Testimony Essay - Critical Context

Dmitri Shostakovich

Critical Context

When Testimony was published in the West after Shostakovich’s death, his relatives denounced it as a fraud. This reaction was probably motivated by fear of reprisals, although Shostakovich does not attack Socialism, the Soviet system itself, or the Russian motherland. He was a great defender of Russia even though he himself was of Polish descent and his great-grandfather and grandfather had participated in the Polish uprisings against the czars in 1830 and 1863. With Testimony, Shostakovich stands not only as a musical giant of the twentieth century but also as an important witness of Soviet society, adding his voice to those of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn, and others who have recorded the horrors and absurdities of Stalinism. In particular, Testimony provides a picture of Stalin which can aid in evaluating one of the most controversial leaders of the modern age.

Shostakovich’s autobiography is a book of contradictions. Here is a party man denouncing the Party. He relates a tale of hardship, sorrow, and fear. He describes the slanders and denunciations he underwent. Yet he was honored throughout his life, winning the Stalin Prize—awarded by the general secretary himself—thirteen times from 1941 to 1951. Nevertheless, honesty is the basis and survival is the theme of this autobiography. In one part Shostakovich tells of his enjoyment of the American musical comedy Fiddler on the Roof, which he saw in New York. He understood the message of the show to be a yearning for the homeland. Shostakovich himself, however, was also a fiddler on the roof, trying to hold his balance while scratching out a passable tune.