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Russian Music since 1917Reappraisal and Rediscovery$

Patrick Zuk and Marina Frolova-Walker

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266151

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266151.001.0001

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The Stalinist Opera Project

The Stalinist Opera Project

(p.164) Chapter 8 The Stalinist Opera Project
Russian Music since 1917

Yekaterina Vlasova

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the concerted attempts made during the Stalinist era to create a repertory of new Soviet operas on Socialist Realist lines—a project in which the dictator is known to have attached great importance. In spite of the resources lavished on the Bolshoi Theatre to help it realise this aim, the project proved an abysmal failure: scarcely any of the works commissioned made it onto the stage, either because of their artistic mediocrity or because they fell foul of the censor. This episode is a dramatic illustration of the counterproductive effects of state interference in artistic life.

Keywords:   Soviet opera, Bolshoi Theatre, Stalin and the arts, censorship, Socialist Realism

To say that an opera is ‘Soviet’ is not necessarily an indication of its quality.

Nikolay Golovanov1

THE STALINIST PERIOD SAW the institution of a strict hierarchy of musical genres corresponding to their official ideological importance. This system gradually became engrained in general awareness, at first though the public dissemination of official policy statements issued by composers’ organisations and subsequently through co-authored scholarly reference works and textbooks written during the Soviet period (and because of inertia, the post-Soviet period also). Song was considered to be the most ‘democratic’ genre with the greatest ‘mass appeal’. Of the so-called ‘academic’ genres, opera was traditionally accorded a place of principal importance.2 It is no accident that most of the Party directives on music concerned opera, and especially the subject matter of operas staged at the Bolshoi Theatre: the Soviet news agency TASS’s bulletin ‘Comrade Stalin and Molotov’s conversation with the creators of the opera The Quiet Don’ (17 January 1936); the Pravda editorial ‘Muddle instead of music’ (28 January 1936); the Central Committee decree ‘On the opera The Great Friendship by Vano Muradeli’ (10 February 1948); and the Pravda editorials ‘An unsuccessful opera: on the production of With All One’s Heart at the Bolshoi Theatre’ (19 April 1951) and ‘On the opera Bogdan Khmel’nitskiy’ (20 July 1951).

The task of creating a Soviet operatic repertory became incumbent on composers after Stalin and Molotov went to see Ivan Dzerzhinsky’s The Quiet Don at the start of 1936, and it remained a priority for the remainder of the (p.165) Stalinist era. Its fulfilment was almost as much of a priority in terms of its ideological significance as the national drive to collectivise and industrialise agriculture. The birth of Soviet opera was supposed to have been the crowning success and triumphant vindication of state policy in regard of music. Because of this, the state spared neither material nor organisational resources to accomplish its aim, concentrating them primarily at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The country’s leading opera house now came under Stalin’s personal supervision.

Stalin’s Management of the Bolshoi Theatre

In December 1949, the Bolshoi staff sent Stalin a letter of congratulations to mark his forthcoming seventieth birthday. Alongside the standard formulae customary at that period (‘the workers of our country associate with your name, dear Iosif Vissarionovich, all of their achievements, successes, and victories on the fronts of economic and cultural construction’), we also find the following passage:

Your instructions to us about the staging of the opera Ivan Susanin and the production of The Power of the Fiend, like the Central Committee’s resolution about Muradeli’s The Great Friendship which was drafted at your initiative, are enormously significant for the development of a flourishing theatrical art at the Bolshoi Theatre and for the art of music in our country in its entirety. In accordance with your directive to create a repertory of Soviet operas, the Bolshoi Theatre’s company gives you its word that it will mount productions of the new operas The Decembrists by Yu[riy] Shaporin and With All One’s Heart by German Zhukovsky which will be on the highest ideological and artistic level.3

Aside from providing proof of the fact that the 1948 resolution was directly prompted by Stalin’s dissatisfaction with the Bolshoi’s new operatic production, the letter acknowledges his personal constant control and direct influence on the repertoire and engagement of personnel at the country’s leading theatre.4 One can safely assume that its extremely restricted repertoire reflected Stalin’s personal enthusiasms, and the appointment and promotion of soloists, conductors and directors were effected at the behest of the Kremlin’s over-lord. Further documentary testimony to this fact is provided by the following internal memorandum written by Avel’ Yenukidze at an earlier period: (p.166)

The ballet soloist Vera Vasil’yeva, while waiting her turn to be admitted to [Yelena] Malinovskaya’s office in the box reserved for the theatre management, inadvertently overheard a conversation that she was having with [Albert] Coates.5 It seemed to Vasil’yeva that she was explaining the way in which GABT (the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre) was run. It emerged from her account that the role of GABT’s director was virtually insignificant, and that GABT was effectively run by the Government Commission which was in turn controlled by Stalin himself.

12 June 1932 [signature illegible]6

The government body in question was the ‘Commission of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee for the management of the Bolshoi and Artistic Theatres of the USSR’,7 which had been established by a Politburo decree on Yenukidze’s initiative. It met for the first time on 13 November 1930. Its responsibilities included direct control—bypassing Narkompros—of the country’s two principal theatres, the Bolshoi and the Moscow Artistic Academic Theatre (MKhAT). The commission comprised five Central Committee secretaries. Yenukidze usually acted as chairman, and Kliment Voroshilov, another prominent political figure of these years, also took an active role. It convened in the meeting hall of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee in the Kremlin, and the People’s Commissar Andrey Bubnov and the directors of the Bolshoi and MKhAT were also invited to attend.

The setting up of the commission signalled the inauguration of a new phase in the activities of the Bolshoi Theatre—first and foremost by the introduction of an entire system of privileges and perks that enabled its employees to enjoy lifestyles that were very different to those of ordinary Soviet citizens. The theatre became a ‘state within a state’. Company members could avail of special flats, dachas (for leading soloists, in locations by the Black Sea Coast as well as the greater Moscow area), health resorts reserved for high-ranking Party officials, two restricted-access canteens, summer camps for their children, workshops to mend their clothes and footwear, a dedicated health centre, monthly soloists’ allowances on taxi fares, restricted access shops, lengthy foreign tours for leading singers and dancers; and, needless to say, (p.167) salaries that were significantly higher than those paid by other theatres. Within a year, the former Mariinsky Theatre also sought—unavailingly—to be brought under the commission’s direct control. Henceforth, the Bolshoi’s position as the cultural showcase of the Stalinist regime and the leading Imperial theatre of the Stalinist empire would remain unassailable.

After the establishment of the government commission, the Bolshoi’s programming policy immediately underwent significant change and the focus shifted to the Russian operatic repertoire. Of particular note was the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh was only put on at the Bolshoi, and at no other theatre in the country. Kitezh was one of Stalin’s favourite stage works, like the play Days of the Turbins [Dni Turbinïkh], adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard, which could only be staged at MKhAT. Contemporary Western operas and ballets completely disappeared from posters. As late as the early 1930s, Malinovskaya was still making representations to Yenukidze about reviving the 1921 production of Petrushka, but her efforts were futile. Her plans also included a production of The Firebird. Not only would such repertory remain conspicuously unperformed for the remainder of the Stalinist period, but even the very possibility of performing it does not seem to have come up for discussion again. The situation remained unchanged when the Bolshoi came under the control of the new-constituted Committee on Artistic Affairs in 1936.

Shortly after the promulgation of the 1948 resolution ‘On the opera The Great Friendship by V. Muradeli’, the newly appointed Chairman of the Committee on Artistic Affairs Polikarp Lebedev sent Andrey Zhdanov a memorandum entitled ‘On shortcomings in the work of the Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR and measures to address them’. Zhdanov’s department prepared a special resolution concerning the Bolshoi, which was issued on 17 May 1948. This document adduced the following statistics: the theatre staged twenty-eight operas in 1913–1914; thirty-two in 1926–1927; twenty-five in 1935–1936; eighteen in 1946–1947; and in 1947–1948 only fifteen (on its two stages). Nine of these went on the main stage (Ivan Susanin, Ruslan and Lyudmila, Prince Igor’, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, The Power of the Fiend, Iolanta, Snegurochka and Carmen).8 The preponderance of Russian operas was the inevitable consequence of stringent censorship, the need to be constantly alert to signals from ‘on high’, and the fear of doing anything that might cause undesirable constructions to be placed on things that were seemingly innocuous.

(p.168) The ill-fated premiere on 20 May 1948 of a new production of Russlan and Lyudmila, conducted by Aleksandr Melik-Pashayev, is a good case in point. In a memorandum to Zhdanov, his assistant Dmitriy Shepilov reported that the production had been pulled because ‘it had not come up to our expectations: it is an inadequate realisation of Glinka’s masterpiece, and in places, quite distorts it. The fundamental and progressive idea at the heart of the opera—the exaltation of the heroic might of the Russian people, and its progressive and liberating role for other nations—was inexcusably diminished.’ He also criticised the portrayal of Lyudmila, ‘who is portrayed merely as a capricious, wayward girl … whereas Glinka characterised her as a proud Russian girl who, if necessary, “knows how to die”. … As a result, Glinka’s conception remained unrealised.’9

Stalin’s directive to create a Soviet operatic repertory kept the Committee on Artistic Affairs and the Bolshoi’s management and company under constant pressure, forcing them to come up with new strategies on a continuous basis. In 1948, in the wake of two Central Committee resolutions on opera, it entered some managerial head to form so-called ‘creative brigades’ (tvorcheskiye brigadï) to assist composers, librettists and directors of new stage works. A similar initiative had previously been introduced at MALEGOT (the Leningrad State Academic Malïy Opera Theatre) in the 1930s, when the theatre created a production team whose task it was to see new operas onto the stage. The term ‘brigade’ itself had been introduced into musical life during the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians’ (RAPM’s) period of hegemony back in the late 1920s.

After the conclusion of the anti-formalism campaign of 1936, the Bolshoi organised a ‘creative workshop’ led by the director Vladimir Vladimirov. It commissioned a number of operas, including Marian Koval’’s Yemel’yan Pugachyov, Anatoliy Aleksandrov’s Bėla, Sergey Vasilenko’s Suvorov and Vano Muradeli’s Sergo Ordzhonikidze.10 Only two of them were eventually premiered by the theatre a decade or so later—Bėla and Yemel’yan Pugachyov, in 1946 and 1947 respectively. (Koval’’s opera had been staged during the war by the Kirov Theatre and Suvorov in 1942 by the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre.)

By the autumn of 1949 it had become evident that this system would not yield interesting artistic results. In a report on the theatre’s efforts to create Soviet operas, the Bolshoi director Aleksandr Solodovnikov complained: ‘Many brigades were formed at random and contained idlers rather than creative people. … But is this system actually necessary? I regard it as (p.169) indispensable—in the first place, because very few of our composers have mastered operatic forms (as Muradeli has remarked).’11

The ‘very few’ composers, of course, included those condemned as ‘formalists’ in 1948—the genuine professionals. The ones at the helm of the Composers’ Union after 1948 had not mastered operatic forms either. Koval’’s opera Sevastopol’tsï [The People of Sebastopol] had been scheduled for production in 1949, but Solodovnikov reported that the production had been pulled ‘because of the weak quality of the music. At the start of the year Koval’ sought help from the theatre … [and] a creative brigade was set up.’12 However, even that was not enough to bring the work into a performable state.

It is not an exaggeration to state that every Soviet composer of opera dreamed of having his or her work put on at the Bolshoi. This was a sign of the highest official recognition, so they sought to realise their aspiration by fair means or foul—some by sending letters to high-ranking officials, others by exploiting their own official positions. In 1949 Solodovnikov complained again: ‘Some comrades outside the Bolshoi have formed the impression that we are not showing enough interest in new operas and ballets by Soviet composers. This view was recently articulated by Tikhon Khennikov in his presentation at a meeting of the Committee on Artistic Affairs.’13

Khrennikov specifically reproached the management of the Bolshoi for failing to put on Dmitriy Kabalevsky’s opera Sem’ya Tarasa [The Family of Taras], Yuliy Meitus’s Molodaya gvardiya [The Young Guard], Mikhail Krasev’s Morozko [Grandfather Frost] and Kirill Molchanov’s Kamennïy tsvetok [The Stone Flower], as well as his own opera Frol Skobeyev. Solodovnikov defended the theatre’s decisions, adding that play-throughs of the operas had been arranged and that ‘they had been deemed unworthy of production, apart from The Family of Taras’.14

The History of an Unfinished Opera: October, by Lugovskoy, Shostakovich and Muradeli

In early 1949, the government announced another competition to encourage the composition of new Soviet operas.15 In practice, this meant that the government was once again providing substantial financial support for the (p.170) Stalinist opera project—535,000 roubles, a sum roughly equivalent to at least £4,500,000 today (2016) in terms of purchasing power. The theatre announced plans to start work on twelve scores, all of whose composers were to be paid commission fees at the very top of the scale instituted by the Committee on Artistic Affairs in 1946: 60,000 roubles for an opera and 40,000 roubles for a ballet. The Music Theatre section of the Writers Union was also involved: the poets Vladimir Lugovskoy and Yaroslav Smelyakov and the writers Lev Kassil’ and Vasiliy Grossman were assigned the task of writing libretti. Khrennikov, Kabalevsky, Shostakovich and Khachaturian were amongst the Composers’ Union members nominated to contribute to the project.

The opera on which Shostakovich was supposed to work was described as follows by Solodovnikov:

The most important of the proposed commissions is Oktyabr’ [October], an opera about the first days of the Great October Socialist Revolution and its heroes. … A libretto has been commissioned from the poet V[ladimir] Lugovskoy, who submitted an extended proposal in June of this year which was approved by the Bolshoi management and the Committee on Artistic Affairs. The libretto will be an original treatment of this theme, depicting the social splits in Russia in the first days of the 1917 Revolution. Through highly-charged dramatic confrontations, it portrays the proletariat’s struggle to win power and the support for the revolution shown by progressive representatives of the intelligentsia. The extracts that have been recited by the poet V. Lugovskoy are of self-sufficient literary value and possess great poetic merit. The composer D[mitriy] D[mitriyevich] Shostakovich has signed a contract to write the music, and in meetings with the theatre management has discussed interesting ways of treating the subject. What he has in mind is the use of folk revolutionary melodies that were current at that period, a creative approach at which D. D. Shostakovich has shown himself to be particularly adept—we recall the music he wrote for the film trilogy about Maksim.16 It seems to me that a collaboration between V. Lugovskoy and D. Shostakovich ought to yield results of unquestionable significance. The libretto was supposed to be delivered to the theatre on 15 September. On account of Lugovskoy’s protracted illness, this deadline has been extended by two to two and a half months.17

In the event, however, Shostakovich declined to write the music, and Vano Muradeli’s services were enlisted instead. On 21 June 1951, Lugovskoy and Muradeli sent Stalin a letter: (p.171)

Dear Iosif Vissarionovich,

We have been working on the opera October for two years. We most earnestly beg you to acquaint yourself with the text of this opera and help us in our work.

Yours very sincerely,

Vl[adimir] Lugovskoy

Vano Muradeli

21 June 195118

October’s libretto focused on events between April and October 1917 and comprised seven scenes—‘In front of Finland Station’, ‘Kronshtadt’, ‘The salon of Countess Kleynmikhel’’, ‘On the Neva’, ‘In Putilovo’, ‘Razliv’,19 ‘The Storming of the Winter Palace’. The authors described their opus as a ‘folk-heroic drama’. The principal characters were supposed to be Lenin and Stalin. Lugovskoy and Muradeli had undoubtedly studied Vsevolod Vishnevsky’s play Nezabïvayemïy 1919 [Unforgettable 1919], which was awarded a Stalin Prize first class and furnished the basis for Mikhail Chiaureli’s film of the same name. As in the play, the action of the opera featured a conspiracy, here centring on the ci-devant Countess Kleynmikhel, a spy who spins webs of counter-revolutionary intrigue from her salon. The characters also included real people—Mikhail Rodzyanko, the Chairman of the Third and Fourth Dumas who persuaded Nicholas II to abdicate, and George William Buchanan, the British ambassador to Russia. There is one further negative hero—Mr Smith, a generalised representative of the world bourgeoisie, a caricature akin to those typical of the Cold War years. The text of his ditty was lifted straight from the pages of the Soviet satirical journal Krokodil [Crocodile]:

  • I am Mister Smith, yes, Mister Smith,
  • And the whole world looks at me,
  • Businessmen the world over
  • Look me straight in the gob, okay!
  • Ho-ho! Let go! I want to slap
  • An old woman on the back:
  • I’d pay for it! Okay!
  • That Europe of yours is trash…
  • I wouldn’t give a cent for it…
  • But I’ll give five billion to those
  • Who’ll be with us—hop!—completely!
  • And if… okay!
  • To your port comes
  • The American fleet… (p.172)
  • Then without kidding you can simply,
  • Calmly say: ‘Okay!’20

In contrast to Vishnevsky’s play, in which Lenin and Stalin spoke in a realistic conversational manner, the operatic portrayal of both leaders was highly mythologised, portraying them as overseers of the Revolution accompanied by apostles and angels (‘the Bolshevik Andrey’, ‘The Fisherman’, ‘The Boy’) who come down straight from the heavens. The final scene, ‘Razliv’, is particularly striking in this regard:

Above the lake, the dawn splendour illumines the boat and the figure of Stalin standing onboard. The Boy rows towards the shore. Andrey and The Fisherman rush towards the boat. Stalin steps ashore. The first ray of sun engilds his head. He slightly raises his peaked cap. He greets them, and silently, slowly, pensively, walks far upstage bathed in the ray of light, following the familiar path to Lenin’s hut, which is not visible.

A long sustained pause instigates a symphonic interlude evoking the future. In it, one hears the battles and victories to come, the great hopes and accomplishments, the grief of the people for their fallen heroes, and radiant happiness, joy, and life, lit up by the flames of centuries of communism.

The central musical portrayal. A choir sings in the distance ‘The Little White Birch Tree’. The sun rises. Lenin and Stalin stand in the rays of the sun.

All of Lenin and Stalin’s subsequent conversation is recited freely against the musical background:


  • The East is aflame. Look, the sun has risen.
  • Lenin:

  • Say, how fares the West now?
  • Stalin:

  • The peoples of the earth believe us
  • And await our victory.
  • Lenin:

  • How does the bourgeoisie comport itself ?
  • Stalin:

  • It does not believe, and proclaims everywhere
  • That if we come to power in Russia
  • We can in no wise suppress them;
  • And if, contrary to expectations, we win out,
  • They will fall on us unawares and put us to rout.
  • Lenin:

  • I think that in the future, time and again,
  • America and the masters of Europe
  • Will seek to hinder us in everything…
  • Stalin:

  • Universal history is fated
  • To raise all of humanity to freedom
  • And bring peace and happiness to the peoples.
  • Lenin:

  • And that hour has dawned!
  • A powerful upsurge from the orchestra and choir. Curtain.21


    The text of the libretto is preserved in the archive of the Central Committee’s Literature and Art Division. Every new work which was prepared for a premiere on the Bolshoi stage was the subject of numerous committee discussions and underwent stringent review by Central Committee members. This opera was no exception, and it did not make it past the Committee’s filter. October aroused a sharply critical response from the Division, which complained that ‘the authors of the libretto were unable to find the necessary artistic means to realise their plan’.22 One of their most serious reservations was that Lenin and Stalin did not sing, but ‘merely recited’. A no less important motivation informing the Division’s decision to block the work from being performed, it would seem, was the fear that ‘The Boss’, as Stalin’s inner circle called him, would take exception to this first attempt to depict him on the operatic stage.

    It appears that Lugovskoy and Muradeli used every means at their disposal to secure a success. The opera features the revolutionary song ‘Boldly, comrades, in step’ as well as folk melodies. The plot, which is based on the Civil War, a subject that had been recommended to Soviet composers by Glavrepertkom back in the 1920s, features iconic symbols of the Revolution—the armoured car that Lenin climbs into under the glare of spotlights; the storming of the Winter Palace. This score became a kind of textbook compilation of seemingly every artistic cliché of the period. In 1936, foreseeing such a turn of events in the development of Soviet opera soon after the publication of TASS’s report concerning Stalin and Molotov’s meeting with the authors of The Quiet Don, the then chief conductor at the Bolshoi Nikolay Golovanov remarked: ‘under the banner of “Sovietness” a lot of operatic rubbish is starting to creep onto the stage. Its prestige will be hollow and it will only discredit opera as an art form. To say that an opera is “Soviet” is not necessarily an indication of its quality.’23

    Aside from October, the other works commissioned by the Bolshoi at the period all focused on kolkhoz and workers’ themes, such as the following:

    Komsomol’sk (working title). Romantic opera about the construction of the new city [the purpose-built city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East] and the realisation of dreams for a communist future. Libretto: L[ev] Kassil’. Music: T[ikhon] Khrennikov. Projected date of completion: late 1950. (p.174)

    Svet [Light]. A ballet about the people constructing the socialist countryside and the moral character of Soviet youth. Libretto: [Mikhail] Gabovich. Music: [Dmitriy] Kabalevsky. Projected date of completion: late 1950.

    Moskovskiye zori [Moscow dawn]. Ballet about the construction of socialist Moscow. Libretto: L[ev] Kassil’. Music: A[ram] Khachaturian. Projected date of completion: late 1949.

    A kolkhoz ballet on themes from the film Svinarka i pastukh [The Swineherdess and the Shepherd]. Libretto: L. Radunsky. Music: T[ikhon] Khrennikov and [Aleksandr] Arutyunyan. Projected date of completion: late 1949.24

    Not one of the new works planned by the Bolshoi in 1949 went into production, and all died a natural death from artistic anaemia. Nevertheless, the allocated funding was spent on advances to the librettists and composers. The smartest of them managed to survive in this way for decades, constantly extracting sizeable sums of money from the authorities and moving from one financially lucrative contract to another as times changed.

    The Productions of From All One’s Heart and Bogdan Khmel’nitsky

    On Saturday 10 February 1951, Pravda carried an editorial entitled ‘To new Soviet musical successes!’. The article marked the third anniversary of the promulgation of the 1948 resolution ‘On the opera The Great Friendship by Vano Muradeli’ and dealt with all aspects of contemporary musical life, summarising developments during the intervening period. It averred that ‘only the first steps have been taken in the development of realistic art’ and that ‘the pernicious consequences of formalistic perversions are still perceptible in the work of individual composers’. A separate and substantial part of the article was devoted to opera. ‘Soviet composers are entrusted with an honourable task—to raise Soviet opera to the level of the great Russian operatic classics’, it declared, and went on to claim that over twenty new operas had been staged in the last three years. These included Meitus’s The Young Guard, Kabalevsky’s The Family of Taras, Lev Stepanov’s Ivan Bolotnikov, Konstantin Dan’kevich’s Bogdan Khmel’nitsky, Gustav Ėrnesaks’s Bereg bur’ [The Stormy Shore], Aro Stepanyan’s Geroinya [The Heroine] and Zhukovsky’s With All One’s Heart. However, the anonymous author opined that ‘even the most successful of these operas are not free from significant shortcomings’. Amongst the most serious were the emotional superficiality of the protagonists and the absence of expressive musical characterisation. The (p.175) new operas were deemed ‘still lacking broad melodiousness, especially in the arias’, and composers to have had insufficient recourse to the ‘inexhaustible melodic wealth of our native folk songs’. The quality of the libretti also aroused criticism. Once again, ‘the traditions of the Russian operatic classics’ were held up as models for emulation.

    At the time of the article’s appearance, the Bolshoi company was performing a new opera by the Ukrainian composer German Zhukovsky entitled From All One’s Heart—the first to be staged since the 1948 resolution. The theatre’s artistic director and principal conductor Nikolay Golovanov had categorically refused to perform new operas since his experiences conducting Dzerzhinsky’s The Quiet Don in 1936, which he had to reorchestrate. For the three years between 1948 and 1951, productions of new operas ceased and the company focused primarily on staging Russian repertoire of the pre-Revolutionary period. It was duly awarded several Stalin Prizes for its efforts—two in 1949 for Boris Godunov and The Bartered Bride, two in 1950 for Sadko and Mazeppa and one in 1951 for Khovanshchina. The opera From All One’s Heart received positive reports from the Committee on Artistic Affairs and the Composers’ Union, and a production of the opera in Saratov was awarded a Stalin Prize. However, on 19 April 1951 Pravda published an editorial ‘An unsuccessful opera: on the production of From All One’s Heart at the Bolshoi Theatre’. Corrective measures were not slow to follow: in an unprecedented occurrence, the composer was stripped of his Stalin Prize; the opera was dropped from the repertoire; and the Director of the Bolshoi Aleksandr Solodovnikov was sacked, as was Polikarp Lebedev, the Chairman of the Committee on Artistic Affairs. Blame also accrued to the head of the Composers’ Union Tikhon Khrennikov for supporting the ‘unsuccessful opera’, but he nonetheless remained in post.

    However, the article was notably different in its style and approach to other public pronouncements and decrees of the Stalinist era, especially in its careful marshalling of evidence, its argumentation and the specificity of its criticisms. Zhukovsky’s score undoubtedly was poor, but was not noticeably worse than other operas written in the period. ‘The opera’s plot is dramatically static and lacks cogency. The action is constructed around scattered episodes lacking any connection with one another,’ the editorial observed.25 The authors of the libretto, the poets Bagmet and Kovalenkov, set the action of the Prologue in Altay (in central Asia) (as in Elizar Mal’tsev’s novel): the kolkhoz workers and the chief heroine Grunya Vasil’tsova are attempting to save the future harvest from a snowstorm by erecting protective shields to prevent snow accumulating in the fields. However, the action of the remainder of the opera shifts to Ukraine, where Grunya and her entire kolkhoz are (p.176) mysteriously relocated. It was evidently more convenient for the composer to draw on a folk tradition with which he was familiar, as it made it easier to provide the requisite local national colour—but this decision gave rise to a glaring absurdity in the libretto. There are a number of similar instances. For example, in the Prologue, the kolkhoz’s Party Coordinator Gordey Il’ich goes off to the front to avenge himself for the deaths of his sons. In the first act, he reappears on stage, leaving the spectator wondering whether he has already left and returned, or whether he has yet to depart. The anonymous author also remarked: ‘Melody in opera, like other musical and dramatic expressive means, should function first and foremost to create vivid characters and reflect the action as it develops. In From All One’s Heart, however, the melodic material is generally insipid and lacking in individual character traits. The heroes of the opera are musically indistinguishable and the listener forms the impression that they all seem to be singing much the same kind of music.’26 It is difficult to argue with this assessment.

    ‘The arias and ensembles are in many cases devoid of genuine melodic and dramatic vividness; their occurrence often seems unmotivated by the development of ideas or the plot; they do not eventuate in musical culminations that sum up the import of the preceding events. The overwhelming majority of the recitatives are inexpressive and characterless.’27 Only a professional musicologist could have written such a passage. The article commented in detail not only on the libretto, but also on the opera’s melodic language, formal construction, the style of the choral episodes, the orchestration, the performers and the details of the production, including the sets and staging.

    The word ‘dramaturgy’ recurs several times: for example, the author alludes to ‘all that we understand by the term “musical dramaturgy”, without which an opera cannot authentically reflect life or faithfully depict the development of characters in their encounters with one another’. This leads me to hazard the guess that the author was the Central Committee staff member Boris Yarustovsky. In 1951, Yarustovsky was working on his doctoral dissertation ‘The Dramaturgy of the Russian Operatic Classics’. His Masters dissertation was a study of Tchaikovsky’s operatic dramaturgy. Zhukovsky’s opera was not the only one criticised in the Pravda editorial. Composers of opera who had made it to the top—or hoped to make it to the top—could read this article as an implied criticism of their own efforts. And were it not for the repercussions that followed, it could simply be regarded as a piece of high-quality music criticism. Its language is notably different to that of articles such as ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ and ‘Balletic falsehood’, which (p.177) were written by Pravda’s political columnist David Zaslavsky, as recent research by Yevgeniy Yefimov has shown.28

    The year 1951 also saw a second notable contretemps connected with the production of a new Soviet opera during the second dekada (ten-day festival) devoted to Ukrainian artists, held between 15 and 25 June. A considerable proportion of the musical part of the programme was given over to opera. The Kiev Opera and Ballet Theatre brought three productions: Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, the first national Ukrainian opera The Zaporozhian Cossack from Beyond the Danube by the nineteenth-century composer Semyon Gulak-Artemovsky, and the recently commissioned opera Bogdan Khmel’nitsky by Konstantin Dan’kevich.29 The latter was based on the play of the same name by the Ukrainian writer Aleksandr Korneychuk (Oleksandr Korniychuk), one of the most popular national literary figures of the Stalinist period. By the time of the opera’s Moscow premiere, Korneychuk had been awarded five Stalin Prizes (one of them for Bogdan Khmel’nitsky), and was Chairman of the Ukrainian Writers Union and a member of the directorate of the Writers Union of the USSR. He was also a political heavy-weight: he simultaneously held the posts of deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the Supreme Soviet of the Ukranian USSR, as well as being chairman of the latter. Korneychuk co-authored the libretto with his second wife Vanda Vasilevskaya (Wanda Wasilewska), herself the recipient of two Stalin Prizes. Bogdan Khmel’nitsky, which was first staged in 1939, occupied a prominent place amongst the meagre Soviet dramatic repertoire. As a literary basis for an opera, it could hardly arouse misgivings about its ideological soundness. The opera was regarded as a major musical event and the prize attraction in the programme. The dekada opened with its performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. On the following day, 16 June, Pravda reported:

    The production featured the company’s finest talent. The opera’s fine music, the melodious Ukrainian songs, the fine orchestra, the talented performances of the major roles were all warmly received by the audience. … In spite of its merits, the opera has serious shortcomings, arising first and foremost from its weak libretto (written by V[anda] Vasilevskaya and Korneychuk). One of its principal weaknesses is its departure from historical truth: it does not portray the struggle between the Ukrainian people and the Polish szlachta [nobility]. The enemy camp of the Polish szlachta is not shown at all on stage. For some reason, it is hidden from the spectator. … The events portrayed in the opera occur during the period when the Ukrainian people fought for their independence from the Polish szlachta. Yet the spectator does not see a single battle scene. The opera has other shortcomings, which will be discussed in due course.30


    Just over a month later, Pravda published an editorial entitled ‘On the opera Bogdan Khmel’nitsky’. While noting the generally ‘sound tendencies of Konstantin Dan’kevich’s music’, the author observed that ‘the fundamental shortcomings of the opera Bogdan Khmel’nitsky arose from its weak libretto, in which there are wholly unwarranted departures from historical truth’.31 This was thus the second leading article on Soviet opera published in the newspaper that year.

    The motive for its publication would seem to have little to do with the quality of either the libretto or the music—rather, it was connected with specific national policies being pursued by Stalin at a time when his personality cult was at its height. A week after the Ukrainian dekada concluded, Pravda published an article ‘Against ideological perversions in literature’. At first sight, it appeared to focus on the publication in the Leningrad journal Zvezda of a poem by the Ukrainian writer Vladimir Sosyura entitled Love the Ukraine, in a translation by a member of the editorial board, the poet Aleksandr Prokof’yev. In reality, the article signalled the onset of a new ideological campaign against ‘nationalistic perversions’ in the arts of the USSR’s national republics:

    The question arises: which Ukraine does the poet have in mind, and which Ukraine is Sosyura extolling? Is it the one that groaned for centuries under the oppressors’ yoke? … In Sosyura’s poem, we do not find the image which every true patriot holds infinitely dear—the image of our socialist Motherland, Soviet Ukraine.32 … Perversions in the ideological realm are also encountered in the artistic domain. For example, the Kiev Opera and Ballet Theatre put on the opera Bodgan Khmel’nitsky, the libretto of which contains serious defects—as has been discussed in Pravda.33

    In spite of this, Bodgan Khmel’nitsky received two further performances at the Bolshoi on 17 June and on the closing night of the festival on 24 June. Pravda contained articles practically every day on this important political event, and even quoted Korneychuk as saying: ‘We not only became aware of our strengths, but also of our weaknesses. We came to understand more fully just how much effort is required to create works that are worthy of our age.’34

    Korneychuk and Vasilevskaya reworked the libretto in complete accordance with the requirements set out in the Pravda article. The revised version is preserved in Vyacheslav Molotov’s documentary collection in the archive of the Central Committee’s Literature and Art Division. The librettists, both of whom were well used to bureaucratic difficulties of this kind, (p.179) enlisted the support of the wider artistic community and elicited feedback from the Writers Union, the Kiev Opera Theatre, the Historical Institute and the Committee on Artistic Affairs. They summed up the changes as follows:


    The suffering and active struggle of the Ukrainian people

    The Polish szlachta camp


    The portrayal of Bogdan Khmel’nitsky has been broadened to show him as a military commander, strategist, statesman, and mouthpiece of the nation’s hopes…

    Quartets, new duets, and new choruses have been added.35

    However, the Literature and Art Division’s staff members Kruzhkov, Tarasov and Yarustovsky, evidently anxious to be on the safe side, requested eleven further amendments. On 28 March 1952, Molotov sent a memorandum to Stalin’s protégé Mikhail Suslov defending Korneychuk and Vasilevskaya:

    I regarded the authors, comrades Vasilevskaya and Korneychuk, to have essentially fulfilled their obligations in regard of the revisions to the libretto of the opera Bogdan Khmel’nitsky. Notwithstanding the validity of few observations and criticisms by comrades Kruzhkov, Tarasov, and Yarustovsky (for example, points 1, 7, and 8), on the whole their criticisms exaggerate the defects of the libretto.

    The submitted libretto ought to be cut as proposed in three comments (point 11), which would obviate the need for all the additional revisions proposed by our three colleagues in points 1–10.36

    Molotov’s suggestions were endorsed by two other members of the Central Committee, Panteleymon Ponomarenko and Nikita Khrushchev. This incident graphically illustrates the degree of government intervention in the domain of Soviet opera. Endless alterations and endless embroilment in bureaucratic procedures—such was what lay in store for those brave souls who undertook the task of creating new Soviet operas.

    During the Stalinist period, disastrous policies in regard of opera resulted in the sackings of two chairmen of the Committee on Artistic Affairs (equivalent to the Ministers of Culture of today)—Mikhail Khrapchenko in 1948 and Polikarp Lebedev in 1951. Remarkably, it was not film (in Lenin’s view, ‘the most important of the arts’), not literature, not theatre, but opera that proved the greatest stumbling block for Soviet cultural bureaucrats. On 8 (p.180) February 1952, the recently appointed Chairman of the Committee on Artistic Affairs, Nikolay Bespalov, devised a new initiative in January–February 1952 to provide ‘material incentives to Soviet composers to undertake the writing of Soviet operas’, as he summarised its central aim in a submission to the Central Committee and its Literature and Art Division. Bespalov began by sending a letter to the Central Committee Secretary Georgiy Malenkov on 5 January:

    Soviet composers are confronted with the responsible task of writing operas that meet the lofty requirements of the people. However, the core group of composers who are capable of successfully accomplishing this task are unable to devote themselves entirely to working on this most complex of art forms. This is because the top echelon of composers is overburdened with official and social commitments. Aside from that, the lack of material incentives to compose operas prompts them to concentrate on writing film music and incidental music [prikladnaya muzïka].

    As a result, composers such as Shostakovich, Khrennikov, Kabalevsky, Koval’, Khachaturian, and some others, though they have interesting ideas for operas, are slow to realise them and can work on them only in fits and starts, in their very limited free time. Most of the composers who are actively working on operas are those of a lesser order of talent.

    In order to turn this situation around and encourage the creation of ideologically valuable Soviet operas of high artistic quality, the Committee on Artistic Affairs considers it essential to secure the services of the most talented composers and establish conditions conducive to their creativity. With this aim in view, I submit for your consideration a proposal for state sponsorship of a group of composers to work on operas for a period of a year, providing them with a monthly subsidy independent of any commissioning fees that they will subsequently receive.

    I personally recommend the following composers: Dmitriy Shostakovich, Dmitriy Kabalevsky, Tikhon Khrennikov, Andrey Shtogarenko, Marian Koval’, Kirill Molchanov, Eugen Kapp, Otar Taktakishvili, Aram Khachaturian.

    The monthly stipends should be fixed at 3,000, 5,000, 7,000, and 10,000 roubles. The stipends should only be paid once the composers submit a detailed proposal and the Committee on Artistic Affairs has approved the projected programme of work for the year.

    The total cost of sponsoring these composers will come to 500,000 roubles per annum. There is every indication that these costs are justified and will yield the expected results. A system of this nature will allow the Committee on Artistic Affairs to exert systematic control over composers’ work, provide them with the assistance that they require, and ultimately to demand from them worthwhile artistic results.

    In addition, I am submitting a proposal to grant a year’s leave of absence to the composers Khrennikov and Koval’, who are acting as Secretaries of the (p.181) Composers’ Union. Both of these composers have previously written operas that have received positive evaluations, but have stopped working on new compositions on account of their official workloads. The year’s leave will enable them to work on new operas.37

    Shostakovich was to receive the largest stipend—10,000 roubles a month; Khrennikov, Khachaturian and Koval’—7,000; Shtogarenko and Kapp—5,000; and Molchanov and Taktakishvili—3,000. After revising his proposal in response to feedback, Bespalov submitted another draft of a USSR Council of Ministers resolution proposing a different system of payment, this time in the form of personalised contracts providing more lucrative remuneration. The list of composers was cut from nine to seven. Shostakovich was once again to be awarded the highest rate of 200,000 roubles for writing an opera (equivalent to the value of two Stalin Prizes first class); Khrennikov, Kabalevsky and Khachaturian—150,000 roubles; Koval’, Kapp and Molchanov—120,000 roubles. Bespalov also proposed that this group of seven composers should be allowed six months’ residence in an artists’ retreat free of charge.

    The Demise of the Soviet Opera Project

    As we have seen, the government did not stint with either material or artistic resources on the ‘Stalinist opera project’. Poets, writers, composers, artists, singers and conductors were enlisted for this purpose and became part of the Stalinist elite. It seemed as though it would be possible to create operas in much the same way as one constructed hydroelectric power stations, factories, airplanes, tanks, new cities and the best metro in the world. Soviet opera was to be ‘constructed’ by the world at large. Different modes of collective working were attempted and invented. Directors and conductors were hired and fired. Every one of them was confronted with a single important task that proved impossible to accomplish.

    The demise of the Soviet opera project was largely caused by the government’s insistence that ideological concerns should take precedence over purely artistic ones. Soviet opera was expected to erase the genre’s past and abjure from the outset its characteristic strength—narrating the story of human feelings. Of all the multifarious forms that the latter could take, only one emotion was allowed to remain: love for one’s homeland, for the Party, for Stalin; and accordingly serving one’s homeland, the Party and Stalin on the Revolutionary and military fronts, or else through ‘peaceful labour’ (to recall a catchphrase of the period). ‘I could write an opera, but can’t find a (p.182) libretto. See, they sent me an opera libretto from Leningrad. But how can I compose anything when the heroine sets a record in the first act, sets another record in the second act, and yet another in the third. … I want to write an opera about intense feelings, about love, about women. I want to write Carmen.’ These words of Isaak Dunayevsky, spoken at a meeting on 27 December 1950 with students from the conservatoire in Gor’kiy (now Nizhny Novgorod), became the basis of a satirical article in Sovetskoye iskusstvo exposing the famous composer in the eyes of his compatriots as an unpatriotic and unprincipled ‘artiste’.38

    The Stalinist era witnessed the creation of a kind of homogenised stereotype of opera that was extremely primitive and devoid of individuality. The plots had to treat a restricted group of historical or modern subjects in accordance with Stalinist historiography or interpretations of contemporary political events as expounded in newspaper editorials, and were frequently based on works that had already been accorded official recognition. They constituted a ‘pledge of quality’ for the opera, a safety net in the form of a Soviet literary classic or an author who had won a Stalin Prize. Examples included Gorky’s The Mother (the basis for an opera by Valeriy Zhelobinsky), Sholokhov’s The Quiet Don and Virgin Soil Upturned (the bases for Dzerzhinsky’s operas of the same names), Korneychuk’s play Bogdan Khmel’nitsky (Dan’kevich’s opera), Nikolay Virta’s novel Loneliness (Khrennikov’s opera V buryu [Into the Storm], Yelizar Mal’tsev’s novel With All One’s Heart (Zhukovsky’s opera) and Boris Gorbatov’s story The Unconquered (Kabalevsky’s The Family of Taras).

    Operas of the Stalinist period not infrequently feature historical personages, Revolutionary leaders and military heroes who unerringly proclaim the right sentiments and summon others to battle or to toil in the service of the bright (and implicitly Communist) future—Aleksandr Nevsky, Dmitriy Donskoy, Peter the Great, Stepan Razin, Yemelyan Pugachyov, Ivan Bolotnikov, Bogdan Khmel’nitsky, Lenin, Stalin, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Nikolay Shchors, Pavel Korchagin, Captain Gastello,39 and so on. Commanders of partisan brigades, Party organisers, Komsomol organisers, chairmen of kolkhozes or high-ranking kolkhoz officials, managing directors of factories, and elderly workers and soldiers frequently swelled the ranks of the indispensible ‘positive heroes’. They spoke in the usual hackneyed operatic clichés. In love scenes, the young heroes and heroines expressed themselves in sentimental slang: ‘Precious friend!’, ‘My desired one!’, ‘Light of my eyes!’, ‘Father, slay (p.183) me—he is my beloved!’. In the opera The Great Friendship, the Lesghian tribesman Murtas addresses himself to the Cossack woman Galina in saccharine terms that would be more appropriate in the mouth of a suaver suitor:

    • It is all the one to me,
    • My fate is the same;
    • To perish before you?
    • I know that I shall perish,
    • But I shall perish loving you.40

    It was completely unimportant who spoke in this way, or when they would do so. It could be the Cossack Galina and the Lesghian Murtaz, the Kolkhoz heroines Grunya or Klanya in From All One’s Heart, or the Bolshevik Andrey and the aristocrat Irina from October. Equally pronounced was the tendency to include political slogans in the texts of the libretti. In October, Lenin, standing in his armoured car, seeks to rouse the spectators in the following fashion:

    Amidst the thunderous acclamations of ‘Hurrah!’, Lenin, illuminated by spotlights, stands up in his armoured car.


  • Comrades! Peace to the peoples!
  • The People:

  • (echoing him) Peace to the peoples!
  • Lenin:

  • Factories to the workers!
  • The People:

  • Factories to the workers!
  • Lenin:

  • Land to the peasants!
  • The People:

  • Land to the peasants!
  • Lenin:

  • All power to the Soviets!
  • The People:

  • All power to the Soviets!
  • A powerful outburst of music.41

    These kinds of expectations, which were obligatory when it came to operatic works, confronted composers with an insurmountable obstacle. On 25 December 1952, Yuriy Shaporin, the long-suffering composer of the opera The Decembrists, wrote in response to a demand to include in the opera’s dramatis personae the leader of the Southern Society of the Decembrists Pavel Pestel’: ‘This exceeds the limits of opera, a genre that can hardly be expected to explore the meaning of complex political doctrines in a persuasive way, and without vulgarising or excessively simplifying them.’42

    Captious political censors invariably regarded the libretto as more important than the music. The score was evaluated and approved (or not approved) for (p.184) performance on the basis of its perceived ideological ‘soundness’. ‘Real life’ subjects implied recourse to stage effects such as artillery cannonades, battle scenes or triumphant apotheoses requiring large numbers of supernumeraries. For the ‘Senate Square’ scene in Shaporin’s The Decembrists, 300 men appeared on the stage to represent the mutinous army regiments. Large crowd scenes became one of many hoary clichés of operatic staging. The eminent Ukrainian bass Ivan Patorzhinsky complained in 1940: ‘The spectator forms the firm impression that if a Soviet opera is being staged, then it’s impossible to manage without horses and gunfire.’43

    Expectations concerning the music were not so stringent. However, even here, composers had to contend with a whole set of obligatory requirements. The music had to be ‘democratic’ and capable of being understood by workers and peasants, to whose tastes the directors of opera houses were expected to conform. It is not an accident that it became customary in the 1930s to organise run-throughs of operas before the official premiere for audiences of workers, who would give feedback to the librettist and composer as well as to the company as a whole. The creators of operas did not scruple to use hackneyed melodic formulae deriving from salon songs, folk songs, operetta and mass songs.

    One further musical source derived from a kind of concert work that began to be composed in the mid-1920s and which featured text declaimed to musical accompaniment—Aleksandr Davidenko’s ‘musical poster’ Pro Lenina [About Lenin] (1925), based on a text by Aleksey Kruchyonïkh, being amongst the first of them. Rhetorical declamation subsequently became commonplace in operatic works as a putative means of bringing them closer to ‘real life’. The resultant incongruous ‘mixture of French and Nizhny Novgorod speech’ (to recall a famous bon mot by the great nineteenth-century poet and playwright Aleksandr Griboyedov) did not seem to bother the hawkers of Soviet operatic wares unduly. Eclecticism was a fundamental trait of the compositional idioms of many Soviet composers, leading Prokofiev to remark: ‘Music stitched together from second-rate material can never be first-rate.’44

    As a rule, operas written during the Stalinist period are not notable for any great variety of formal approach. Solo settings of verse in couplets predominated over ensembles. The use of recitative was infrequent, as was the inclusion of protracted orchestral interludes. The only exception was the obligatory inclusion of dance scenes. Depending on the region of the Russian or Soviet empire in which the action was set, this could be a lezginka (which (p.185) aroused Stalin’s displeasure in Muradeli’s The Great Friendship), a gopak, Russian dances of various kinds and so on. In the 1930s and 1940s, theatres began to employ professional composers specially for the purpose of orchestrating new operatic work, a practice that became widespread. In this way, a number of composers gained reputations out of proportion to their rather modest talents.

    One of the numerous instances of this kind was the Bolshoi production of Dzerzhinsky’s The Quiet Don, the orchestration of which was undertaken by Nikolay Golovanov and Aleksey Kovalyov.45 The composer Maksimilian Shteynberg, a superb orchestrator himself, expressed his outrage at a conference on opera in 1940: ‘This is disgraceful. It is a completely unacceptable attitude on a composer’s part. … Since when did orchestration sink to become the artistic equivalent of house painting?’ He was supported by the director of the Kirov Theatre, Yevgeniy Radin: ‘Our tolerance of mediocrity and haste and of half-baked, slapdash works is unacceptable. The most important thing for the development of Soviet opera is the quality of the scores produced by composers.’46 However, the torrent of hackwork showed no sign of abating in subsequent decades.

    Table 8.1 gives details of the twenty-six operas by Soviet composers premiered by the Bolshoi between 1917 and 1953. No new works were performed in the following years: 1917–1923 (the period of the Civil War and the years immediately following), 1926, 1931–1934, 1940–1942, 1944–1946, 1948–1949 and 1952.

    Of the four operas that Prokofiev composed during his Soviet period (Semyon Kotko, Betrothal in a Monastery, War and Peace and The Story of a Real Man), not one was staged at the Bolshoi during his lifetime. Neither was Shostakovich’s The Nose premiered there. The fate of Shostakovich’s second opera when it was performed at the Bolshoi is common knowledge. Consequently, the current notion that these works were ‘Soviet operatic classics’ is incorrect from a historical point of view. The operas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s contemporaries all proved ephemeral and have been revived seldom, if at all: they are of merely historical interest today.

    The Bolshoi’s repertory was held up as a model for emulation to all the other opera houses in the country (with the exception of those in Leningrad, whose programming policies remained more autonomous). The programming policies of theatres in the USSR’s republics was virtually indistinguishable from that of the Bolshoi, save for the obligatory inclusion of a ‘national (p.186)

    Table 8.1. Premieres of Soviet operas at the Bolshoi Theatre, 1917–1953

    Main stage



    Aleksandr Yurasovsky, Trilby


    Vasiliy Zolotaryov, The Decembrists

    Pyotr Triodin, Stepan Razin


    Sergey Prokofiev, The Love of Three Oranges

    Klimentiy Komarchyov, Ivan-soldat [Ivan the Soldier]

    Vladimir Tsïbin, Flengo


    Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Ole iz Norlanda [Ole from Norrland]


    Ivan Shishov, Tupeynïy khudozhnik [The Wigmaker]

    Sergey Vasilenko, Sïn solntsa [Son of the Sun]


    Aleksandr Kreyn, Zagmuk Boleslav Yavorsky, Vïshka Oktyabrya [The Watchtower of October]

    Sergey Pototsky, Prorïv [The Breakthrough] Aleksandr Spendiarov, Almast


    Dmitriy Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District


    Ivan Dzerzhinsky, The Quiet Don


    Ivan Dzerzhinsky, Virgin Soil Upturned


    Oles’ Chishko, Bronenosets Potyomkin [The Battleship Potemkin]


    Zakhariy Paliashvili, Alesalom i Ėteri [Abelsalom and Eteri]

    Valeriy Zhelobinsky, The Mother


    Dmitriy Kabalevsky, V ogne [In the Heat of Battle]


    Anatoliy Aleksandrov, Bėla [Bela]


    Vano Muradeli, Velikaya druzhba [The Great Friendship]


    Mikhail Krasev, Morozko [Grandfather Frost]


    German Zhukovsky, Ot vsego serdtsa [From All One’s Heart]

    Konstantin Dan’kevich, Bodgan Khmel’nitsky


    Yuriy Shaporin, Dekabristï [The Decembrists]

    opera’. It can consequently be said that operatic repertory performed throughout the country was determined by the tastes and preferences of a single person. In the end, it was Stalin who managed to find an operatic composition perfectly suited to the times—the Soviet version of A Life for the Tsar. The former Acmeist poet Sergey Gorodetsky wrote a version of the libretto that eventually met with the dictator’s approval. From 1939 onwards, under the (p.187) new title of Ivan Susanin, Glinka’s opera, which had hitherto been banned from performance, became the principal work in the Stalinist operatic repertory. But the Stalinist project of creating a repertory of Soviet operas was fated to remain unrealised.


    Proceedings of the British Academy, 209, 164–187. © The British Academy 2017.

    (1) Nikolay Golovanov (1891–1953) was of the foremost Soviet conductors of his generation. His career was closely associated with the Bolshoi Theatre: he was appointed principal conductor in 1948, a post he held until his death. The meaning of his gnomic aphorism (‘“Советская опера‎” —это не качество, а адрес‎’—literally, ‘“Soviet opera” is not a quality, but an address’) is virtually impossible to convey without recourse to paraphrase.

    (2) See especially: Marina Frolova-Walker, ‘The Soviet Opera Project: Ivan Dzerzhinsky vs. Ivan Susanin’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 2 (2006), 181–216; and S. Yekelchyk, ‘Diktat and Dialogue in Stalinist Culture: Staging Patriotic Historical Opera in Soviet Ukraine, 1936–1954’, Slavic Review, 3 (2000), 597–624.

    (3) RGALI, f. 648, op. 5, yed. khr. 148, l. 41. Ivan Susanin became the standard Soviet version of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, fitted out with a new ‘ideologically correct’ libretto by the poet Sergey Gorodetsky in which the hero dies for his fatherland rather than the Tsar.

    (4) According to Roy Medvedev, Stalin attended all Bolshoi premieres, making use of a special underground passageway that led directly from the Kremlin to the government box in the theatre. See his K sudu istorii: o Staline i Stalinizme (Moscow, Vremya, 2011), p. 620.

    (5) Malinovskaya served as the theatre’s director in 1920–1924 and again in 1930–1935. Albert Coates had close ties to Russia: he was born there and studied composition under Rimsky-Korsakov. He conducted at the Mariinsky Theatre between 1914 and 1919, and returned to conduct in the USSR during the 1920s and early 1930s.

    (6) RGASPI, f. 74, op. 1, yed. khr. 396, l. 63.

    (7) See the Politburo directive ‘O kuratorstve nad Bol’shim teatrom’, in Andrey Artizov and Oleg Naumov (eds.), Vlast’ i khudozhestvennaya intelligentsiya: dokumentï TsK RKP(b), VChK-OGPU-NKVD o kul’turnoy politike 1917–1953 gg. (Moscow, Mezhdunarodnïy fond ‘Demokratiya’, 1999), p. 128.

    (8) The theatre’s ballet repertoire also predominantly comprised Russian works, including Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Glazunov’s Raymonda, Asaf’yev’s The Flame of Paris and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella.

    (9) RGASPI, f. 17, op. 125, yed. khr. 634.

    (10) The initial title of the opera Velikaya druzhba [The Great Friendship].

    (13) Ibid., l. 14.

    (15) The first such competition was organised by Bolshoi Theatre and the editorial board of Komsomolskaya pravda after the promulgation of the Central Committee resolution ‘On the reorganisation of literary and artistic organisations’ on 23 April 1932.

    (16) The reference is to a popular trilogy of films portraying the life of a young factory worker called Maksim which were made by the directors Grigoriy Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg between 1934 and 1938. Shostakovich composed the scores for all three.

    (18) RGASPI, f. 17, op. 133, yed. khr. 329, l. 73.

    (19) The name of a small village near St Petersburg that Lenin used as a hideout in 1917.

    (20) RGASPI, f. 17, op. 133, yed. khr. 329, l. 87.

    (21) RGASPI, f. 17, op. 133, yed. khr. 329, l. 147.

    (22) RGASPI f. 17, op. 133, yed. khr. 329, l. 74. In spite of their opposition, Oktyabr’ was eventually staged in 1964 after Khrushchev came to power. The libretto was altered to remove Stalin from the dramatis personae. See Vano Muradeli, Iz moey zhizni. Rasskazï o muzïke (Moscow, Muzïka, 1980), p. 29.

    (23) See fn1. A. Kovalyov, ‘Trudï i grekhi… Vospominaniya dirizhyora’, in Marina Rakhmanova (ed.), Al’manakh, vol. 3: Trudï gosudarstvennogo tsentral’nogo muzeya muzïkal’noy kul’turï imeni M. I. Glinki (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo ‘Deka-VS’, 2007), pp. 285–352 at p. 304.

    (25) ‘Neudachnaya opera. O postanovke operï Ot vsego serdtsa v Bol’shom teatre’, Pravda, 19 April 1951.

    (28) See Ye. Yefimov, Sumbur vokrug ‘sumbura’ i odnogo ‘malen’kogo zhurnalista’ (Moscow, Flinta, 2006).

    (29) It had been premiered on 29 January 1951 in Kiev.

    (30) ‘Otkrïtiye dekadï ukrainskogo iskusstva v Moskve’, Pravda, 16 June 1951.

    (31) ‘Ob opere Bogdan Khmel’nitskiy’, Pravda, 20 July 1951.

    (32) ‘Protiv ideologicheskikh izvrashcheniy v literature’, Pravda, 2 July 1951.

    (34) ‘Dekada ukrainskogo iskusstva v Moskve’, Pravda, 26 June 1951.

    (35) RGASPI, f. 82, op. 2, yed. khr. 950, l. 127.

    (36) RGASPI, f. 82, op. 2, yed. khr. 950, l. 119.

    (37) RGASPI, f. 17, op. 133, yed. khr. 369, ll. 3–4.

    (38) I. Verkhovtsev, ‘Pechal’nïy akt’, Sovetskoye iskusstvo, 6 March 1951.

    (39) Shchors (1895–1919) was a Civil War hero who was killed in battle; Gastello (1908–1941), a pilot killed during the Second World War; and Korchagin, the central character of the celebrated Socialist Realist novel by Nikolay Ostrovsky. During the Soviet period, all three were the subject of much myth-making and were held up as exemplars of devoted service to the motherland.

    (40) For an account of The Great Friendship, see Yekaterina Vlasova, 1948 god v sovetskoy muzïke (Moscow, Klassika XXI, 2010), pp. 220–41.

    (41) RGASPI, f. 17, op. 133, yed. khr., l. 95.

    (42) Ye. Grosheva (ed.), Yuriy Aleksandrovich Shaporin (Moscow, Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1989), p. 53.

    (44) V. Varunts (ed.), Prokof’yev o Prokof’yeve. Stat’i i inter’vyu (Moscow, Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1991), p. 174.

    (45) Another notable example is Dmitriy Rogal’-Levitsky’s orchestration of Koval’’s opera Yemel’yan Pugachyov—for which Koval’ won a Stalin Prize, while Rogal’-Levitsky went unrewarded.