Wednesday, September 19, 2007


My initial reaction upon reading a recent obituary of Tikhon Khrennikov in The Economist (September 1) was a reaction I often find myself having when encountering obituaries – surprise that the person was still alive, or rather had been right up until just now. In this case, my surprise is not surprising, given that Khrennikov was 94 and is probably best remembered, outside of Russia at least (and quite possibly there as well), for events a half century or so ago. The two composers his name is most associated with, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both died decades ago.

My second reaction, after reading the entire obituary, was to rethink what I knew about this complex individual.

I had previously encountered Khrennikov in narratives of the careers of those two most prominent Soviet composers, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. In such narratives, Khrennikov usually appears as Stalin’s stooge in his position as secretary of the composer’s union. As the Economist obituary points out, “he read out a draconian speech which condemned Shostakovich and Prokofiev for their formalism, accusing Prokofiev of ‘grunting’ and ‘scraping.’” Here, Khrennikov served as mouthpiece for Stalin (something he did not deny, only claiming later that this famous denunciatory speech had been written out for him to deliver), and while the official denunciation did not derail the careers of either composer, it did for a time affect their output (e.g. Shostakovich suppressed some of his own work until after the death of Stalin, and there is a good deal of debate about the extent to which his non-suppressed works of the late 1940s and early 1950s reflect acquiescence to Stalin and the campaign against “formalism” or winking irony), and one can only wonder at the chilling effect such denunciations of major figures must have had on less well known and more vulnerable artists.

Khrennikov was a stooge, and he did help to give a veneer of cultural legitimacy to Stalin’s policies and practices, as well of those of later Soviet leaders (he remained secretary of the composer’s union until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991). But he was no Eichmann – he didn’t facilitate the worst abuses of a totalitarian regime as many in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did. On the contrary, in a context of severe restraint on his possible actions, he did much good. He was no Eichmann both because his actions didn’t facilitate anything so serious as death camps or the gulag, and because he didn’t just follow orders. As the Economist obituary states:

“He was part of a ruthless system; but he did not deliver up Jewish composers to Stalin’s goons, and did not write negative references when the party demanded them. (Instead, he would say that the composer had been warned of the dangers of modernism, as if the lesson was already safely learned.) None of the composers he had charge of was killed; very few were arrested.”

The last fact is particularly striking, especially given Stalin’s personal interest in the arts, especially music, and the personal attention he turned to purging music of “formalism.” Contrast the fate of composers with that of the many Soviet writers who were purged or died under mysterious circumstances.

The standard narrative of Khrennikov is easy to deal with – he’s the bad lackey to be reviled, and it’s easy to feel righteous in condemning his actions. When a fuller set of details of his life is considered, he becomes more difficult. For me, this fuller narrative raises uneasy questions about whether I would act the same in his shoes. He did much that was not admirable, but he went about doing the not-so-admirable in an admirable way, providing cultural legitimacy for Stalinism and facilitating the attack on some artistic expression to be sure, but also effectively keeping his office from facilitating purges of composers and even more privately fostering at least some degree of freedom of expression for composers in association with an artists’ compound he ran.

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