Kaya Genç at The Millions:
Dmitri Shostakovich was, by Julian Barnes’s reckoning, a coward. The leading composer ofJoseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR, Shostakovich never stood up to power; he was a constant compromiser, accepting what was asked of him by Soviet leaders and giving speeches written by party ideologues. When Soviet Culture Commissar Andrei Zhdanov lectured Soviet artists on the merits of socialist realism and the ills of formalism, ordering them to follow the Zhdanov Doctrine (“The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best”), Shostakovich did not oppose this shallow culture commissar. He was even compelled to join, in a music congress in New York, the public denunciation of the Soviet Union’s leading exiled composer Igor Stravinsky. In return, Shostakovich was rewarded with every available prize the party handed out to the faithful.
The opening chapter of The Noise of Time, Barnes’s portrait of the composer, puts us on the platform of a train station. The scene seems to come directly out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. A beggar (“the man — in reality half a man”) propels himself using a strange vehicle, “a low trolley with wooden wheels” that can only be steered by wrenching at “the contraption’s front edge.” In order to avoid overbalancing, the beggar uses a “rope that passed underneath the trolley [and] was looped through the top of his trousers.”