Symphony for the city of.., p.1
Symphony for the City of the Dead,
The Death of Yesterday
The Birth of Tomorrow
Life Is Getting Merrier
The First Movement
The Second Movement
The Third Movement
Railway Car No. 7
Kuibyshev and Leningrad
An Optimistic Shostakovich
The City of the Dead
My Music Is My Weapon
The Road of Life
Symphony for the City of the Dead
Cold War and Thaw
Photography and Image Credits
An American agent met with a Russian agent one bright summer morning when the world was collapsing in the face of Nazi terror. It was June 2, 1942; the Second World War was not going well for the Allied forces. Most of Europe had already been conquered by the Nazi German onslaught. France had fallen, and so had Norway, Denmark, Poland, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. Now the Germans were deep inside Russia, clawing away at the country’s innards.
The American agent and the Soviet agent may have spoken of these things when they met. They may have talked about the need for cooperation between their countries, which were now allied against the Nazi threat. All we know is that after they spoke, the Soviet agent passed a wooden box to the American, who took the box and left the building.
Inside the wooden box was a strip of microfilm that, when unrolled, would stretch over a hundred feet long. It contained hardly any words: just lines and dots and ancient monastic symbols in complicated arrangements.
The Russians hoped it would help change the course of the war.
The microfilm had taken a long route to get all the way from Russia to Washington, D.C. It had been flown by plane to Tehran, then driven across the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa to Cairo. From Cairo, it had been put back on a plane and flown to Brazil, and from there, to the United States. Now it was about to embark on the final leg of its journey — to New York City.
First the American agent stopped for lunch at a cafeteria. He got up from the table to go to the bathroom. When he came back, the table was empty. The box with the microfilm was gone.
He had just lost one of the most widely discussed documents of the war.
Panicked, he scanned the room: People ate. Knives scraped across plates. A busboy retreated toward the trash cans with a tray full of garbage.
There, on the kid’s tray, tipping toward the peelings and rinds, was the box.
After a journey of ten thousand miles across steppe, sand, sea, and jungle, the microfilm almost ended its trip in the trash.
The agent stopped the kid short of dumping the microfilm. He retrieved the box. The stupid accident was averted.
The agent set out for New York City. There was a lot to be done. In the next few weeks, hundreds of copies of the documents encrypted on that strip needed to be made, and people were already clamoring for it to be made public.
By the day the Soviet agent and the American agent met to pass along the microfilm, the Germans had conquered most of Europe and then had poured east into Russia. They seemed unstoppable. Their tanks had swarmed across the fertile fields of Russia’s southern provinces, destroying villages as they went. And in the north of Russia, the city of Leningrad, once the country’s capital, had been surrounded for nine months, locked within its rivers and its trenches, blasted daily by air raids and long-range artillery.
The document on the microfilm concerned the city of Leningrad.
More than a million people trapped inside the city were blocked off almost entirely from the outside world. Over the winter, they had been without electricity, without running water, without food, without firewood, and almost without hope. Families ate wallpaper paste and sawdust. Women prowled basements for corpses to eat, and there were rumors that gangs of men who had turned cannibal went out at night to hunt for victims in alleys. Germans rained down incendiary bombs on the roofs and strafed the squares and avenues during nightly air raids. Adolf Hitler had demanded that the city and all its inhabitants be utterly destroyed.
Secret Directive No. 1a 1601/41: “The Führer has decided to erase the city of [Leningrad] from the face of the earth. I have no interest in the further existence of this large population point after the defeat of Soviet Russia.”
German high command felt it would be too costly to feed all the prisoners of Leningrad if they were captured, and Hitler considered the Russian Slavs, like the Jews, to be an inferior race, fit only for slavery or extermination. His vision was to make “room to live” for his Aryan cohorts. Russia would become breadbasket, oil field, and Teutonic playground in the thrilling gymnastic future of the triumphant Nazi Reich.
In New York, on June 3, the microfilm was unspooled and stretched across an illuminated table. Men inspected it with magnifying glasses. Contained on the film was not, peculiarly, the plans for some technological secret — a submarine or the atomic bomb. It was not some fragment of Enigma code or unscrambled German battle order.
Instead, the microfilm contained 252 pages of the musical score for the Seventh Symphony of a nervous Russian composer named Dmitri Shostakovich. Its codes and symbols would be translated by an orchestra of more than a hundred and would be broadcast to millions sitting by their radios — but we are still arguing today about what secret messages the piece contains, what cries for help.
The score included few words: a few typical performance directions in Italian, as was the tradition. And, on the first page, an inscription in Russian: “Dedicated to the city of Leningrad.” For this reason, it was called the Leningrad Symphony.
Why had the Soviet government arranged so carefully for this piece to be shipped to the West across battle lines, across a Middle East that was swarming with Fascist tanks, across seas festering with enemy subs? How could it possibly be worth it?
And who was the composer of this desperately sought-after score? Dmitri Shostakovich spent the first several months of the Siege of Leningrad trapped in that city under fire, writing much of his Seventh Symphony in breaks between air raids. He had first announced that he was working on the piece over the radio in September 1941, just a few weeks after the Germans had started shelling the city. He had explained his intentions to an audience of thousands.
The day of his radio broadcast, Shostakovich almost missed his appointment to speak on the air. As he was walking through the streets of the city, the Germans started their daily assault. Sirens howled. An urgent voice barked over the loudspeakers, “This is the local defense headquarters! Air raid! Air raid!” Shostakovich scampered to a bomb shelter. Planes roared over the city’s spires and canals. Explosions echoed through the Classical avenues. The composer hid until the all-clear sounded.
As a result, by the time he got to the radio studio, he was almost late. The staff rushed him in front of a microphone, and he delivered his message in his high, tense tenor. It buzzed out of radios all over the city where buildings burned and windows gaped without glass.
“An hour ago I finished scoring the second movement of my latest large orchestral composition,” he told his fellow citizens.
In spite of the war and the danger threatening Leningrad, I wrote the first movements quickly.
Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this so that the people of Leningrad listening to me will know that life goes on in our city. . . .
Leningrad is my country. It is my native city an
We still have the piece of paper on which he typed out the message he read on air. Shostakovich must have left it on a desk at the radio station when he was finished with the announcement. It was used for scrap paper. On the other side, the studio director scribbled his notes about the lineup of radio shows for the next day’s broadcasts: instructions on how to construct barricades, suggestions for how to defend your home against German troops, and, finally, the recipe for Molotov cocktails. This was not a drink but a homemade explosive, a bottle of gasoline stuffed with a rag, named after the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
Everyone in Leningrad was on the front line.
Shostakovich’s attachment to his native Leningrad is more complicated than it might seem from his brave and defiant declaration. In the course of his short life, he had been named both a Soviet hero and an enemy of the people. And similarly, Leningrad itself had been renamed several times since Shostakovich’s birth, seen as both Russia’s prize jewel and a canker on the hide of the body politic. The Communist government had celebrated Leningrad as the cradle of Soviet Russia — and had punished its citizens viciously for supposed crimes against the Soviet state. As the people of Leningrad fought to defend their city from the Germans, they could not forget that their own army had recently been decimated by Joseph Stalin, their own nation’s terrifying dictator. Supposedly, Shostakovich once said that the Leningrad Symphony was about “the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.” To understand Shostakovich and his music, we must also understand how he was caught up in these struggles for power, these murders and assassinations.
For much of the war, Dmitri Shostakovich worked by day writing kick-line tunes for the homicidal secret police’s dance band. At night, he sat huddled at a table in a friend’s apartment, smoking cheap cigarettes, playing cards with a man who would later denounce him. They played poker. They drank vodka, when they could get it. Food was extremely scarce at this time. They ate pancakes made out of coffee grounds.
We can imagine him there, in the smoke of that kitchen, throwing down cards. It is late at night. He is, supposedly, a poker fiend. His face is gentle and kind and birdlike behind his round, owlish glasses. Though he is in his late thirties, it is the face of a boy. And that face twitches almost ceaselessly. As he plays, he cannot stop touching his lips with his hands or adjusting his glasses. He pats the back of his hair, but his cowlick won’t stay down.
He may have looked frail, but he survived greater assaults and catastrophes than most of us can imagine. And though he seemed nervous, his music would change the lives of thousands and give hope to millions.
This is a tale of microfilm canisters and secret police, of Communists and capitalists, of battles lost and wars won. It is the tale of a utopian dream that turned into a dystopian nightmare. It is the tale of Dmitri Shostakovich and of his beloved city, Leningrad. But at its heart, it is a story about the power of music and its meanings — a story of secret messages and doublespeak, and of how music itself is a code; how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, “Whatever has befallen you — you are not alone.”
The fate of Dmitri Shostakovich was bound up with the fate of Leningrad from the time he was a child. In 1906, when he was born, the city was called St. Petersburg. It was known as “the Venice of the north” for the canals and rivers that ran beside its grand avenues and beneath its many bridges. It was called “the Window on the West,” because it was the most European of Russian cities. It was a city of the arts, a city of poetry, a city of music, a city of the sciences.
Like a fairy tale, it had risen up out of the swamps of the river Neva, called forth by Tsar Peter the Great, the emperor of Russia. Like many fairy tales dreamed up by the mighty, the magic involved in summoning it into existence was years of slave labor in murky ditches.
From a small, muddy village, St. Petersburg grew into the shining capital of the vast Russian Empire, the seat of the tsars. The Romanov dynasty ruled the nation from this city and its many nearby palaces for two hundred years.
As Russia entered the twentieth century, a new modern age, it was still, in many ways, a medieval kingdom. Most of its population were peasants, living in villages in the countryside much as they had for centuries. The peasantry had only recently been freed from slavelike servitude, and they were crushed with debt. The economy was stagnant. The country was hardly industrialized; there were not many factories. Though in St. Petersburg itself, nobles and sophisticates attended balls in Parisian gowns and discussed the poetry of the French, this ramshackle empire also included huge, frigid wastes of fir tree and tundra, deserts where the only inhabitants were nomadic families with their herds, and mountain towns that had never even heard the name of their distant ruler.
During Dmitri Shostakovich’s childhood, the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, ruled aggressively but not particularly well from his Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. He led the country into one disastrous military engagement after another — first a war against the Japanese, then the First World War against the Germans. There were times when the tsar and his family seemed to ignore all the demands of his counselors and the elected government and listen only to the advice of an infamous Siberian wizard named Rasputin, who had supposedly ensorcelled the tsarina.
This sounded, even to the Russians of the time, like a fairy tale out of some opera in St. Petersburg’s gilded theaters; but the hunger, the poverty, and the desperation were real. The powerful were frustrated with their monarch; the middle class was angry that they did not have a representative voice in the government that would always be heard; the peasantry could barely make ends meet.
The Russian intelligentsia looked to the West — to England, France, the United States, and Germany — and there they saw huge factories, efficient railway networks, and new, scientific methods of farming. They saw the future. By comparison, Russia seemed backward — a sprawling nation of remote hamlets where peasants struggled to work the land for powerful landowners; a failing, disorganized empire ruled by a dense prince and his poisonous Siberian monk.
The St. Petersburg of Dmitri Shostakovich’s youth was ready to wake up from its ancient, monarchic dream and, blinking and bewildered, confront the new world of the twentieth century.
Many Russians, especially the sophisticated citizens of St. Petersburg, longed for opportunities to modernize their country. But on the other hand, when radical thinkers looked to the West, they saw not only the factories but also the slums that girdled them. They read stories of the rioting in the streets of the great American and English industrial cities; they witnessed the terrible boom-and-bust cycles of unregulated economies. St. Petersburg intellectuals discussed different plans that would hustle Russia forward into the new century without the suffering and wild inequality they saw both in their own country and in the nations of the West. They wanted to create a new society.
They also saw that their tsar, Nicholas II, would not lead the Russian Empire in the direction of modernity and equality. The Revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin wrote:
In Russia there is no elective government, and she is governed not merely by the rich and the high-born, but by the worst of these. She is governed by the most skillful intriguers at the tsar’s Court, by the most artful tricksters, by those who carry lies and slanders to the tsar, and flatter and toady to him. They govern in secret. . . . These officials tower above the voiceless people like a dark f
Discontent and economic strangulation plagued everyone from the nation’s few industrialists and investors to its millions of rural peasants.
In 1905, the year before Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth, his father supposedly joined a mass march on the tsar’s Winter Palace to support striking workers and demand justice and bread. Huge crowds gathered, hoping to stir the heart of Nicholas II, the so-called father of their people. Instead, as the thousands congregated, confusion and panic ensued and the tsar’s Cossack guardsmen fired into the crowd. People fled in terror and were trampled underfoot. Guardsmen slashed at them with sabers. When it was over, the bodies of hundreds lay bloodied in the snow.
This massacre — as much an example of incompetence as tyranny — pushed many in the country toward radicalism and thoughts of overthrowing the tsar. The day was called Bloody Sunday; the gore on the snow watered the seeds of revolution.
Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich grew up in the midst of this fracturing fairy tale. On the one hand, he was surrounded by the city’s gracious parks and pastel palaces, by its quiet canals and its bridges, like the bridges from some fable, guarded by stone lions, griffins, wild horses.
On the other hand, stark realities glared through the mists of fantasy: Shostakovich’s mother, Sofia, sheltered Jews who were fleeing from the bloody anti-Semitic pogroms that wracked the countryside. Shostakovich’s aunts, like many of the Russian intelligentsia, were revolutionaries. One had married a student radical who’d been thrown in prison. One pecked out Communist articles on a typewriter that she hid, along with her codebooks, in the family’s stove. One night the tsar’s secret police kicked open their door and searched the apartment for incriminating documents. The aunt, by chance, was away; only Shostakovich’s father was home. The police ransacked the place but found nothing.
As Shostakovich’s father told the little boy and his two sisters stories about events like these and the chaos on Bloody Sunday, the children started to understand how deep their country’s unrest really was.