iron Curtain preserved that opportunity for Soviet artists. Though its confinements were undeniably a trap, the resulting time warp could ironically act to preserve traditions grown elusive and diffuse in the free West. Kennedy said at Amherst: “The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad. […] [A] country which lived in isolation for 150 years is now suddenly the leader of the free world.” Mired in a Berlin crisis, a Cuban crisis, he fired back with salvos demeaning Soviet autocracy:

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as [Robert] Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. […] Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life. […] If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.

Buffeted by crude ideological currents, an often willing cultural bureaucrat, Shostakovich was and was not a “solitary figure.” Certainly he could never be called “the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an […] officious state.” But he triumphantly managed to “nourish the roots of [his] culture.”

Sometime in the late ’60s, the American view of Shostakovich the Soviet stooge began to abate. A signature moment was Leonard Bernstein’s Shostakovich birthday tribute of 1966. Bernstein had been to Russia with his New York Philharmonic, had met Shostakovich, and had experienced the contradictions of Soviet culture at first hand. He told a national television audience:

[I]n these days of musical experimentation, with new fads chasing each other in and out of the concert halls, a composer like Shostakovich can be easily put down. After all he is basically a traditional Russian composer, a true son of Tchaikovsky — and no matter how modern he ever gets, he never loses that tradition. So the music is always in some way old-fashioned — or at least what critics and musical intellectuals like to call old-fashioned. But they’re forgetting one most important thing — he’s a genius: a real authentic genius, and there aren’t too many of those around any more.

Today, such 1950s Shostakovich landmarks as the Preludes and Fugues and the 10th Symphony endure as the most widely performed, most widely appreciated musical products of the Cold War years, eclipsing anything Stravinsky composed during the same period. In fact, they represent a terminus: no subsequent music for solo piano, or for symphony orchestra, so robustly connects to the Western legacy.


Toward the end of his life, Shostakovich told Solomon Volkov:

There were no particularly happy moments. […] It was gray and dull and it makes me sad to think about it. […]

I have thought that my life was replete with sorrow and that it would be hard to find a more miserable man. But when I started going over the life stories of my friends and acquaintances, I was horrified. Not one of them had an easy or a happy life. Some came to a terrible end, some died in terrible suffering, and the lives of many of them could easily be called more miserable than mine.

And that made me even sadder. I was remembering my friends and all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses. I’m not exaggerating. I mean mountains. And the picture filled me with a horrible depression. I’m sad, I’m grieving all the time.

He endured long years of terror and humiliation. And yet — unlike Stravinsky, unlike Nabokov — he stayed. He even, in 1960, joined the Communist Party.

No one is entitled to judge such a man. Certainly he had reason enough to remain in the USSR. He disliked the West. He believed in reaching a Russian artist’s vast audience of shared experience, if not belief. Espousing a tradition including Tolstoy and Mussorgsky, he believed in the moral properties of art.

The complex cultural milieu that he inhabited, largely shut off from Western inquiry, was increasingly glimpsed after Stalin’s death. I will never forget the shock of hearing Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic in New York in 1962 — its only American tour. The vibrating timbres of this unique ensemble, its range of dynamics and expressive nuance, surpassed anything in my listening experience. So did the massive, colored piano sonorities of Emil Gilels. For other Americans, the Russian epiphany came from Sviatoslav Richter or David Oistrakh or Mstislav Rostropovich; or from Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, and the Bolshoi Ballet. And these performing artists self-evidently served a native repertoire that had not stood still. The throbbing Leningrad sound was Tchaikovsky’s sound and Shostakovich’s sound. The emotive Bolshoi style served Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

Another, more private window on Soviet culture was opened in 2016 by Marina Frolova-Walker’s Stalin’s Music Prize: Soviet Culture and Politics. Scrutinizing archives that had long been closed, she eavesdropped on the deliberations of the prize committee. The resulting account abundantly demonstrates that culture greatly mattered to the government, and not least to Stalin; the composer’s prize — 100,000 rubles (almost 30 times what a manual worker might earn annually) and performances throughout the Soviet Union — was anything but cursory. As a consultative body, the committee took its work seriously and often handled it expertly. But it did not necessarily prevail over boorish cultural bureaucrats enslaved to ideology. (Lest we forget: Aaron Copland was subpoenaed by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953 and asked if he had ever known any communists — a chilling ordeal.) Shostakovich won the Stalin Prize five times between 1941 and 1952 — for works ranging from the chilling Second Piano Trio to the non-ideological, non-programmatic Piano Quintet to the patriotic Song of the Forests. As a prominent and powerful prize committee member, he was a force to be reckoned with. Frolova-Walker summarizes:

Was he being sincere or ironic? Principled or cynical? Fearless or cautious? It seems he was, at various times, all these things. But the one thing he never did was to keep silent. […] Shostakovich’s interventions […] give us a glimpse of a fiery public temperament that could not conform to professional etiquette or delicacy, nor to hypocrisy or tedium. Shostakovich clearly had a strong desire to participate in public life[.] […] Once he had accepted the mantle of a public figure, he could not slip it off and on at will. But it was surely that same public temperament that shaped much of his music.

What did Shostakovich “actually believe”? His thick glasses and chronic amenability — he typically evinced no strong opinions about how his music was played — gave nothing away. However craftily or haphazardly, he practiced a survival strategy that empowered him to secure artistic satisfaction.

And Nabokov — did he really think that Shostakovich’s composer’s voice was essentially “dull” and “utilitarian”? One reason we cannot say is that, however knowingly or unwittingly, Nabokov, too, pursued a survival strategy. His, too, was a personality layered and inscrutable. If his musical judgments were surely wrong, he was neither obtuse nor ignorant. Marooned in the New World, laden with bagazh, he conceived a Cold War cultural ideology that opened doors.

The boldest portrait of Nicolas Nabokov I have encountered is also the most speculative: a 2015 article by in The New York Review of Books by Edward Mendelson (who did not know Nabokov personally). Mendelson writes:

He responded to exile by opening himself as a focus of warmth and welcome, so rich in words and energy that only a few friends seem to have noticed the wound inflicted by his exile, the absence of something central, deep within himself. His intellectual integrity was passionate and unwavering, but his relations with others, though extravagantly generous, seldom seemed to have had the intimacy made possible by a focused, cohesive selfhood. […] He said of himself in [Bagazh], “as Ariel says, my wish was and is ‘to please.’” In his book, he describes himself and his friends in the broad strokes of a friendly caricaturist or raconteur. Everyone, including himself, lives on the surface; no one shows the outer signs of an inner life. […]

The obscure absence at the center of himself seems to have been linked both to his good-natured polygamy and his recurring depressions that made so deep a contrast with the “light and laughter in a dark age” that gave pleasure to his friends. [His depressions] seem at times to have been episodes of chaos and melodrama. Stephen Spender […] told of a working visit to Nabokov when he “swept all the food and the cutlery off the table in front of him and buried his head in his arms. Glasses and porcelain lay broken around his feet, but he paid no attention. He was weeping uncontrollably.”

This is a sweeping re-portrayal, but there are details in Nabokov’s self-portrayal that suggestively support it. Raised by nannies and tutors, he did not enjoy a close relationship with either parent. His parents divorced when he was an infant. It was rumored that his real father was another man. He was rarely alone with his mother. He writes: “I will remain forever a Beloruss” — yet records that neither branch of his family was Belorussian. He denies that his stories are about himself; rather, “I am hiding behind each one of them.” He prefers to avoid discussing his five marriages — “nor do I discuss my love or other personal affairs.” Midway through his narrative, he unexpectedly calls himself “shifty, wayward, and insecure.”

Whatever else it embodied, Nabokov’s Cold War creed repudiated Russia. Stravinsky, too, practiced in exile a survival strategy hostile to his homeland. His implausible insistence that music means nothing beyond itself argues for order and lucidity; the opposite condition, confused and anarchic, neither Eastern nor Western, unknowable and unknown to itself, is “Russia.” Russian opera and ballet, Russian symphonies and tone poems, were smothered in stories and ideas: impurities. Aaron Copland, discerning in Stravinsky a decline in creativity, coined a pertinent phrase: “the psychology of exile.”

The main event in Bagazh, coming last, is Nabokov’s sudden return to Russia in 1967: a non sequitur. First came Moscow. “In me there’s not a shadow of a tremor, not a whiff of emotion, or even the slightest nostalgia. Only irritation and impatience.” He eventually met leading musicians — Khachaturian, Rostropovich, Rozhdestventsky — and was charmed. He even enjoyed the company of Shostakovich, who (characteristically) appeared not to bear a grudge. A new generation of Russian composers impressed him with “the most advanced music I have ever heard.” He fretted before venturing to Leningrad: “My Jerusalem is St. Petersburg […] this is the culture to which I and my whole family, with all its atavisms, belong.” With something like relief, he discovered “it appeared to me as if it were a shell. The content of that shell — its spirit, its soul … — was gone, gone forever.” Like every other tale in Bagazh, this homecoming story feels incomplete, unconsummated, unfinished.

How differently experienced was Stravinsky’s return to Russia in 1962: he discovered himself engulfed in an emotional avalanche. His amanuensis Robert Craft observed in Stravinsky “an intense pride in everything Russian.” He found Stravinsky “more buoyant than I have ever seen him.” Stravinsky told an adoring Moscow audience: “You see a very happy man.” At a gala dinner hosted by the ministry of culture, he rose to say:

I regret that circumstances separated me from my fatherland, that I did not give birth to my works there and, above all, that I was not there to help the new Soviet Union create its new music. I did not leave Russia of my own will, however, even though I disliked much in my Russia and in Russia generally. Yet the right to criticize Russia is mine, because Russia is mine and because I love it, and I do not give any foreigner that right.

In Leningrad, Stravinsky did not visit his father’s grave because he feared the effect. Upon returning to the United States, Stravinsky preferred to speak Russian almost exclusively for a period of several months. Craft recorded: “I.S. does regret his uprooting and exile more than anything else in his life.”


With the passage of time, the saga of Dmitri Shostakovich seems all the more extraordinary. He not only takes his place in a grand pantheon beginning with Bach; he is the also the last man standing.

Certainly his capacity to bear lonely witness to the fate of his homeland was a signature achievement. Books will continue to be written — Stephen Johnson’s being the most recent — trying to figure out how he did it. Whatever his method, it empowered him to speak not as an individual but rather as a creative force submerged in an interior communal conscience.

In Prokofiev’s most famous wartime music — the Fifth Symphony, the Seventh Piano Sonata — one loudly hears the sounds of battle. The same is true of Stravinsky’s World War II symphony — the Symphony in Three Movements, composed in Los Angeles as a “Victory Symphony” for the New York Philharmonic. That Shostakovich’s wartime voice is more interior makes it — however Russian — the more universal.

Nabokov, in exile, insisted on a criterion of originality: newness for its own sake. In retrospect, that is something that can sever what JFK called “the root of art” — not totalitarian governments. Kennedy’s contention that the “creative impulse” depended upon the oxygen of “free societies” was just Nabokovian hot air.

Stravinsky, in Moscow, said: “A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country — he can have only one country — and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life.” Whatever one makes of this grand pronouncement, his Russian birthplace was paramount for Shostakovich — and also, in the final reckoning, for Nicolas Nabokov.


Joseph Horowitz is the author of 10 books dealing with the American musical experience. His blog, The Unanswered Question, features many posts about Shostakovich and Stravinsky linked to festivals he has curated for a period of decades, most recently as executive director of PostClassical Ensemble in Washington, DC. 

LARB Contributor

Joseph Horowitz is an author, concert producer, and teacher. He is one of the most prominent and widely published writers on topics in American music. As an orchestral administrator and advisor, he has been a pioneering force in the development of thematic programming and new concert formats. Horowitz’s 10 books — including Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music (a finalist for the 1987 National Book Critics Circle Award) and Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (named one of the best books of 2005 by The Economist) — offer a detailed history and analysis of American symphonic culture, its achievements, challenges, and prospects for the future.


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